John Roughan
John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Just quietly, we honour war

Many of them were young but by no means most.The crowd, of all ages, stood 30 deep at the Auckland Dawn Service. Photo / Natalie Slade
Many of them were young but by no means most.The crowd, of all ages, stood 30 deep at the Auckland Dawn Service. Photo / Natalie Slade

Jet-lag woke me at 3am on Wednesday, plenty of time to get to Auckland's dawn parade. It had been years since I last attended one. The first time I went without much enthusiasm as an assigned reporter and it turned out to be a treat.

I remember the whisper of hundreds of shoes in the silence and pre-dawn darkness of the Domain, the columns of veterans passing like ghosts on their march to the Cenotaph.

What meaning there must have been for them in that hour before daybreak when men had to move into position and face the fact they might not see the sunrise.

How bitter-sweet it must have been near the end of the commemoration when the first streaks of light in the eastern sky began to outline Rangitoto and the islands beyond. There can be nothing more beautiful in this world than Auckland at dawn.

I went along every year until the service began to irk me. The organisers and speakers seemed to be making no effort to live up to the resurgence of interest in Anzac Day and the remarkable numbers of young people turning out to observe it.

Anzac Day had not only survived the antagonism of my generation in our immaturity but had come to rival Waitangi Day in national status. Every year we read of record turn-outs but I had no sense of how big it has become until I saw it for myself this week.

The crowd converging on the Domain was evident as soon as you reached Grafton or Parnell. From all directions there were people and groups walking purposefully as though to a rock concert or a rugby match.

Many of them were young but by no means most. Anzac Day's revival is past the stage of a youth phenomenon, all ages are turning out in numbers now.

So many thousands turned up on Wednesday morning that not many could see anything of the ceremony. We stood 20 or 30 rows deep around the edge of the museum forecourt, the top half of the cenotaph in view but not much else. It didn't matter. It was enough just to be there. We could hear the pipes, the band and the choir. An excellent MC told us what was happening.

He said the Australian flag was on the Cenotaph alongside ours, Australian officers were present, an Australian frigate was in the harbour and the anthems of both countries were in the programme. This was a new dimension to Anzac Day. How odd that we had never included the A in our day before.

A good number of programmes had been distributed. We had the words to the wartime hymns we could have sung but very few did. We are a strange breed, the effort we make to be at an event such as this suggests the depth of its meaning for us, yet we don't make much effort to participate.

It is the same at rock concerts and rugby matches, we come along to watch. But we are turning up on Anzac Day for a reason. What is it exactly?

If it was simply to honour the memory of loved ones lost in war, the numbers would not be increasing. The last big war ended 67 years ago. Nobody under the age of 70 today has a personal memory of anybody killed in it.

No doubt some of those attending Anzac Day services are honouring fathers and uncles who served in World War 2 and survived it, but that number too will be declining with time.

It is simply not credible that younger generations are turning up before dawn to mourn forebears they never knew. They and older generations are turning up in ever increasing numbers, I think, for reasons that are not personal but national. Mythically or not, Gallipoli marks the spot where Australia and New Zealand became nations in the world. Anzac Day is an outward-looking anniversary, unlike Waitangi Day which is necessarily focused on internal progress and no less valuable for that.

Anzac Day may be the more united feast these days but it hasn't always been. The Vietnam War discredited all military effort to some minds for a while. There are still echoes of that sentiment in homilies on Anzac Day. "Peace" is venerated in tones that suggest war is always and everywhere reprehensible. It is not. Some wars have changed history for the better and made good nations stronger. Every nation commemorates a war of significance to its existence and its cohesion. That, I think, is why post-war generations flock to Anzac services.

Quietly in the Kiwi way, they are honouring the need to fight for ourselves and our friends. They don't have much to say about it, they just turn up on the day.

- NZ Herald

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