Today was ANZAC Day (the Australian Memorial Day); I’m conflicted over the concept of war memorial. Earlier this week, I made this photograph of a wood carving in the mezzanine at work (click on the image to see it larger). It was commissioned in the 1950’s by the Federation to commemorate teachers who served and died in World War I & II. It depicts a prone soldier holding what seems to be either a bouquet of some sort or perhaps a handful of grasses and what I assume is meant to be a Bible in the other hand. It’s not clear whether he is resting or is, indeed, dead; the text reads ‘He served in war that we might live in peace’. That’s debatable for WWI, where the Australians suffered a terrible defeat in far away Gallipoli (observed today); perhaps less so for WWII where they were directly at risk from Japanese invasion.
I made the photograph with the thought that we would post it on the website with a bit of explanation and observance of our own; however, there was some concern that it might cause consternation and appear we were supporting war. I do not, in any form, support the idea of war. It is, by far, one of the most useless and destructive activities mankind can embark on and, especially now, the most dangerous. However, I have no problem pausing to remember the men and women who died in war. No matter how senseless the conflict may have been, people died and that is worth noting. (Though I do think that more should be done to speak of civilian deaths in wartime; those casualties, as evidenced in current conflicts, tend to get glossed over).
But then I must consider the most appropriate memorial. How do I commemorate the deaths of so many in conflicts I do not condone? There is always the risk, in ceremony, to sermonise either for or against war. I'm not sure it's appropriate to use such opportunities to criticise the situations where such sacrifices were made. I am sure thought that it's inappropriate and manipulative to use the emotion tied to such events to rally people to war or the support of a current conflict.
I wonder if, truly, the only sensible remembrance on such days is silence. What can you or I know about the situation of death in war that a particular man or woman experienced? What words of mine would add any honour to their names? I think there is much to be said, no doubt endless stories to be written and spoken of those individuals. But that is for histories and museums; on the day itself, should we not take the time to just fall silent?
There is too much risk that the words we use may colour the understanding of what war is (to either those who know—or perhaps for those experienced it and may wish to forget). Even when I was taking this picture, the methods I used could shape how the memorial is perceived. I lit it several different ways, from flat to dramatically cross-lit; depending on the position of the lights, the scene can look almost idyllic, or harsh and bleak (the one above is somewhere in-between). If something as subtle as the light across a carving can have such an effect, what might the words of sly politicians and their ilk do on a day like today when the hearts of people are so open?