The 39th Militia Battalion were a group of partly trained, poorly equipped young Australian conscripts who were rushed north into the New Guinea jungle in July 1942 to hold the advance of the battle hardened veterans of the Japanese Imperial Army. The 39th fought with a tenacity that is legendary, losing most of their number against overwhelming odds.
Sue and I decided on impulse this morning to drive to Brisbane to watch the annual Anzac Day parade through city streets. There were thousands of marchers and many more spectators, clapping and cheering, showing strong support for our veterans and serving soldiers.
It hasn't always been that way. Forty years ago I remember soldiers returning from Vietnam being spat on and called murderers. Things were so bad that there were no street parades to welcome veterans home again. I have always been embarassed by and ashamed of the attitudes of a vocal section of our populace at that time. They were mostly young. They were full of certainty and the ideology that saw our intervention in Vietnam as immoral and they were determined to destroy the culture and traditions that had given rise to it.
The Age of Aquarius may have dawned, but young revolutionaries have since become old reactionaries. Well, not all of them. Many of them. As parents and grandparents in the 21st century they are picking up and dusting off some of the traditions they trod underfoot and threw away in the 60s and 70s.
I have always found that contempt for western traditions and values hard to understand. Never mind, others have thought differently.
Anyway, things seem to be changing. Maybe it's the threat posed by Islamist terror that has people showing nationalism and patriotism again in the 21st century? This question is worth a post on its own, but not today.
My earliest memory of Anzac Day was watching one of the marches on a black and white TV in my great aunt's house in 1965. There were still battalions of First World War veterans marching then, although they were all starting to slow down in their seventies. The years following weren't kind to the Anzac tradition. March attendances dropped off. Enthusiasm for the whole idea began to be eclipsed by the contempt and derision in which Anzac Day and what it represented was held in by the ideological warriors in our universities shouting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” and “Down with western imperialism”.
Anzac Day is important to me. I see it as a nod to the past; to people who have gone before and have suffered and sacrificed for my nation. It is a sad day but it is also a day on which I feel pride. Why is it that I feel I must apologise for nationalistic pride? Decades of counter propaganda from the Ho Chi Minh brigade and their supporters have made me think twice before declaring my patriotism and pride in being Australian. But they have not snuffed the flame out entirely. Being there with thousands of felliw Australians and watching some of our front line Infantry battalions matching past choked me up with emotion. I was a part of something worthwhile; something a lot of other people also feel is worthwhile. I was not a warmonger. I was a proud Australian.
I don't believe war is a glorious thing. It is a dreadful, evil thing. The people marching and watching today were not glorifying war. Instead they were together as one, confident that they could rely on each other and that they would stand up for each other if and when they needed to, just like our parents and grandparents did.
There is nothing wrong with hating war. That is a sensible thing to do. Working to avoid war is also sensible. But believing we can avoid war and international conflict by apologising for our own governments and institutions, subverting them, and making concessions to enemies in the hope that they will go away and leave us alone is the way of a fool.
Anzac Day is not a militaristic relic. It acknowledges the sacrifice that many people have made to preserve our way of life, our institutions and our values. I stood among the crowd and the tears flowed.
If I had to choose between the values underlying Anzac Day, and those who see it as anachronistic and reactionary, and who seek peace at the price of national self respect, I will stand with my Anzac brothers and sisters every time.
Two of the units that marched past today with only their banner bearers, no marchers, were units that epitomise the spirit of Anzac Day.
A few skeletal survivors handed over the battle to the 2/14 Battalion, having bought valuable time and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. The 2/14 Battalion, veterans of previous battles in North Africa, were similarly decimated, but together with the 39th, they defeated the Japanese force who began their retreat northwards.
These young men knew the meaning of sacrifice and they gave themselves freely for others. They, and others like them, will be a role model for young people long after the self assured revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s who mocked them have disappeared from memory.