St Paul’s Cathedral Dunedin 2012
I want to draw your attention to two claims I have heard about ANZAC Day. (1) I am told that each year ANZAC Day services grow in popularity, especially among the young, and that increasingly in local communities it is the local observance at some local memorial that seems to be increasingly valued and in demand. I merely report what I have heard; I have only this anecdotal evidence – no proof of my own. (2) I am also aware of opinions and speculations that say ANZAC Day is really our national day in the sense that it commands far more respect and attention than Waitangi Day.
If this is so, then we may be fortunate observers to a strange phenomenon: (1) it is amazing that an occasion that has its roots in a military calamity nearly a century ago, has not died out with its generation of combatants but expanded into our future generations and (2) equally amazing, that this day, for all it is remembering great loss and sacrifice, has for many become a day of more significance and imaginative appeal than our official national day. How is this so?
I have no answer to offer but merely voice my hunch that the human spirit instinctively looks to where it may find hope and meaning. If that is so, then on this day, at dawn parades; in cathedrals around the country; and, most importantly, in a thousand communities; in country halls; and at various wayside shrines and memorials, we are all bound together in a common purpose that we may find hard to put into speech and which, in fact is best expressed in that time of silence that we all share.
Yesterday my attention was caught by an article in the ODT on a debate about ANZAC Day. The debate, hosted by the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, presented different attitudes to Anzac Day through the contrasting images of white and red poppies. It seemed to me a valuable debate and one that allowed there to be merits on both sides. But, I wonder whether it forgot to take into account our moments of national silence on ANZAC Day.
You see, when we stand in silence on this day our thoughts are too big, too nebulous, to capture the whole horror of war in our net of speech. Imaginatively we are simply overwhelmed. Perhaps behind the mystery of this day is that somehow, almost miraculously, amidst and despite the horror and waste of conflict, human goodness somehow survived. There were heroes who were decorated for their courage on the battlefield; and there were heroes of peace who refused to fight but won admiration for their integrity – and here I especially remember Dunedin’s own Archibald Baxter; but heroism took many forms – not least at home as families endured and mothers and wives waited for the postman on his round or the dreaded telegram-bearing official on his bicycle.
On this day we grieve for all the waste and all those lives lost or utterly changed; but we also want to say ‘Thank you, God’, for the countless acts of courage, decency and goodness that happened in the very midst of the carnage; those moments when we sense the best of the human spirit to be shining through; those moments, those men and women, in whom we might catch a glimpse of the best we can be.
The New Zealand war poet, Mike Subritsky, captures something of this wonderful gift of humanity in a poem from the Vietnam era and dedicated to the kiwi nurses – called ‘Sister’.
(A tribute to Pam M-T and all the Kiwi Nurses)
(A tribute to Pam M-T and all the Kiwi Nurses)
Young man, you ask me who I am,
and why I wear this faded yellow ribbon...
I am the woman, who held your dying uncle's hand,
and wrote a letter once that broke your grandma's heart.
I am she, who met the 'Dust-Off' at the door,
and carried bloodied, broken bodies through to triage.
Then cut through muddied boots and bloody combat gear,
and washed away the blood and fear and jungle.
I kept the faith when even hope was lost,
and cried within, as young lives ebbed away.
Those hours when death, frosted dying eyes,
mine, was the last smile many young men saw.
I have the voice, that blinded eyes remember,
and the touch of reassurance through the pain.
In darkest night when combat would return,
it was my name that many soldiers called.
I have dressed their wounds, and wiped away their tears,
and often read them letters sent from mum.
I hugged them close, and willed each one my strength,
and smiled and prayed that each boy made it home.
And here today, you ask me who I am...
I am the Nurse, who served in Vietnam.
Here is a triumph of the human spirit that survives despite the wars. In such things new generations continue to find hope and meaning. We thank God for it. We continue to stand in wondering silence on Anzac Day largely because of it.