Below is the text of the reflection I offered.
‘We will remember them’?
Every year we make the same promise ‘We will remember them’ and every year we present ourselves with the same question – ‘just what is it that we are remembering?’ It has certainly changed over the years.
For generations of ANZACS this has been the day for remembering friends, fellow-soldiers, family members who were killed in war; it has been a time for remembering the decimation of whole communities, the loss of much of a generation, the loss of a future that might have been; it has been a time for remembering the sheer wanton waste and horror of war.
As the years have passed, as generations have passed, the reality, the substance, of that memory has blurred. Yet, paradoxically, even as the ‘memory’ has blurred or become more ambiguous and uncertain, the attendance and interest in the day has nonetheless grown, and grown considerably. The attendance of the new generation at the dawn parades has increased and I expect it will be so tomorrow morning – but I also have in mind the fact that for many young New Zealanders and Australians a pilgrimage to Gallipoli often features in their ‘OE’ travel itineraries.
So, before thinking further about what we are remembering, it is worth first asking why this paradox – that we have, on the one hand, a blurring and ambiguous memory and, on the other hand, a growing interest in that memory for a new generation?
· The interest in the past is something that we all share to some degree (the interest in genealogy is an example of this): so, a Grandfather’s tarnished medals in a cabinet or drawer; the faded script of a soldier’s letter; the sweat-stained ,thumbed and creased old diary or a faded photograph seem to call to us. These artefacts are enigmatic connections to a past where we may hope to find the stories that will help tell us who we are and what has shaped us. Although none of them will answer all our questions nonetheless they are traces and signs that we feel the need to follow. They help to place us in time. Against the great mystery of existence, these are vital and personal points of connection.
· Another factor that I think may come into play – is our affirming what we have in common. ANZAC Day seems to stand above the things that divide us as a society and it offers a moment of solidarity and social cohesion when together - in unison - we say ‘we will remember them’. On this day we embrace the vision that we are indeed one people and we collaborate in a story that tells us how costly it has been to come to nationhood. So, we say ‘we will remember them’ even though we speak in a time when globalization has utterly undermined the substance of nationhood; and even though we now inhabit a society where the ‘gap’ between the affluent and the poor has become a chasm. Despite all this, I suspect ANZAC Day has become an opportunity to affirm our aspiration for a common identity in defiance of all that might in practice work against it.
I have asked what it is that we remember on this day – and I can only try to answer it for myself. I am moved by the memorials – but these are for people I never knew and whom I cannot ‘remember’. Nonetheless I am moved by their loss – I know and feel that those commemorated today are a future lost to us all and they are a past of incalculable loss for those their death bereaved. Yet, that still feels a little abstract and inadequate for any authentic ‘remembering’.
The only way in which I think they can be honestly remembered is to honour them by the society we create in New Zealand today. We will remember them rightly not by some straining of memory, sentimentality or imagination but by making ANZAC Day a time when to remember means to recommit ourselves to create a just and compassionate society in which all can live without fear and all will have enough to live with dignity. That kind of society is the only real foundation for peace and the only way by which we may truly honour our dead.