Without fail The Last Post makes me tear up every time I hear it played. Something about those notes, heard since earliest childhood, touch the soul. Stillness. A pure silence enveloping the crowd as everyone is united by each note. Pausing to remember those who have lost there lives in wars on foreign soils. Far from their homes and the embrace of the ones they love. For those who remain lost, missing on the field of battle in lands far removed from the dreams of youth.
As a child that silence seemed to go on for hours. I would read the long list of names on the shrine in the centre of town. So many names, so many places. Never reaching the end. Surnames I recognised as belonging to people I knew around town. Surnames that were long forgotten. Those little brass letters seemed to glow in the sunshine, almost bursting with the unimaginable loss and pain they struggled to contain. So young. Not much older than my brother at the time. I'd look at him and try to imagine him in a slouch hat, riding with Lighthorsemen, leaping the walls of Bathsheba in a hail of bullets. Would he have been able to overcome the fear screaming in his mind as his horse took that first step towards those walls? When the first bullet rang out? Would he have come home? Would he still have been the laughing boy I knew and loved? I hoped I'd never have to find out.
Those little brass letters held a thousand stories. Stories fading to the pages of history. Time slowly taking those who fought by their sides or remembered the little things that made them them. The way they held their head when they were listening or their carefree smiles as they talked with friends, before the call of war drew them to enlist. Stories that would blur and merge, to lose that which made each man unique, that made them special. Young men dead defending their country and loved ones in wars far removed from their own hearths. Young men who had never gone further than maybe a day or twos walk form their homes, agreeing to be transported to foreign lands they'd only read of in books. Drawn by the call of King and country. I often wonder what those young men thought when they first set eyes on the pyramids or walked through the poppy lined fields of France. I wonder if they could have foreseen the horrors that lay before them. I wonder what it must have felt like in that moment when the excitement of the unknown was replaced by the reality of the battlefield.
Then that never ending silence would be broken by the mournful notes from the lone bugler somewhere in the crowd. It always felt like the world stopped for the length of that song. Holding its breath in grief as it mourned it's lost sons. Even as a small child I felt the solemnity of that moment in my soul.
Today is Remembrance Day once more. A day to remember those that made the ultimate sacrifice in too many wars past and present. My grandfather fought in WWI on the battlefields of the Somme. He, like so many young men of his time, lived through the horror of war to return home heroes. Little was spoken of the true horrors they faced. They were celebrated for their heroism and sacrifice. Good and Evil were black and white. Clear for all to see. Victory easy to identify. A nation united to celebrate bravery and create heroes to be honoured for all time.
Today's wars are different. Good and Evil are no longer clear. Victory often intangible. We see the face of war on our TV screens each night. We see the human tragedy, the women and children crying in the streets over the bodies of the dead, and it all becomes grey. War is condemned and nations are no longer united is their resolve to defeat an easily identifiable Evil. We see the fluidity of war, the blurring or right and wrong, the aim of the conflict becomes lost in complex politics. War no longer has a spectacular ending where everyone can mark the day with ticker tape parades, like Victory in Europe or Victory in the Pacific. War and hatred persist and we become desensitised to the carnage we see on the news. Death of solider and civilian alike become mere numbers flashed on a screen.
Many things are different between 1915 and 2009. But regardless of whether you agree or disagree with war. Regardless of why it started or why it continues, one thing never changes. The soldiers who chose to serve their country either on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan or on Peace Keeping missions in various nations around the globe, the faces are the same as those captured in photos of the Great War, WWII, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam.....the list goes on. Different places, different times but the faces are interchangable.
They are mothers and fathers, son and daughters, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters. They are your next door neighbour or the guy or girl you went to school with. They have families that love them and pray every night for their safe return. They look like you. They are you. These men and women see unimaginable horrors which they must live with for the rest of their lives. Some come home with horrific injuries, both physical and mental. Even those that get to come home frequently live with the uncertainty of being recalled for another tour, and another and another.
So often these soldiers are barely out of their teens. Not considered responsible enough to buy alcohol, but deemed able to hold a gun and dance with death on a foreign shore. I look at my 15 year old son and I can't imagine how I would be able to watch him leave to go to war or live with the unbearable fear until he was home safe once more. To see the look of lost innocence on the faces of the returning soldiers, young faces yet so old. I look at the picture of my grandfather in his uniform, more a child than a man, and it's hard to fathom that same young face on the battlefield, facing death and destruction everyday. Killing another human being in the name of war and watching his friends killed around him. Knowing the fragility and complexity of life too soon.
It's hard to equate the disappearing lines of old men that march on Remembrance and ANZAC Day, to the young men who set off each day to the deserts of the Middleast or to a multitude of other conflicts around the world. But look in their eyes and they are united young and old. United by that knowing look in their eyes of horrors seen and friends lost, of a constant battle to understand what they did and what they saw.
You don't have to agree with war, no one in their right mind does. War brings forth the worst of humanity, but it can also bring forth the best. What is important is to remember that those endless oceans of soldiers we see on the nightly news are people. People with their own unique histories and memories. People who hurt and bleed. People who love and ache. People who show bravery and courage. People who struggle with what they see and do. People who have families and friends. People who like pizza and football and going to the pub with friends. People with parents and children. They are people who sometimes don't get the chance to return home, who don't get to say good bye to the ones they love. People who can come back so changed by their experiences that the person they were may be lost forever. The numbers of dead and injured reported on the news do not reflect the beauty of a life lost to soon, or of one changed forever.
Remembrance Day is not a celebration of war. It is not a day to debate political ideologies. It is a chance to remember the human face of war, of the men and women who risk their lives day after day, and of those who make the ultimate sacrifice.
Lest We Forget