Wilfred Owen’s death is a reminder of the tragic irony of history, and the plainest depiction of a simple truth: war is not about patriotism and glory, but the absolute failure of the human spirit. Perhaps the greatest of the First World War poets, he was killed in a trench in France a week before the armistice took effect in November 1918. His mother received the telegram that told her that her 25-year-old son was dead just as the bells began to sound at 11am to mark the beginning of the short-lived peacetime. As a poet, he sought to correct the propaganda of British government and describe war as it actually was. In his famous final stanza of Dulce Et Decorum Est, Owen wrote that if you could see young men dying on the frontline, ‘My friend, you would not tell with such high zest… The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est.’ (‘It is sweet and right/ To die for your country.’)
Owen’s poetry and his death are important to revisit on Anzac Day. They remind us of the importance of commemorating war with accurate history and proper sobriety. They warn us away from chauvinism and sweeping proclamations such as ‘Our nation was founded in the blood that lies on Turkish beaches.’ Imbuing history with nationalist falsifications serves only the politically ambitious and the war-mongerers. It is important to remember that dawn landing in Gallipoli as it was – an awful, costly mistake, made by a man disconnected from the war by several thousand miles and his status as an English Lord.
Just as World War I will be remembered for the awful human cost borne by Owen and his fellow soldiers, commemorating their deaths implores us to notice the presence of our soldiers around the world, still fighting and dying. The sacrifices they make today are more isolated than they’ve ever been. The idea of a ‘home front’ is a farce; we do not face the threats they face, we no longer build their munitions. We didn’t even get a tax hike for the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Soldiers’ deaths are reported and then forgotten. The ability to wage a war that will not affect the lives or even the consciousness of most voters is the greatest of moral hazards. But more than that, it means we do not thank our soldiers for fighting our wars, however foolish and ill managed those wars may be. Anzac Day is an opportunity to express gratitude.
Of course, the pain of war has never been confined to us. And while April 25, 1915 was a terrible day for Australia, it was a more terrible day for the Armenians living in Turkey. It was the second day of a genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government that claimed somewhere between 600,000 and 1,800,000 lives. Winston Churchill wrote at the time that, “the clearance of a race from Asia Minor was about as complete as such an act, on such a scale, could well be.” The Armenian Genocide is a demonstration that the chaos and fog of war provides a cover for terrible atrocities. It is a lesson the world learnt again in the Second World War, and again in Vietnam, and again in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
In the end, Anzac Day should impress upon us, above all, the terrible nature of war, in which, as Wilfred Owen wrote, ‘death becomes absurd and life absurder.’