I was moved this morning to be among 60,000 odd people attending the Dawn Service at The Shrine of Remembrance.

In record numbers, we stood and reflected on the sacrifices of thousands of service men and women throughout Australia's short history.

Having resisted this very public and very nationalistic acknowledgement of our imperialistic military history for almost all of my life, I went to my first ever Dawn Service last year. I was surprised at my own reaction. I found it an almost overwhelmingly emotional experience to stand in solemn silence for an hour with tens of thousands of others to pay tribute to those who have given their lives for us.

Similarly this year, as I stood there listening to the words of a returned serviceman, I was struck by the way we once romanticised war. Our naive willingness to send healthy young men to fight and die seems absurd today.

The rose-tint of nostalgia that colours the eras of the first and second world war has since worn off. The good-versus-bad narrative that conflicts once thrived on seems far too simplistic today. The era of blind patriotism has passed. We know too much.

Once upon a time, half of all men who we're eligible to serve voluntarily left their jobs and families to fight for their country and to preserve the sovereignty of a country they'd never visited, often against a largely unfamiliar adversary. Off they went to foreign lands with a vague sense of adventure and grand notions of national service.

For every 10 men, two would not return, 4 would return physically wounded, 1 would suffer from debilitating mental illness, and the final three would never be the same - and nor would the people they left at home.

It is still a tragedy. One that continues to impact on successive generations of families and individuals globally. But honestly, I think (and I hope) it is a tragedy that could and will never happen again. To us at least.

While people all over the world are still battling for the freedom we now enjoy thanks to the sacrifices of those so many years ago, surely we know too much to put ourselves a situation of that scale again - both as individuals and as a country.

Yet people still serve. But at least now they do so with their eyes open, unable to avoid the historic (and current) reality that war is a game that can't be won.

In a country like (white) Australia - a young country with so few traditions and rituals - the annual commemoration of our shared history and good fortune is a rare collective experience. The display of empathy and compassion we see on Anzac Day is a reminder of our true nature that is often confused and lost among political rhetoric, and a welcome chance to reflect on what we have, and how much we were once prepared to sacrifice for the freedom and quality of life we take for granted in this country.

And a last word from the brilliant Michael Leunig.


Excellent further reading:

The Anzac tradition is one of justice, of equality and of that much-used term - mateship. It is not the whole story of our nation, but it forms part of our story. Their legacy is not something to be taken lightly.