The Pacifist and the Poppy

It’s ANZAC day, a special date in our calendar down in this part of the world.  If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll need to know that ANZAC stands for the combined services of Australia and New Zealand in the two World Wars.  Together, we joined with our allies to fight off the threats in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and closer to home.  On this date, we commemorate the fallen ANZAC soldiers.  It’s a day that stops the nation.  People attend dawn services and wear the red poppy on their lapels, sometimes alongside the service medals of generations gone before. The red poppy is the symbol of this day, as it reminds us of the battle of Flanders Field, now covered in red poppies.  A stark visual reminder of the bloodshed and lost souls of war.

Picture of a red poppy standing taller than the poppies in the field beyond. A true 'Flanders Field' full of red poppies to symbolise fallen soldiers.

I have always been horrified by war. The thought of having to go away to fight when you probably don’t want to.  Lucky for me, the only ‘traumatic echo’ I have of war, is the commando comic images burned into my childhood memories: young men being blasted into the beyond. I can’t fully comprehend that real soldiers spent their last days killing people and suffering as they watched their comrades injured or wiped off the face of the earth.  It’s a strange kind of political game I have never, ever understood.  I blame patriarchy and the male mentality for believing war is a solution to state issues. I will never sit with the ‘glory’ of war and I consider it to be a pointless, criminal waste of life.

My brother, when we were growing up, was fascinated by war, what little boys weren’t?  Where we lived in Papua New Guinea, war relics were easy to find.  There was a mount in our town of Lae, that was tunnelled out and used by the Japanese as a base hospital.  As a result, the land around the town was littered with artifacts of war.  Unexploded shells, bullets, and even, in the jungles beyond our town, crashed warplanes. I remember two particular finds.  A Japanese war helmet with a bullet hole in it.  And somehow, more poignantly, an Allies service food bowl with it’s fork rusted right through the rim. When the war ended, rather than surrender, the Japanese blew up the entrances and died inside. And like any antipodean school child, I have heard the stories about Japanese atrocities, I’ve read the books and been horrified by the cruelties inflicted upon Japanese-held prisoners of war.  But there were human souls inside that mountain who died because of war, too.  They died because they were soldier-pawns in a bigger game of war, played out by bigger men making decisions in rooms far from the fighting.

I just don’t get it.

We commemorate the bravery of those in the war effort.  Not all war effort, but WW1 and WW2.  These particular wars seem to have a sanitised, mythical greatness about them in our national psyche.  I do feel it was unthinkably brave to ‘do your duty’ if you were so unfortunate enough to be born in a time of war. And so they were. Brave beyond comprehension.  I can’t imagine the incredible damage done to so many psyches, faced with the gritty duty of firing on other human beings. My mother told me that my grandfather had a drinking problem because he had gone to war. He was away when she was born; a brand new husband and father who returned to his fledgling little family, a vastly different person.  I wonder who he would have been without that war. Who she would have been?

How far does warfare reach into the hearts and minds of the generations beyond?

Yes, we should remember them. But what is that remembrance for if we do not also begin to ask the questions that no one considers patriotic.  Why? Why did it happen?  How can we stop it happening now? And it is!  There are wars happening all over this planet, does it matter less because it is not our family members firing the bullets or taking them?  Does it matter that one of the greatest weapons of war across Africa is sexual assault and female mutilation?

War is not the only way to solve problems.  We are a race of intelligent souls, there are alternatives. There are radically different ways of thinking that could lead to a better future.

I mean no disrespect to our fallen ancestors; the terrible cost exacted by war on family after family. What I mean to say is that I can’t believe that we cannot get our act together and look for peace. Let us not create another reason for another commemoration.  That is the reason why, on this day,

I Remember Them.

I guess that makes me a pacifist.  How about you?  Do you have feelings about this? How is it that commemorations are our solemn duty, but having the conversations about how to stop it all, is not?

10 thoughts on “The Pacifist and the Poppy”

  1. I’m watching 60 minutes as I’m reading this, questioning the official record of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. That it was the engineers that landed first, not the infantry. I’m glad they are working hard for them to be recognised.

    On ANZAC day I think not of glorifying war, but what war does. I am thankful Australia is a safe place to live. I wish everywhere was as safe. As you read on my Facebook page Rach I wish for politicians to fight with a war of words and extremists to spread their message in another way.

  2. My husband and I were discussing this today, Rachel. There is so much more in the media this Anzac Day because it is the centenary, and it really seems to have captured the sentiment of the community. But with the gratitude and remembrance, there doesn’t seem to be much said about ‘never again’.

    1. I notice the absence of this discussion. I notice that when I ask my children about ANZAC day, they only talk about how lucky we are the war happened so we can be free.

  3. My Great Aunt was the last white woman evacuated from Lae during the war. She was a nurse, and enlisted when she got back to Australia. They returned to Lae after the war, and my Great Uncle is buried there.
    My other Great Aunt also served as a nurse during the war. I have many of her letters which she wrote during her service and they too were subjected to the horrors of war. I would like to see the nurses gain a larger piece of the ANZAC legend. They too did their duty, served in concentration camps and died.

    1. I agree that the nurses need greater recognition. And the fuzzy-wuzzy angels who carried so many of the injured over treacherous terrain in PNG. It was fascinating to hear the story of your grandparents and Lae, thanks for telling me about them. What year did she leave Lae for good?

  4. Wow Rachel. This is SO powerful and so perfect and so exactly what I have been thinking for so many years but not been able to articulate. Thank-you for doing that for me! I had a Grandfather who was a WWII Rat of Tobruk and ANZAC Day is so conflicting for me. Yes, to remembering those who fell in service, but No to the nationalism and mythologising that goes along with it. As much as the Last Post can bring a tear to my eye, the rest of it can really leave a bad taste in my mouth. And I call myself a pacifist too. x

  5. I talked about this a lot last year too, when all the commemorative exhibits started. I worry that we place too much emphasis on heroism for its own sake, and in doing so we ARE forgetting. In ‘The Scale of Our War’ at Te Papa right now there is next to no information about the how and why – just what happened and how awful it was. As you say, it’s not that our ancestors weren’t brave, it’s not that we’re not grateful for our freedoms. People can do great things in the midst of war, but war is not a great thing. Good post Rach!

    1. Yes. The scale of war exhibit left me feeling so hollow. I couldn’t engage with all of it. I thought it was technically exceptional, and I fully got what they were trying to do, but still, there lingers around it the glorification of the deaths of so many young men and women. Should we not rather be holding up a mirror, looking into our own society and wailing… how can we stop this from happening again?
      And then there is the lack of balance between the great wars and the others. The Maori wars, the Vietnam and Korean wars, all the wars our peacekeepers have gone to assist with. Our historical view of war has become so slickly packaged that the nub of it all is being forgotten. Makes me so sad.
      Thanks for your comment Kathryn X

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