Most of us alive today can only imagine what it was like to live through the world wars of last century. It is easier, thanks to books and movies, to imagine the lives of those in combat than for those at home, reading delayed and usually censored news from the battlefronts, seeing the wounded return, dreading the arrival of a grim telegram, trying to say something helpful to those who have received one, living under the shadow of a long war that is taking the lion's share of the country's production and so many young lives.

If it is hard to imagine how long the wars lasted, consider that we are still in the centenary of the First World War. If we bring it forward 100 years, it began shortly before our last election and that seems a long time ago. A great deal has happened in the interim, the leaders of both major parties at the 2014 election have just retired from Parliament.

Marking the centenary of the Great War, we have been able to dip into it at appropriate times to recall the major battles, such as at the Gallipoli centenary two years ago. It was hard to summon the same interest for the centenary of the battle of the Somme last year. Later this year we need to remember the terrible toll taken in the battle for Passchendaele. That was three years into a war that must have seemed like it would go on forever - or until one side simply ran out of able-bodied men.

At this point a century ago, the war still had 18 months to run, which, if they could have known it, would have been some comfort to those alive at the time. At least there would be an end in view. When that war did end, of course, it had been so deadly for all countries involved, their citizens would not have believed that within a generation they would be called to arms again.


The Second World War lasted even longer than the first. It is hard to imagine living with the uncertainty of national survival. Few of those who lived through the second war are still with us. But their grandchildren, who now have young families, have ensured Anzac Day remains a national observance.

It is coming up 72 years since the second war ended, long enough to believe we will never see war on such a scale again. The weapon that ended the war in the Pacific ensured the major powers maintained an armed peace thereafter but their proxy wars have been threatening enough. The first of them, in Korea, still simmers and poses a challenge to relations between the United States and China today.

But it is not fear or anticipation of being drawn into another war that brings New Zealanders and Australians to their war memorials today. It is quite the opposite, a sense of gratitude that the wars their grandparents won have left an enduring peace.

With that gratitude comes a sense that selfless national service is sometimes required and all of those attending a cenotaph today, or just giving a thought to those who have fought and died for their country, can resolve that they, too, would answer its call.