Lest We Forget

flanders fieldWhen I was younger, my dad took me and my sister to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. I honestly can’t remember how old I was, but that’s not the point of this anecdote. What I remember was walking around, looking at all of the displays and reading the descriptions of what had happened during different wars and different battles. I saw pictures of Vietnam and Korea and remnants left from the World Wars. I saw videos and diaries and statistics of what the Allies had done to the Communists and what the Nazis had done to the Jews and read stories of the heroics of so many different soldiers. As I walked around, oblivious to my sister’s cries of boredom and the tourists that were taking photos of photos, I felt a burning in the back of my throat and behind my eyes. I was on the verge of tears. Have you ever seen the “ghosts” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Seen the image of that child decimated by napalm during Vietnam? If you have and you weren’t almost crying, you aren’t being a human properly.

A few years later – I think – I was in high school. They were big on drumming into us Australian history during my formative years. Which is understandable. I remember distinctly boring my friends to death about why Gough Whitlam was the best Prime Minister we ever had and that it was the treasurer’s fault, and not Mr. Whitlam’s, that the federal government ran out of money under Whitlam’s command. (All you need to know is Gough pulled our soldiers out of Vietnam and made university free. No HECS, no fees of any kind. Just…free.) Once my class moved out of politics and into the most, for lack of a better word, influential wars, my memories of the War Memorial came back. We were watching a video about Vietnam in class one day and it was horrific. The conditions for both the soldiers and the Vietnamese civilians were truly horrendous. About a quarter of the way through the video, I put my head on my arms and closed my eyes. I just couldn’t take it anymore. 

Did you know that our Prime Minister at the time, Robert Menzies, asked the Vietnamese government to ask us, Australia, to help them? Just so that we could be seen helping the US, so that the US could take care of us in the future? “All the way with LBJ”.

Did you know that our soldiers were conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War? They had no choice in the matter. If their number was up, their number was up.

Did you know that the anti-war movement was so strong in this country that when our brave soldiers returned from Vietnam, with all of the physical and psychological scars that haunt all war veterans, they were shunned? There was no help readjusting to civilian life for these brave soldiers. No ticker tape parade. Not even some goddamn respect. They were shamed for fighting a war that they were forced to fight in. It wasn’t until a few years ago that these brave men and women were celebrated for their services to this country. How fucked up is that?

Which brings me to today. Today is Remembrance Day in Australia. The 11th day of the 11th month. And at the 11th hour we have a minute’s silence to honour the fallen and to honour those still fighting for our country. I had to work today. And, as a Monday, we get busy at about 10.30 right through until 2 o’clock. So I had been stressing about how to make sure the minute’s silence happened in store. When I brought it up with one of my coworkers he gave me a strange look and said “It might be too busy. We might not be able to do it.”
“Well, we have to. It’s Remembrance Day.”
“It’s not compulsory.”

I was floored. No, the minute’s silence is not compulsory. It shouldn’t have to be. Sixty seconds out of the 86, 400 there are in one day shouldn’t be too much to ask for those that paid the ultimate sacrifice so that we could have our freedom. I spent the half hour before 11 o’clock counting down and trying to figure out how I could tell the half dozen or so customers we would have at in store at that time that it was time to shut the hell up and pay their respects. We got busy at about ten to eleven and by the time I looked up, it was 11 o’clock. The store was full and I had to run out the back to grab something. Pickles, I think. Or cheese. I strained my ears to hear the radio (every year on Remembrance Day the radio stations stop what they are broadcasting for that 60 seconds as a reminder to their listeners that they too should stop and contemplate). Our speakers are awful, so we can’t hear the radio from the serving area. It wasn’t until I was out back that I heard the radio silence. So I stopped. I closed my mouth and turned my mind to battle fields, red poppies, and the ANZAC legend. It was only for 30 seconds but I tried my best, I really did. But what upset me was that no one else seemed to realise what time it was. Everyone was too busy getting ready to stuff their faces with Subway or going back to work or talking about something inconsequential to even give our diggers a passing thought. And that made me so angry.

In the lead up to Remembrance Day, for those of you not from Australia, plastic red poppies are sold so that we can wear them proudly on the 11th of November, to show our support. Only one customer that came through our store today was wearing one. What was even sadder than that was that during the whole month leading up to Remembrance Day I didn’t see a poppy being sold anywhere.

Last year I was walking back through my local shopping centre after a hard hour at the gym. I saw an older gentleman wearing the display of poppies, hanging around his neck on a thick blue ribbon. I never carry cash, but I had some coins left from some long-forgotten transaction. It was all silver but I gave it all to the man anyway. As I made my donation, I watched the other shoppers. They all saw that poor man who was a war veteran or the son, husband, nephew, brother, or grandson of a war veteran and quickly averted their gaze and hurried their pace. I was sick to my stomach. Not even a thank you, or “lest we forget”. Nothing.

I was in class at the beginning of the year and somehow ANZAC Day (the 25th of April – the anniversary of when Aussie troops landed on Gallipoli in 1915) came up. This middle-aged woman started going on and on about how ANZAC Day glorifies war.  I had to, literally, bite my finger in order to stop myself from telling her what a bitch she was. Neither Remembrance Day nor ANZAC Day glorify war. These days are to honour those soldiers who gave their lives so that we could have the lives we have today. By trying to cheapen that by saying ANZAC and Remembrance Day were designed to celebrate war is blasphemous. 

I was at a dawn service for ANZAC Day in my hometown last year and, while the Last Post was playing, I saw these two teenage girls on their mobiles, ignoring the commanding voice of the war veteran leading us in The Ode. I almost smashed their phones. It was because of these past men and women that those vapid girls could be standing there, using Facebook on their mobiles. And they couldn’t bring themselves to look up from their screens for three quarters of an hour to honour that.

Today made me sad. There’s no other word for it. Except, perhaps, ennui. But there it is: the apathy of Australia towards our war veterans simply made me sad.

The Ode
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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About Bec Graham

Bec Graham, 24, was born on the wrong continent. Everything from her burns-like-paper skin tone to her inability to cope with the slightest hint of a hot day suggests she should have been born under the gloomy skies and mild sun of the UK. She hopes writing will get her to her rightful home one day. Failing that, she scans the skies for a spinning blue police box, hoping to catch a lift back to the motherland.
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