The youngest soldier to serve in World War II is now in his late 80s. For years the number at Anzac Day ceremonies from that war has been declining. The day that none of them can be at the cenotaph is rapidly approaching. It may be today.

In their place stand their descendants, with veterans of later wars, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts that have engaged New Zealand at times. Anzac Day honours all who have put their lives at risk in war for their country.

It has been easy to honour service in World War II. No other war, including World War I, has had such just cause. The 1930s saw a virulent perversion of nationalism infect nations that were defeated in the first war. They blamed social and economic influences which they were determined to crush by totalitarian means.

Parliamentary democracies allied themselves with communist Russia to meet the threat and, unlike the first war, there was no political opposition to conscription and less conscientious objection.

Today's date arises from a different war, one that was poorly directed, went nowhere and wasted more lives than any other for no great gain. The truly "Great War" was its sequel. The Allies in the second war had great leaders, great generals, successful campaigns and a conclusive victory.

It gave way to a "cold war" that produced conflicts we also commemorate today. Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars have not enjoyed unalloyed gratitude. Korea was a bitter contest that a war-weary world could hardly bear to watch. It ended in a stalemate that nobody had cause to celebrate.

Vietnam was worse, a futile attempt to stop the advance of communism in a country badly governed by a corrupt elite and giving plenty of jungle cover to insurgency. New Zealand was drawn into the conflict reluctantly under its defence treaties and soon faced the internal dissent erupting in all Western countries fed a domino theory of communism's advance.

None of this was the fault of the soldiers who fought for New Zealand in these wars, but nor were they conscripts like their forbears in the World Wars. They were professional soldiers who accept the assignments as the purpose of their training and a peril of their job. Their wars were not as successful and for many years after it their service and the effects on their health were barely acknowledged.

Today they stand medalled and proud alongside the children of World War veterans. The enemy they could not defeat in battle has failed to satisfy the aspirations of those it tried to rule. In the end the cold war was won with civil rights and consumer goods rather than missiles. Its military conflicts, limited by the spectre of nuclear weapons, will never have the national status of a crucial war.

Yet most wars in history have been more like Korea and Vietnam than the world wars of the 20th century. Most wars have involved standing armies, not the conscription of all available young men and the diversion of all necessary national resources to the war effort.

Total war, as this is called, is easy to commemorate. Everyone was part of it, even those who suffered only the inconvenience of food rationing or a curfew. Ordinary people who were not professional soldiers were obliged to fight and face death. We honour them unreservedly.

But as time goes on and volunteer soldiers face the same risks in New Zealand's name, Anzac Day must continue to honour them unreservedly too. They stand for an ideal of duty, unquestioned and selfless. Today soldiers and civilians alike offer respect to those who served and died, and hope that all nations find greater security in the eternal pursuit of peace.