April 27, 2004 | Graham

Celebrating ANZAC Day

John Howard credits the rise in enrolments at private schools to a desire by parents to have their children taught values in education. I think he is only partly right. It is a desire to have children taught the “right” values. There is no such thing as value free education and no matter what school our children go to, or who their teachers are, they will be taught values, not always particularly good ones.
I had a demonstration of this over the weekend when my youngest, Sophia (given this name in the fond parental hope that one day she will translate into “wise” just as it does), told me that it was wrong to celebrate ANZAC day because her teacher said so. A short inquisition uncovered the fact that she differentiated between commemorate and celebrate (not bad for an 8 year old, so perhaps the Christian name was well-chosen). While that alleviated some of my concern, it didn’t do so entirely, particularly when she then went on to tell me that another of her teachers said that the only reason that people had gone to war back then was because they had been bullied (the new crime plus ultra at school) by posters saying they were cowards if they didn’t go.
We explored the issues more fully on Saturday night with Grandma and Grandpa. Born in 1912, Dad had avoided both world wars – too young for one, and while old enough for the other at the time he was employed in an essential industry making oxygen, and therefore exempt from service. His grandfather had been in the Light Horse, wounded at Gallipoli and had also fought in the Boer War. Mum was born in 1922 and must have been about 20 when she signed-up with the WAAF in 1942. There were two boys and five girls in the Millet family at the beginning of the war but both the boys were dead by the end of it – Graham shot down over Germany and Herbert killed by a sniper in New Guinea. They were the only war fatalities that Cairns suffered and the Cairns Uniting Church has a stain glass window for each of them.
The bullying issue was dealt with quickly, although ambiguously. Mum’s family did things because they thought they were right. I obviously never met my uncles, but you would have as much chance of getting Mum to do something against her will as injuncting, say, the transit of Venus (due a bit later this year if you’re interested in trying). This appears to be at least in part a genetic trait. Great-Grandpa was a slightly different proposition. According to Dad, he just liked wars, and was never so happy as when there was one to go to. He wasn’t particularly brave, but it was presumably an easy way to tour the world in those days, and more to the point someone else took responsibility for most aspects of your life (he was a bit of a shirker).
I imagine that there were men who were bullied into going to war, but it is a curiously one-dimensional way of looking at motivation. Even conscripts, once conscripted, are likely to adopt mental habits of optimism and duty just in order to survive. Some may even welcome the conscription because it makes a decision for them that they may have wanted to make themselves, but couldn’t because of pressure from friends or family.
However, I don’t think either teacher was really interested in moral ambiguities, which is really where my concerns arise. The message that Sophia had taken was that any event where people died was wrong – that pain and suffering are to be avoided at all cost – and that there is no such thing as a just war. This is a disturbingly materialistic and hedonistic view of the world, as well as being entirely in tune with our modern risk averse world. It fails to examine motive and completely ignores the nobility of the giver in the act of giving, even if that act is the giving of their own life.
ANZAC day falls at a time of the year which sometimes even conjuncts with Easter. The Anglican Chaplain to the Armed Forces, Bishop Tom Frame, has just released a new book “Living by the sword?” It is notable for a couple of things. This includes his change of mind as to whether the Iraq war was indeed a theologically just war, but even more so for his being one of the few contemporary Australian churchmen to argue that wars can be good.
In some ways it is odd that Christians are amongst the most likely to take the view that a death, any death, can do no good, when their whole faith, as graphically and over-enthusiastically represented in Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, is based on the redemptive power of death. “Christian” means “follower of Christ” and Sunday’s gospel reading had Christ predicting Peter’s martyrdom, and perhaps in that moment of apotheosis when Peter was crucified up-side down, he in fact did more than follow him and became one with him through the act of martyrdom.
Paul uses war as a metaphor for the spiritual struggle, but so embarrassed are some Christians by the thought of this that hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers have been purged from the Australian Hymn Book. It is impossible to imagine today that had William Booth been founding a new evangelical movement today that it would have been called The Salvation Army.
If Onward Christian Soldiers had still been in the hymn book I would have chosen it on Sunday. With music by Sir Arthur Sullivan it has a rather twee oompapah effect in the bass which I like to point out with the pedal on my church organ. Instead I chose Abide with me for the resonance that it would have with hundreds of ANZAC Day services around the country. And then to finish, our final hymn was Fight the good fight, quite a stirring upbeat number. I don’t know whether Sophia finds celebration any more appropriate in this context as a result of my musical efforts, but it made me feel better. Values are not something you can leave to schools or churches alone to teach, and I suspect are better demonstrated than taught. What better demonstration of some of our highest values than that given by those we honour and celebrate on ANZAC Day?

Posted by Graham at 5:30 pm | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. I didn’t read the page. It was too long. But i would like to know the statistics on how we celebrate ANZAC Day.

    Comment by Joe Ware — June 3, 2004 @ 5:46 pm

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