This morning I went to the Anzac Dawn Service held at the Cenotaph outside the Lower Hutt War Memorial Library. It’s the first time for years I’ve been to a dawn service. The last time was to a service held in Cathedral Square in Christchurch when I was still a student. I remember freezing in an icy southerly and retiring gratefully to a High Street cafe for pancakes and coffee soon after. I wondered where the Christchurch service and ensuing pancakes would be held this year [Turns out: service in Hagley Park; pancake location unknown].
I stood in the soft drizzle and soupy grass of Lower Hutt to watch the parade of former servicemen (there were no servicewomen as far as I could see) march in, the muscle memory moving their legs in formation. I don’t have a military bone in my body but there was something about this slightly eclectic mix of men in varying states of physical decay all moving as one that moved me as well. For that short march they were transported back to the days when their backs were straight and their chests were broader than their bellies. Back before time and war took their toll.
The veterans were joined in the parade by army cadets and outnumbered by police. The man in command instructed them to ‘block it in’ as they side-marched to fill up the space. When this command proved unsuccessful, he tried a new tack and instead instructed them to ‘snuggle up’. I can only assume this is from the updated edition of New Zealand Army Drill Commands Handbook. Either way, it did the trick and the men were soon in their allotted space for the service to proceed.
It is after all a dawn ‘service’ and so there were the expected hymms and a prayer led by the padre reflecting on the glory, benevolence and almightiness of God. The address given by a New Zealand Army officer spoke of mateship, sacrifice and the familiar story of the ill-fated landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli on this day in 1915. He spoke by way of example of a company that started as more than 200 men, which, by the end of the day, numbered 34. In all, 2721 young New Zealanders died in the Gallipoli campaign – about a quarter of those that landed on the peninsula.
No matter how many times I hear it, the sacrifice and futility of the Gallipoli landing is always heartbreaking, as is any tale of young people sent off to fight and die in wars that they did not wage for causes they did not choose.
It therefore astonished me to hear the cautionary tale of Gallipoli followed, in almost the same breath, by comments about our people doing their duty on the other side of the world in Afghanistan and Iraq. The threat of global terrorism was referenced.
My mind is not made up about war. [I am sure War is very anxious to hear where I end up on the matter.] I acknowledge that many of the freedoms I enjoy are at least partially a result of the security bought by my country through its alliances and very good friendships with more powerful nations. The membership fee of these alliances is often participation in, or support for, wars that the greater powers deem necessary in their global chess game. In the early half of the 20th Century our parental power of choice was the once mighty British empire. Now it is the once mighty American empire.
I am grateful to the men and women that have defended and continue to defend our country. War is a zero sum game – no two ways about it. I like to think there is an alternative to zero sum games and perhaps there is but if so, it’s still working its way into consciousness. Until then, we need our defenders and I remain grateful to them.
At the end of the service, I listened to the Last Post played mournfully on the trumpet and looked upward to the sky. The uplight for the cenotaph also lit up anything that should venture into the airspace above the memorial. So it was that a flock of birds flew over, their bellies and underwings lit up bone white. They were just pigeons but for a moment I was certain they were doves.