My father was a veteran of the Vietnam War.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been going to the ANZAC Day Dawn Service.
Best I can recall, I’ve only missed one – when I was over in London more than a decade ago.
And attending Sydney’s ANZAC Day March, usually outside the Queen Victoria Building on George Street, was another annual ritual, as we waved our flags and applauded until our hands were sore, and waited for Dad and my grandfather to march past.
In those days, the march was led by a riderless horse, with boots backward in the saddle.
It was a poignant act of remembrance for the veterans of the Boer War, none of whom were still alive.
I’m getting older, and so are many of our veterans.
Now, there are no Great War veterans alive, either.
And the ranks of the Second World War veterans thin further with each passing year.
It evokes Eric Bogle’s song, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda:
But the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday no one will march there at all
Except, of course, there are more veterans, from more recent wars, just as our soldiers were in Vietnam when Bogle wrote his famous anti-war ballad.
Truth be told, my old man didn’t like Bogle’s song.
He was no warmonger, but he had an issue with a couple of the lines; the last two in this verse:
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore
They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, “what are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
Dad knew why they marched.
A Vietnam veteran, the song stung in particular, I assume, because of the terrible reception those men got when they returned home.
Their treatment was – and this is my phrase, not his – a betrayal.
Their country asked them to fight, then turned its back on them when they returned.
It was a deep wound. Many Vietnam veterans still don’t march on ANZAC Day for that reason, but the Welcome Home parade, in 1987, as well as the popularity of another folk song, I Was Only 19 (A Walk in the Light Green), helped salve the hurt for many.
They marched because they had served. They marched because some of their mates didn’t come home. They marched because it was an act of remembrance for those who served, suffered and died in other wars, too.
I don’t share Dad’s unhappiness with the song. But I understand it, and can’t blame him for it.
I wonder if, perhaps, that line might have been differently written or contextualised, but nor could Bogle have foreseen the country’s mistreatment of our Vietnam vets (something Bogle has spoken about, since).
And, of course, war is a tragedy for all involved.
Sometimes there are ‘winners’, but the cost is high on all sides.
My father never regretted doing his duty and serving his country. But he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of his life.
Some others came home with physical wounds.
Some didn’t come home at all.
Those are the reasons that Veterans march on ANZAC Day.
They are the reasons we remember those Australians, New Zealanders, and the service personnel of our allies, who served, suffered and died during war and warlike conflicts.
And we do remember. Gratifyingly, in increasing numbers.
My earliest memory of ANZAC Day Dawn Services are of maybe 50 or 60 people, at best, attending our local RSL’s commemoration.
There were so few that they used to put a bottle of rum and a jug of milk on a table at the club after the service, and while I’m sure it was eventually emptied, I don’t remember it going quickly.
These days many hundreds of people turn up to that same location, to pay their respects to our fallen, and their comrades who served.
Eric Bogle rightly hoped for a time when there would be no veterans left to march, because he hoped for an end to war.
As do we all.
In the meantime, although it pales compared to the sacrifice of those who served, we are left with a sacred duty: to remember.
To remember those who went to war, and who did not return.
To remember those who returned, but who carry the emotional and physical scars of their service.
At Dawn Services around the country, the ANZAC Dedication will be delivered. It reads:
At this hour, upon this day, ANZAC received its baptism of fire and became one of the immortal names in history.
We, who are gathered here, think of our comrades who went with us to the battlefields of war but did not return. We feel them near us in spirit.
We wish to be worthy of their great sacrifice.
Let us therefore once more dedicate ourselves to the service and ideals for which they died. As dawn is even now about to pierce the night, so let their memory inspire us to work for the coming new light in the dark places of the world.
We will remember them.
Perhaps that’s why ANZAC Day is so enduring.
Because it is absolutely about remembrance.
But it’s not about “tired old men from a tired old war”.
It’s about men (and women), who gave their best years (and for some, their lives) in the service of their country.
And it’s an opportunity for us not only to remember, but to, in the words of the dedication, “dedicate ourselves to the service and the ideals for which they died”.
The ‘ANZAC Spirit’ has been co-opted for many things, sometimes inappropriately.
But the ANZAC Dedication carries the true meaning of the phrase.
And it is what we will commemorate on ANZAC Day.
They shall grow not old,
As we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them
Lest We Forget
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Motley Fool contributor Scott Phillips has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia’s parent company Motley Fool Holdings Inc. has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.
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