ANZAC poppies on a Cenotaph at dawn

Lest We Forget Ourselves

This is a speech I gave to the Paraparaumu RSA Dawn Service on 25 April 2004. It’s posted as part of my archival effort on this blog.

Last year at this time, I marched with my mother in the Hastings dawn service. It was a typically brisk Hawke’s Bay morning and the format was unchanged. It took me back to the last time I stood at that cenotaph, prior to enlisting in the mid 70s.

For many years we have commemorated. But when we gather in remembrance or repeat the line ‘lest we forget’ what do we remember? What is it that we are remembering not to forget? Why Dawn?

Dawn is such an evocative time.

For servicemen and women, it is a time rich in nostalgia. Of dawn stand-to. Lying on cold ground behind a rifle or machine gun occasionally catching a glimpse of your own unit’s clearing patrols moving around the perimeter. Of seeing the sun’s first rays from your post on a ship or your aircraft cockpit. Of having your parachute equipment checked one last time. Of climbing down cargo nets from a warship into landing craft in a heavy sea. Seeing the New Zealand flag slide up the mast.

There is no doubt that every nation owes a tremendous debt to those that are prepared to fight for freedom. While it has become popular in some circles to write books about why people signed up for the two world wars – an adventure with the mates or to escape a boring or unsatisfactory home life – little thought is given to the fact that the reason is surpassed by reality on day 1. Service life is inherently dangerous, even in training. Most operational environments are extremely uncomfortable to just exist in. Certainly, my two peacekeeping stints, in the Sinai desert and East Timor, rammed home to me the reality that just staying alive is tricky, even without someone trying to kill you. Heat, cold, bad water, animals, insects and rashes that don’t go away with a good Dettol scrubbing are all part of the deal.

But the human mind is incredibly resilient. We quickly forget the privations, the terror and the sadness and our minds readily focus on the humour, the practical jokes and the characters we knew. Sometimes, perhaps in a private moment, we surprise ourselves by shedding a tear for no apparent reason. The Last Post or a lament played on the pipes might be all it takes to release pent up emotion.

As the old Scottish saying goes…whas like us? Damn few and they’re mostly daid!

Is military action what shaped us as a nation? I think it is too early to tell. Also too early to assess is the meaning of the increased turnouts to ANZAC Day. Are our young people coming to find out more about their families? I think there is a multitude of reasons why numbers are increasing. However, I don’t see evidence of this shaping our nation. What I do see is charitable groups and service organisations struggling to find and retain willing volunteers. People are often more prepared to pay than serve. The concept of ‘what your time is worth’ is king. We know, when you are walking, carrying a wounded mate…time is not king…you just put one foot in front of the other for as long as it takes to get where you are going.

Different governments buy more or less new military hardware. Or they emphasise pay and conditions for service personnel. Or they develop or destroy alliances. We know how to just get on with it regardless. But our beautiful, intelligent and talented offspring are being swept along in a wave of individualism, passing up the option of the greater good and therefore ignoring the most important lesson that we thought we brought back from our experience…service before self. Heroes today are sports stars, rock musicians and entrepreneurs. Short performance individuals – not low-profile grafters and toilers, the people who keep the world going.

So, there is no doubt in my mind that our greatest challenge is still ahead of us. We know that it is simply not realistic for our younger generations to learn the formative lessons of our experience in the same way we did. But the oft touted concept of military service shaping the nation is irrelevant if we don’t find some means of imbuing our young people with the ethos of service.

We have to look to ourselves. We must lead by example. We must remain relevant to them. We will not do that by living in the past; by seeking a return to the good old days. We will not draw them to us by rubbishing their music or their clothes. Neither will we do it by racism, sexism or inflexibility in our own thinking. We must ask the hard questions of ourselves and our structures – why, for instance, do so few younger service personnel join RSAs?

We’ve faced big challenges before. We can face this one. Because if we don’t, the sacrifice of our mates, though not forgotten, will surely be diminished.

Who do I think about during the ode? I think of my service mates who are gone…Waata, Steve, my father Robert, an ex Aussie signaler. I also think about the living. The characters – George who will wear a kilt to absolutely anything; Mike who built a massive bar operation based on two cans of beer per man per day (perhaps) and used the profits for soldier welfare. Many of you standing in the parade today. Lest we forget ourselves. Good on you. And good on those who have served their nation and who have gone before us. It was and still is all about one thing … FREEDOM!