I was about to be sent to…

I was about to be sent to the Vietnam War but missed out by the roll of a ball in a barrel when my birthday did not come out and by a change of Government in 1972.

I went to the A.N.Z.A.C. service on Wednesday. As usual, I came away conflicted. I was moved.  I love the New Zealand National Anthem better than the Australian one. It goes
God of Nations at Thy feet,
In the bonds of love we meet,
Hear our voices, we entreat,
God defend our free land.
Guard Pacific’s triple star
From the shafts of strife and war,
Make her praises heard afar,
God defend New Zealand.
This hymn starts off with ‘God of Nations’. That is the right relationship between us and God. The tune is better too than ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

I was also moved that the Turkish consul-general was present. She quoted again the words of the commander of the Turkish army, later to become President of the new Turkey after the war, Kemal Attatürk.

‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well.’

I often find that the most powerful words are the most simple. Who but a great person would have had the grace to say such things about a people that had come to invade our country?

Which brings me to what I see as the ‘elephant in the room’ about these A.N.Z.A.C. Day observances. All of the meaning making at this event happened at the ‘micro’ level. That is, it was about ‘devotion to duty’ without asking ‘But in what direction did that duty go?’ They talk about making the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ without asking whether it was worthwhile to send people into that war in the first place. It is the bigger questions that are not addressed at these gatherings.

I was about to be sent to the Vietnam War but missed out by the roll of a ball in a barrel when my birthday did not come out and by a change of Government in 1972. There were lost of demonstrations against the Vietnam War. We saw it as a local conflict which had its roots in Vietnamese nationalism. But as both Australia and the UK have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, then too we sent men to die because of our alliance with the US who wanted to invade these countries. At A.N.Z.A.C. Day, no one is addressing these issues which are as much a part of war as the qualities of individual or groups of soldiers. The first World War was not in my view a war to defend freedom as was suggested yesterday, but the last of the European power struggles that had been going on for a long time. What made the First World War and the Second (as an unfinished consequence) so bad was that this time European power struggles met industrialised killing capacity: the machine gun etc.

When the troops came home from Vietnam, the war was so unpopular that the soldiers had no ‘welcome home’ parade but were bussed into Sydney in the middle of the night and sometimes abused by protesters. In the light of the subsequent suffering of these soldiers, in part because of this treatment, I think that we are right, most of the time, to separate our view of individual soldiers from the decisions of the people who sent them. We can recognise qualities of courage, mateship and sacrifice and say “These came to the fore in extreme situations. We ought to be courageous and self sacrificing where it is harder: in less extreme situations.”

But the ongoing effects of physical wounds and psychological maiming that has resulted in more Australians dying from suicide as a result of the Vietnam War than were killed in it, means that it is not enough just to talk of personal qualities. I firmly believe that I am here in Montreux in a relatively intact state not because of my own personal courage or self sacrifice, but because of a geo-political accident.

In the same context, the EU is one of the direct consequences of people’s horror at such a war. Why not on A.N.Z.A.C. Day and Remembrance day say ‘Thank you God for the good sense of Germany and France after the war to establish economic bonds which will make it impossible for Europe to go to war again as it has in the past. Thank God for the Marshall Plan the rebuilt Germany. That idea has lasted for over sixty years now and has potentially saved more lives than any individual acts of sacrifice and courage. It is Germany and France and the EU countries who have as nations have had courage and who have sacrificed some of their sovereignty for peace.

I am also disturbed by the cross at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Vevey. It has a cross for sure, but superimposed over the cross is a sword. What does this image say? Is this symbol a version of “Say your prayers but keep your powder dry?” If people do not mean this by the symbol of ‘Sword and Cross’ what else could it mean? It would be better to perhaps twist the sword and make it look a bit like a ploughshare. (See Micah 4:3.) That would be better. But is there a legitimate relationship between violence and the cross? There are many who say ‘No’. Just over at Saint Maurice is a memorial to some roman soldiers who sacrificed their own lives rather than kill others. The Church has a ‘just war’ theory which goes some way to justifying violence in certain circumstances and Luther thought that there was room to ‘clear a space for the gospel’ by use of ‘the sword’. I am unsure about all this. But I do think that there could be a better symbol at the Commonwealth cemetery in Vevey.

Let Christ have the last word. The observances ended with this prayer for peace.
Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of all:
govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the
ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule; who lives etc.

It was a small part of the observance, but along with ‘God of Nations at thy feet’ was the most important for me. Religion ought not to be a ‘private matter’ but should stand in the cemetery as we do at Easter and make some claims for the way that leads to Life and her Lord.

Your ‘companion on “the Way” ‘ and Priest

Paul Dalzell

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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