Friday, April 24, 2009

Machine gunners and a national myth

What are your ANZAC day plans?
I'm going into town to have lunch with the remaining members of the 2/2 Machine Gun Battalion.

My grandfather was a machine-gunner in the Second World War, and his mates still get together on ANZAC day every year. This will be the first they ride in a jeep, and not walk for the march - quite remarkable considering they're in their 80s. I think there are about 10 of them left.

The annual ANZAC day luncheon is a unique thing. It's like nothing else in my life. There are toasts to the Queen and to the fallen, there are offical openings and speeches. There are all kinds of faces present, some as young as men who would've fought, others vacant with age and dimentia. Above all, there is a deep appreciation and thankfulness for peace and freedom, and a sorrow for the lives lost and the necessity of war at all.

Unfortunately I've not met either of my grandfathers. Jim, who fought in WWII died when my mum was 16 - not in combat, but from cancer. And my other grandfather died just before my parents were married.

In some small way, the ANZAC lunch brings me closer to Jim. I imagine what he would be like had he lived to 80. His nickname was 'smiler', and i'm sure nothing would've changed. I can imagine him surrounded by his mates, proudly introducing us with a smile on his face. I also imagine the wrinkles carved into his face, sharpening at the Last Post, telling of the sadness within. Mum says he refused to march for years after the war. He couldn't accept the public acclaimation of something so tragic. I imagine that with time, he might've changed his mind. He would've walked, but the feelings would stay the same.
I always have mixed feelings on ANZAC day - my natural instinct is to recoil from the smooth weaving of a national myth, a grandiose narrative of mateship and sacrifice, which is reinterpreted as victory and exploited by leaders year by year. And yet, I want to honour my grandfather and others, who found strength in the midst of death.

Someone I know a few years back admitted they thought we'd won the battle of Gallipoli, and I thought how reasonable that assumption was given the hoohah made of it all. And yet, we lost. We lost big time.

The ANZAC story should be one of regret - regret that mankind could come to this, and yet celebration of mankind, that so many were willing to sacrifice their lives for their fellow men. This I have learned from the 2/2 Machine Gun Battalion.

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