A- A A+

Take care not to co-opt soldiers' and civilians' deaths

4 Comments
Andrew Hamilton |  20 April 2017

 

At Anzac Day it is common to set the deaths of the soldiers at Gallipoli into the context of a larger cause. Early war memorials declared their deaths to be for God, King and Country. Later comment frames them teleologically as shaping a template of national identity and of the national character.

Anzac Day Dawn Service at Kings Park, Western AustraliaThis year we celebrate Anzac Day in a sea of citizen deaths from terrorism and military actions. Killings in first world nations are also often set within a broader context such as democracy, national security, freedom or the Western way of life.

This framing within a broader context is initially attractive. It appears to give meaning and value to lives that ended randomly, and consolation to the people who love, grieve for and honour them. Those who die are revered as victims or martyrs for a cause; perpetrators can be hated as monsters or representatives of an alien ideology.

Deeper reflection, however, suggests that to attribute meaning and value to people through their relationship to a cause does not enhance but diminishes their humanity. It implies that human beings are given value only in relationship to some larger idea or institution.

They are not seen as precious in themselves, regardless of how ordinary was their life and random the circumstances of their death. Their title to being remembered is as a cipher for democracy or another abstraction, not as persons set in their unique everyday relationships and commitments. This view weakens the value of the cause they are made to stand for by obliterating the differences between people in their relationship to it.

The example of the early Christians who were killed brings out these differences. The death of some was tightly identified with their faith: they were offered the opportunity to live if they renounced their faith but refused to do so. Others refused to escape from danger and were summarily killed as Christians. Others had no option but to remain and were killed in a general massacre of nominal Christians, non-Christian and anti-Christians.

Of these, we might say that members of the first and second group died for their faith, but to co-opt the others would be disrespectful. It would implicitly deny that each person who died is equally valuable, and should be remembered and respected regardless of their relationship to Christian faith.

Similar differences exist between the soldiers who died at Gallipoli and between the civilians killed in terrorist attacks. Many soldiers would have seen themselves as fighting for God, King and Country. Others fought for their mates or by accident. Few civilians would have died for democracy if offered an escape. But the life of each soldier and each civilian was equally valuable and the death of each equally to be mourned regardless of the quality of their commitment.

 

"It is important to celebrate the courage and generosity of people who put their lives at risk in supporting a greater cause. But we should not ask ourselves what we'd be prepared to die for, but what we're prepared to live for."

 

To turn people into ciphers for or against a cause is unfair and misleading. It is right to grieve for the dead, to remember their lives, to grieve for the corruption of the spirit that led someone to see them as expendable for a cause, and to reflect on the motives that lie beneath the desire to identify them with a cause. It is also important to celebrate the courage and generosity of people who put their lives at risk in supporting a cause greater than themselves. Anzac Day reminds us that many soldiers have gone to war with that spirit.

Their example invites us to reflect on our own lives. But we should not ask ourselves what we would be prepared to die for, but what we are prepared to live for. That question leads us away from imagining final and decisive choices for or against some large value such as God, freedom or democracy. It urges us to consider the ordinary actions and passivity and the ordinary words and silences that shape our lives and reflect the quality of our relationships, our constancy and our love.

To live for democracy, for example, would mean developing habits of listening, consulting, appreciating difference, showing respect, forgiving, understanding — all the habits that sustain a public life built around the common good. Not as spectacular as dying for democracy, certainly, but perhaps just as difficult. It means paying as you go and not putting off the reckoning to the never never.

 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Pictured: Anzac Day Dawn Service at Kings Park, Western Australia

 



Comments

Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Thank you Andrew for this re-framing of both the large-scale death of soldiers in war and of Christians in Rome during the two centuries before Constantine. Your essay provides a reality check for the politicians and churchmen who use remembrance of past mass killing to further their respective causes of nation and church. Respectful commemoration of those who died in service to the nation is best expressed by ensuring equity of opportunity, freedom and respect for all those living today ... such were the aims for which people have died, and people continue to die, in war.

Ian Fraser 24 April 2017

Anzac Day in Australia has overwhelmed the individual and memorialised the corporate. It's been a way for this nation to cope with a searing grief which has never gone away. In important ways this is unhealthy. As noted in the article, the intrinsic value of individual lives has been given up to the concept of a cause. War changes every life - both those who died, and those who go on living. For those who go on living, the best memorial is to live for democracy.

Pam 24 April 2017

A good point Andrew, to keep the individual at the centre rather than view their suffering and death as justified for a greater ideology or cause. Anzac Day is a time to focus on the individual who has entered eternal life, to pray that they may have peace and be in the divine light, in the fullness and bountiful freedom that is promised to all by Christ. Nations, Church, King and country are all man- made concepts, but God is uniquely and personally co-existent with the individual.

Trish Martin 24 April 2017

Thank you, Andrew for this rich source of observations worth noting and remembering.

Sheelah 24 April 2017

Similar articles

Digital solutions to political reform

8 Comments
Kate Galloway | 13 April 2017

People voting using iPhones. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonThere are reasons to be concerned about the capacity of a government to govern in the current brief election cycle, and in dealing with what some describe as a 'hostile senate'. But the networked world we inhabit also calls into question the way in which politicians might be accountable to the public. Rather than focusing on changes to a system of governance derived from a different era, we should be asking what are the implications of emergent technologies on the way in which we are governed.


Waiting for the trickle down effect

16 Comments
Frank Brennan | 10 April 2017

Malcolm Turnbull explains 'trickle up effect' whereby welfare cuts fund corporate tax cutsIn an age of 'budget repair', social policy risks becoming just a sidebar to economic policy which is a contest of ideas about how best to grow the size of the pie thereby providing a slice for 'the deserving poor' without having to redistribute too much of the pie, while 'the undeserving poor' drop off the edge as they would have anyway. For those of us schooled in Catholic social teaching, the so-called 'undeserving poor' are the litmus test of our commitment to the human dignity of all persons.


Marr withers 'White Queen' Pauline

16 Comments
Irfan Yusuf | 05 April 2017

Pauline Hanson on the cover of David Marr's Quarterly Essay The White QueenHanson doesn't pretend to be religious. Her anti-Islam agenda isn't inspired by some rightwing evangelical passion like Danny Nalliah's nor by a conservative moralistic Catholicism like Cory Bernardi's. But she clearly can feel the pulse of many in the electorate who worry about terrorism and national security. Hanson's politics really only work when there is a 'them' for 'us' to worry about. But where does she get this idea that Islam is not a religion but an ideology?


Tackling wealth inequality through justice reinvestment

10 Comments
Ann Deslandes | 31 March 2017

Lady Justice gazes favourably upon restorative justice model. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonAustralia was rated as the top destination for millionaire migrants in 2016 for the second year in a row. Meanwhile the latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reveal high correlations between prison entrance and indicators of entrenched poverty and discrimination. If we want our system for justice to amount to something more than a mirror of our inability to distribute wealth and opportunity evenly, we need to address the undeniable role wealth inequality has in putting people in prison.


Job-sharing could make for a more inclusive parliament

3 Comments
John Warhurst | 30 March 2017

Kate EllisThe announcement by Kate Ellis, the 39 year old federal Labor MP for Adelaide, of her retirement at the next election to be with her young son came as a surprise. Several Fairfax journalists were dismayed. Stephanie Peatling issued a challenge: 'It's not people who should have to change to make their lives fit politics as we know it. It's politics as we know it that should change.' The immediate issue is gender balance, but the wider context is all types of diversity in parliament.