ANZAC Day

It was 3:25am when my phone started blaring at me with its harsh tone. I groaned and swatted at the other side of bed, hopelessly trying to silence the horrific noise. I contemplated rolling over and going back to sleep - even for me, this was far too early - but guilt and determination forced me to stumble from the cosy space between my sheets. I aimed my feet at the pile of neatly folded clothes prepared the night before, all the while cursing my housemate who'd kept me up late with deep discussions of the ways of the world.

3:40am. Time to leave the house. Freezing in the moist morning air, I wished I'd chosen a warmer coat. As I waited patiently at the bus stop, trembling in the cold, I cursed the lack of early-morning trains as promised by the CityRail posters scattered around town. There's something decidedly wrong with needing to take a NightRider bus to a Dawn Service.

Dawn Service is a misnomer for the commemoration of Australia and New Zealand's fallen soldiers. The ceremony begins at 4:30am and finished a long hour later, long before the sun rose over Sydney's splendid harbour. I stood amongst thousands of onlookers - servicemen and women, policemen and women, families, friends, tourists - who had braved the early hour and chill to say thank you to those who have put their life on the line in the name of Australia. In the name of freedom, democracy and, often, international alliances. I watched as young children asked their parents the meaning of the songs sung and as the smallest amongst them fell asleep on the shoulders of their Mum or Dad. I watched as kind boyfriends gave their coats to shivering girlfriends, then stood stoically against the morning's biting cold. I watched as people of all ages were brought to tears by soulful music and overwhelming memories.

My current hospital rotation is in Geriatrics. At first, I thought that being a soldier was a strong predictor of survival through to very old age - that is, if you survived the war. On a moment's reflection, I realised almost all of the male population in their age group was shipped off during World War II. Approximately a million Australian served in WWII - a huge proportion of our approximately seven million population. Many of them were sad to be trapped in a hospital bed - hopeless - rather than marching in the ANZAC Day Parade. They were frustrated at their previous vigour and distressed at how their bodies had begun to fail their agile minds. When there was time on the morning rounds, I'd ask if they were war vets. Some would look wistfully into the past before snapping back to the present. They'd remember fallen comrades and lost years abroad. Some would stop themselves before they went down that rocky path of the past, almost trembling with the thoughts of the things they had to do. "Those days," they'd say, "were enough to make anyone's blood curdle," before switching to conversations about their gardening. The atrocities they must have seen, I thought.

I don't understand war. I thought that studying history would help me understand. Despite my months of History since 1760, all that I can understand about war is that it makes little sense. A relatively small tussle over land, authority or resources leads to alliances and a global stouch. What began as one person shot or, if they're important, assassinated, becomes an offensive and a defensive. A lack of understanding or communication, a difference in opinion whether religious, political or cultural, somehow ends with mobilisation of forces across nations. And, suddenly, a bigger reason is needed to justify the call to arms. Good men and women stand on both sides of no-man's land with fear in their minds and ammunition in their hands. I can't fathom what it would be like to stand six feet below the surface, in muddy trenches, with fallen comrades on either side. I can't imagine what it would be like to charge at the enemy with blind hope that I'd get out alive, or, at the very least, die without too much suffering. I can't imagine what it would be like to press a button on the dashboard of my aeroplane or submarine that would lead to the detonation of weapons. That would lead to the loss of many lives. But I know that many of our countrymen have.

I'm a fan of working things out by less violent means. And I'm training more to save lives than to end them. But I still hold in high esteem our many soldiers. For all those who put their lives on hold, or who lost them indefinitely, because they were called to arms. To the men and women who stayed at home, keeping the country afloat for the war-years. To those who left in droves, with only simple training under their belts and a raft of disappearing dreams. I imagine the parallel lives with and without war - the different marriages, the children who would have grown up with their mothers and fathers, had they not stumbled in the wrong direction during combat or fallen while nursing the wounded. I imagine how the world would be different if lives had not been altered by the memories of what had past - the drifting of the mind towards combat. A tireless effort to understand what had been experienced and a mind rattled by unforgettable loss - the PTSD that leaves all but a shell of one's former self. But the wars happened and our soldiers fell. One by one, the strength of our nation decreasing; the resolve to fight dissolving. "Push on," shouted the orders, and the mind was too weary to question.

One of my good friends was shipped out to Afghanistan a few years ago. I remember the shadow that came over my mind when I found out he'd be leaving the safety of training for the frontline. I remember reading between the lines about his own anxiety. And I remember the stress and worry while watching news coverage. Each little email, regardless of its content, was summed up by three precious words. "I'm still alive." But at least I had email. At least I knew if things were okay...or not. I remember looking up their location on Google maps - and unsurprisingly finding a proverbial black hole. There was definitely no Street View in this part of the world. And I remember the 5am Skype call halfway through his work there - the sincerity in his voice when speaking about the peacekeeping work they did in communities and the avoidance of chatter about the scarier moments. Duty watch, he said, was mostly boring. Mostly. I thought. Except for when it's not.

As I stood shivering in Martin Place, cold and tired, I knew that my discomfort was nothing compared to that which our soldiers have, do and will endure in the name of our country. And even though I'd prefer to naively believe in the possibility of peace, I know that war is an incomprehensible near-inevitability of global conflicts. And I thank our soldiers, past, present, and future for giving up their time, their bodies and their lives for my own safety.

Lest we forget.

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