The rush of events, the ballast of history
How and why we remember a century-old war is as important as how we react to the overnight executions in Indonesia

A Gallipoli pocket book, with bullet hole. Source: Australian War Memorial

I wish for more moments like the Anzac centenary, moments that can allow a more dispassionate assessment of our past and present, moments that can filter the transitory and the insignificant.

But we can’t escape the rush of events. The Anzac centenary filled our airwaves and then was suddenly gone on Saturday night. There was an errant sports reporter to think about, a radio host attacked a footballer, and then came the Nepal earthquake. Today we’re focussed on the executions in Indonesia.

Events big and small blur into a fast-flowing stream of words and pictures. The historical anniversary gives way to the navel-gazing narcissism of the modern media. Hashtags trace the freneticism. First we’re standing for or against Anzac, then the alleged blasphemy of McIntyre, and then mercy for “our boys”. Fine speeches give way to sackings and actors demanding Tony Abbott do something.

The one certainty is that tomorrow will be different. There’ll be new colour and movement to fulminate about, a new channel for outrage. Click, click, what’s next? Do we really have to talk about the Budget again?

We all know the famous response of British prime minister Harold Macmillan when asked what he feared most. “Events, dear boy, events,” he said.

Perhaps not. Political historians and biographers disagree as to whether Macmillan ever said those words, or what the context might have been. A simple and acute observation might not even have been.

Even so, politics often begins as events. They have a habit of derailing plans and programs. In time the events become history before some of them are revisited, revised, rewritten and politicised all over again. It is the curse that impedes our ability to understand our present. Little is fixed. Everything is contested. The certainties are always open to doubt. The rewriting and reframing is ceaseless.

But some events have enough solidity and solemnity to get us started on the task of discerning what matters. In the end, it’s the concrete realities, the grand cases of life and death, that allow us to see the way. How and why we remember a century-old war is as important as how we react to the overnight executions in Indonesia. Both take us back to first principles. Both compel us to find the lines in the sand. What do we believe in and how do we know we believe it?

My grandfather was a Gallipoli soldier. An Englishman who settled in Australia before the war, he enlisted within a month of its outbreak. Shot in both legs a week after landing at Gallipoli, he was evacuated and subsequently discharged from the army, only to re-enlist in 1917 and return to the Middle East. He was one of the lucky ones – he lived for another 57 years after Gallipoli and I remember fondly many hours spent listening to his stories.

Over five years from 1914, he maintained several volumes of diaries and more than a thousand pages of entries. He wasn’t the only one. The history of those times is replete with the diaries and letters of those who enlisted. My grandfather wasn’t the only one who wanted to record his encounter with a great and awful moment in world history.

The diaries show he was an Empire man. At one stage he criticises his own brother for returning to England. “I have no time for these home sick chaps,” he wrote. “They lack something ... they could never have built the Empire.”

Despite this, whether he enlisted out of loyalty to his native country or a commitment to his adopted land is impossible really to know. What he knew or understood of the war’s causes is equally unclear. Like everyone, he had his own priorities but got caught up in events. As I read the usual exchanges in the lead-up to the centenary events, I was startled by the certainty of the assumptions about those old soldiers and the people who were prepared to turn out in huge numbers to remember them.

But here’s what I think is my certainty. The commemoration wasn’t glorification of an imperialist adventure or memory of a magnificent failure. It wasn’t about nationhood, at least not in the first instance. Of course the war was a political event and should be examined as such but, as much as anything, the commemoration seems to be an acknowledgement of family members and ordinary people who were footnotes to something large.

Perhaps it’s because most of us die unremarked and unremarkable. Some are remembered by name and deed but most simply fade into a nameless and numberless anonymity. Participation in the war raised many above the routine existence of the rest of us. As events swirl around us, we can anchor ourselves in the deeds of ancestors, known and unknown. There’s order and meaning in memory, but not necessarily blind agreement. I would prefer to see Federation remembered as the pivotal nation-building moment but I can’t deny the very human preoccupation with the war experience.

The death of the playwright Alan Seymour on 23 March went almost unnoticed in the build up to “the one day of the year”. So much of our focus was lost in that bizarre world where news is merely entertainment in another form. Thirty years ago, Neil Postman wrote that we were “amusing ourselves to death”. He wasn’t to know that we would also end up wallowing in pretend seriousness, indignant offence and instant punditry.

But today at least is one of the serious days. The Bali 9 executions have surely focussed many on fundamental issues of character, record, redemption, justice and politics.

I suspect the popular media have got it all wrong again. Out there in the suburbs and towns there probably isn’t much sympathy for the executed. As our elections show, the public can be unforgiving.

But we’re unlikely to get an examination of those views. The rush will continue. There’s space to fill and anything will do.

The world is always hard to understand. It’s always clearer in retrospect. It’s a forlorn hope but if only we could slow the rush of events, or at least be more selective about what we attach significance to, we might be able to better use the ballast of history to make sense of the present.  

Malcolm Farnsworth

Malcolm Farnsworth publishes

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