Story of an Unknown Soldier

Today is ANZAC Day in Australia. Services are being held throughout the day and around the world, commemorating not just the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign but every Australian who served and died, in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.

For most of us (at least among my immediate circle of family and friends) it is just another public holiday, a day when we can chill out and not have to go to work. I’d be willing to bet we don’t really think about ‘ANZAC Day’ at all. But we should. Let’s talk about war for a moment.

War is folly — all those millions of lives, lost in struggles borne out of the dark side of human nature: fear, greed and pride.

War is glory — the gleaming weapons, the selfless heroes, the tumultuous battles, the bittersweet victories.

War is history — an epic relic of the past, thrown into even sharper relief by the modern ‘wars’ we distantly experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The two truly grand wars began 99 and 74 years ago, respectively. With each passing year, the rank of survivors diminishes. The last combat veteran of World War I died on 5 May 2011. Our connection to the past weakens and the mythology grows. It is ironic that even as society today trumpets the ANZAC values of mateship, courage and sacrifice (or, for those of my generation, as we absent-mindedly assent to them), we’ve never been further from living out these values than today. Individualism. Self-gratification. FOMO. Happiness. Find yourself. Be yourself. Indulge yourself.

This is me. This is us.

Let’s wind the clock back 99 years. You are a soldier on the Gallipoli peninsula. No, you are a boy, barely out of school. You’re not sure what you signed up for, but you had a sense that it was really important. The Empire is at war and your King needs you! The first blush of facial hair sprouts on your downy cheeks, now caked in dried mud. You are not strong but you can run really fast. It is a real boon as you ferry communications across the warren of trenches, head hunched over to avoid being sighted by the snipers. But this time it’s different. Your company has orders to take the Turkish outpost at the top of the hill. The faintest traces of sunrise peek out from the horizon. It’s almost time to move.

Your thoughts drift through the dense fog of fatigue, settling once more on your sweetheart back in Australia. You were together six months when the call came. You have not heard from her in just as long, and you wonder if the letters hastily scribbled on crumpled diary pages have made their way home. The gnawing feeling at the pit of your stomach from the prolonged separation is being replaced now by a breathless anticipation, rising in your chest. You look to your left and to your right. Brothers in arms, grim and on edge. The bugle sounds.

Summoning up all of your will you pull yourself up over the trench wall. Your mind screams at you to stop. A hand squeezes your shoulder and you turn to see the sergeant flashing you a wan smile. You know that he is also petrified, but you are grateful for the gesture. Momentarily calmed, you follow in his footsteps, defying the heaviness of your limbs and bayonet. Distant sounds of machine gun fire ring in the air, but they are drowned out by a cacophony of internal noises — the rasping of your breath, the pounding of your heart and the ringing of your ears. All around, you see your comrades falling, as if met by some invisible force.

You quicken your pace. You won’t let the team down. You won’t let the King down. You will not give up. Something hits you in the chest and your breath whooshes out. Another impact, this time accompanied by a burning sensation. Your legs give out but the momentum carries you forward. You crash to the ground, cursing your own clumsiness. The mud is cold. You try to push yourself up, but an overwhelming exhaustion descends upon you. The mud is inviting. You close your eyes and let your mind drift away to another place, far away from this foreign soil, your resting place.

This is the story of an unknown soldier. He died, so that we can know the true value of peace. Think about that this ANZAC Day, and think about this:

What are you willing to die for? What are you willing to live for?

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