Dr Peter Barker OAM
Whilst acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, I would like to start by acknowledging the custodians of this place.
The people of Koondrook, you have done a great job making this a place for a special ceremony, so I thank you also.
Anzac Day: April 25, 2021
It’s a peaceful day here in Koondrook where the sun has risen on us gathered here.
So many days in the past, the sun has risen to find men not at peace, not fed, sheltered, healthy and free.
How lucky are we?
World War One was the defining war for a young Australia. The war that gave the name ANZAC to the Australian and New Zealand troops who were mustered to fight for Great Britain.
In 1914, we had been federated for only 13 years and with a population of 5 million souls, when 460,000 stood up when asked and went to fight for freedom in Europe. 60,000 were killed and 170,000 were injured from poison gas, bullets, trench foot or illness. Forever damaged, but alive.
If we compare that to our population of 25 million, that would be 2 million soldiers sent away: 300,000 killed and 700,000 injured in a few short years.
It was an event that touched everyone here, and still does. COVID-19 virus fatalities are but a faint shadow compared to that of war.
Our leaders and the soldiers thought that was the ‘war to end wars’ and there would be peace if only we stood up. But it was not the first war, and it will not be the last.
If one looks at history, as soon as people gather together, there is a system with leaders and followers. There is conflict and attempts at domination. Fear, jealousy, avarice, ambition and lust lie there in hearts of leaders and in those who would take them on.
So many kingdoms have risen and fallen. Since we have written records, there have been great armies, great battles, victory, sadness, loss and rebirth again and again.
The Egyptians with the army chasing Moses, the Trojans and a battle over a woman, the Roman Empire, Genghis Kahn and the marauding mongols, the Barbarians, the Huns, the Vikings invading Britain, the Normans, the feuding Lords of medieval England and Europe. The Turkish Ottoman Moslems versus the Christian Crusaders. Napoleon Bonaparte and the French wars. The American civil war, independence wars… It goes on and on and on.
Reasons for war have varied, but always, there were great armies and charismatic leaders to follow.
The famous Chinese soldier Sun Tzu wrote “The Art Of War” in about 400 BC. It’s a philosophy that army leaders and even company chiefs have studied ever since. Concepts like “know your enemy, knowing when to fight and when not to fight, breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting, infiltrating, testing, planning to win and picking the battle ground” have been with us ever since.
That world of international espionage, spying, propaganda and rumours, the table talk of parliaments, royal courts, high religious enclaves and newspapers over the centuries, has brought our leaders to knowledge of the world and to realisations there is a threat, that it is real and it is aimed at our existence.
Could we have come to the end of wars? Could we be the first civilisation to not have enemies?
To not have something, someone else wants? Unlikely. If one crosses our natural barrier – the oceans – and visits the rest of the world, we see there are war lords, drug empires, religious zealots, huge armies and alternate views on how we should live.
If one reads the Art Of War, the preliminaries of testing and intelligence gathering are all around us. Today, by contrast, the all pervasive electronic media crosses the sea in the blink of an eye. To see truth from propaganda and menace from whimsy as it all swirls together, is much harder. We get preoccupied by political correct-talk and the bombardment of divisiveness, with everyone pushing agendas.
Then, when the internet goes down with a foreign infiltration, we wonder, “Is it real? Were we attacked? Is there a threat? Is it a test? Who is driving it? Do we accept this or do we resist?”
There is a time to talk, to debate. Time to be a pacifist, time to protest, a time to tolerate. There is also a time to take a stand. And a time for war.
One hundred and two years ago our leaders did just that: They stood with our allies in the British Commonwealth and with other free nations like the French and the USA, against an army which planned to destroy all we held dear. Our freedom, our way of life, democracy and religious choice. Our soldiers picked up arms and were trained to kill by knife, by bullet, and bomb. They were trained to trust one another and move as one. They were prepared to stand for our way of life.
Thank you to every servicemen, then and now, who has held a government-given gun in hand and said, I will stand.
It takes great courage to hold a weapon and know you are prepared to use it. It takes time and training to learn that trust in your mates. It is something few in current society get a chance to experience.
I wonder if we could muster the determination to do it all again if the need arose.
So back to Gallipoli and the fields of France, and that war that started on July 28, 1914 and ended on November 11, 1918. Our men stood there in the trenches.
There were no antibiotics then. A wound meant infection, amputation, pain or death. Yet, together they stood.
This was no football team waiting for the whistle to run out against the opposition. This was men, mates with guns. When the whistle went, it was to jump into the face of death, bullets flying from distant trenches and together to run at them and fight for life and for your mates.
What courage what absolute valour to be there and do that. What can I say, but we applaud you, our Anzacs, and we will remember you.
A wonderful thing about our first army. They were Aussies and New Zealanders from down-under, and there was a frontier spirit about them, which we have kept. It was the can-do inventiveness of bushmen.
It wasn’t that long before, that a gent who drank at the Gannawarra pub, a certain Ned Kelly, came up with a suit of armour from plough steel, and became a legend. That same bush inventiveness gave us the rifle periscope and the water drop timer, shooting guns randomly during the evacuation of Gallipoli, tricking the enemy into thinking they were facing men in trenches and not water-timed guns. It was also the humanity and courage of Simpson and his donkey caring for the injured.
That spirit is with us in the drive for better machines, better defences and even better medicines. The volunteer aid abroad organisations, in veterans care and in the respect for those families left behind. That is our Anzac spirit, alive and well, and we are here today to acknowledge just that. It has shaped our armed forces and our Australian psyche. Our soldiers, since then, have fought in the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, lran, Timor and other assignments. Some secret, some not. They have all held arms and been prepared to use them. Mateship and courage are our inheritance.
Our SAS are renowned for their restraint and humanity but also for the use of fierce force without hesitation.
Recently, we have seen a probing of our forces mainly from The Chinese press but also from our own, trying to infiltrate and change our view of our fighting men. The public political debacle rather than the internal investigation over active service events in Afghanistan, has undermined our most effective fighting unit. I’m so pleased Minister Dutton stepped in and allowed those men to wear their hard earned ribbons of Valor.
But one sees the art of war being played here. Is it someone’s ambition to weaken our morale? No doubt they have been happy to wound our returned servicemen in the media and I’m not happy about that. Treason and treachery exist in the mind of man and that book by Sun Tzu is being used over the world by would be tyrants. In this time of change, it may be a different type of courage and skill our ANZACS will need in this battle. It might be an Aussie nerd on a computer who fires a famous shot in our defence.
But to the men who came home: I have seen many of you, and you are changed forever. The guilt of not being injured or dead, when your brighter than the sun mate died next to you. The ugly memories that stay and wake you in the night. The listlessness of not having the great fight ahead. The “what’s it all about” – sadness – that we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was for many years just called “weakness.”
At last it is acknowledged that you too, are hurt. So, when we walk down the street, and see an old bloke with beery breath and a tear in his eye, and some medals there on his chest on Anzac Day, remember he, with all the courage he had, stood to attention, and holding a gun, he waited for, and acted on, his captain’s command. He did it at great personal cost and it took courage and for him, it isn’t over in his head – ever.
May the sun rise to find you, our service men and women, with joy and hope in your heart, here in Koondrook. Hopefully, you will plot to lead us on new adventures of mateship and endeavour in times of peace… Or war.
May we always be Anzacs at heart, and rise together to future challenges.
Perhaps they will come on the internet, perhaps it will be a more classic attack by armed forces, or even a drone attack. But surely, as the rising of the sun, it will come. And on that distant day, there will be we, the ANZACS.
This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 29 April 2021.