Remembering the true meaning of Armistice Day

Uniformed attendees at the Remembrance Day service held in Sydney on November 11, 2010. AAP/Greg Wood

Australia now officially recognises two special days to commemorate our national history of being at war but neither of them is Sorry Day.

The Australian history of engagement in war is primarily honoured on Anzac Day, which has been observed as a public holiday since the 1920s, and is now joined by Remembrance Day, for which the Governor General issued a Proclamation Declaration as recently as 1997, even though it commemorates the armistice that ended World War 1 on 11 November 1918.

The belatedness of the Official Proclamation is interesting.

At one level it might be understood as an attempt to reconcile the apparent contradiction of the messages conveyed by Remembrance Day and Anzac Day, the first mourning the destruction and loss of life in war and celebrating its end, the second acclaiming war as a creative force, giving birth to our nation.

In the last ten years, Remembrance Day has been actively incorporated into the crowded calendar of commemorative events – for example, Boer War Day, VP Day, Vietnam Vets Day, Battle for Australia Day - that tell the larger story of Anzac, of war as central to nation-building.

The peculiar work of Anzac as national mythology has been to reconcile the contradictory messages about war and to sanctify military service whatever the cost. It thus also works effectively to disarm the critics of war.

The shadows of the slope

Armistice Day was once the focus of grieving families who vowed that never again should valuable lives be wasted. In the 1920s and 1930s it became an occasion for peace activists around the world to rally in support of disarmament.

HB Higgins, the radical judge of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court was one of those affected. When he learnt that his boy Mervyn, his only child, had been killed at the front, just two days before Christmas in 1916, his grief was bitter.

“Now, no hope more”, he wrote in a poem titled The Shadows of the Slope, “the dreaded thing has come”. In the heroic phrases Glorious War and Survival of the Fittest he could only see cant and hypocrisy. “What is the offset to the dreadful cost”, he asked. “The pain is of the living; not the dead”. How to assuage that pain?

For Higgins, the result had to be a renewed commitment to the prevention of war, forsaking the divisive national creeds for the brighter hope of internationalism.

“I feel that the best vengeance my dead boy could hope for would be an integrated world, an organized humanity”, he wrote to his Austrian-born, American friend, the Harvard Law Professor Felix Frankfurter.

The next year, moved by “a desire that our American friends shall see what our boy was like” he sent Frankfurter a photograph of Mervyn, adding in a note of painful intimacy, “I feel secure when I commit a thing so sacred to you”.

War to end all wars

Higgins knew that grief such as his was widespread. More than 60,000 Australians died in World War 1 while many more thousands were wounded and permanently disabled. War memorials throughout the countryside, some bearing the names of several boys from the same family, serve to remind us of the terrible impact of the war in Australia, on families and communities, on social, economic, political and cultural life.

After the war, Armistice Day became an occasion when families mourned their lost boys and committed themselves to the cause of peace. The world disarmament movement attracted thousands of supporters in Australia and HB Higgins became president of the local branch of the World Disarmament Movement.

With more Australians dying in the war seemingly without end in Afghanistan – and now at the hands of those who are meant to be their local allies – critics of Australian participation are once again raising their voices to ask why are we there and whether the sacrifice of our young men and women is worth the cost.

On this Remembrance Day we should remember all those who have lost their lives in the numerous foreign wars Australians have fought since 1901, some of them ill-considered, some deeply unpopular and divisive and vow now in 2011 to support our soldiers by bringing them home.