Friday, 26 April 2013

Catafalque party a fitting symbol for what war means

The most compelling aspect of yesterday's Lone Pine ceremony at Gallipoli - televised online via the ABC - was not contained for me in the MC's words, in the procession of dignitaries laying wreaths, in the words from the Padre, or in the sung national anthem; it was contained in the emergence of the catafalque party, drummed in and ordered into position around a block of stone.

It's an affecting sight. The four individuals come out and take up positions at the corners of the stone and stand, for the duration of the ceremony, immobile, faces downturned, guns held pointing downwards at ease. And I think about how hard it must be to stand still for such a long period of time. What do they think about while they're standing there? For me, the catafalque party represents a type of solidarity, a link with the past, a real demonstration of solidarity shown by living servicemen and -women with their dead comrades.

Yesterday's remembrance ceremonies as I saw them, and also in the words of people I'm connected to on social media, maintained a fittingly somber tone. And it's not just the dead that those people were commemorating. I saw servicemen and -women on TV, for example, thanking people in the Australian community for words of support sent to them. On social media one person posted to mark her reflections on people alive today: "I am thinking about the damage done to the children of the severely emotionally wounded men who returned." Her post received a number of comments from others who put down their own thoughts, remarking on their families' experiences of war. It's not just the dead. There was Adam Shand on his web page writing about his maternal grandfather who returned from Palestine and took to drink. I wrote about my grandmother's brother, who returned from north Africa and died within a couple of years as a result of health problems occasioned by his posting overseas. And then there was a story on the Age's website about a special centre established by the RSL in Frankston, south of Melbourne, where returned servicemen and -women can go to build resilience following their tours of duty.

When I saw on TV men and women playing two-up in Melbourne it jarred with what I found elsewhere, and clashed with what I myself felt when thinking about what Anzac Day means. Thankfully, I didn't come across any bagpipes during my wanderings online; bagpipes always make me teary. Instead, someone on Twitter posted a link to The Pogues' The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and it became my resident earworm for the rest of the day. The old song's lyrical melody and the band's nail-hard realism cohere to form a striking amalgam of wet and dry, patriotic yearning and wry pragmatism.
I looked at the place where my legs used to be 
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity
There was a cartoon on the Australian's website showing two people at Lone Pine seated in the morning dark, and one is contemplating out loud the sadness of the occasion and all the lives lost while the other one says something like, "Strewth mate, you'll ruin Anzac Day." Behind the imported draped flags, the warm beanies and the full eskies lies the unpleasant truth that war should always and only be used as a last resort. Irony is readily available for the cartoonist because of this tendency for commemorations of war in Australia to contain within the matrix of ideas these two discordant things: patriotism and the reality of incalculable mental and physical damage to the individual. We use Anzac Day as a proxy with which to say something about ourselves as a nation, but when it comes down to it men and women not only get killed, they also sometimes suffer for decades, and their children can also suffer, because of the stress that state violence visits upon the individual. What does the violence do to us as a nation?

I don't have the answer to that question, so I must look to proxies in order to express myself. For me, as I said, there's something refreshing and apt in the complete immobility of the catafalque party positioned in strict order around the commemorative stone; not just at Lone Pine but elsewhere in Australia and in New Zealand during events to mark this transitional moment in the histories of the two nations. Politicians might get a poll rise out of sending young men and women to face danger, but for me a fitting symbol of Anzac Day is the catafalque party, the immobile soldier in his or her crisp uniform, the infinitely suspended threat of violence that belongs to the trained guardian who is retained off-duty at his or her operational base, the willing expression of solidarity from the individual compelled by tradition and duty to stand stock-still for a good hour while everyone else participates peacefully in the moving ceremony.

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