By Damian O’Donnell
A whole generation of blokes goes off to war in 1914. They go to a foreign land to kill and be killed. Today we might struggle to understand that. We, the inhabitants of this global village where the other side of the world is a click of a mouse away, cannot begin to understand their world where a mouse was still just a small rodent, and the wider world was as mysterious as a woman’s stocking.
We stop on 25 April, ANZAC Day, to remember them, and perhaps to try to understand them. I disagree with those who argue that this is a glorification of war. A glorification of war would entail a giant parade of military hardware and goose-stepping soldiers. No, this is no glorification. I believe this is our mourning. It would be better if these wars never happened, but they did and they brought huge ramifications.
As Les Carlyon said in his book The Great War, we didn’t really know this generation. They were gone before we had the chance. We are sad about this, we cannot imagine this. They marched off into machine-gun fire out of a sense of duty, to do the right thing, to make their families proud. Whether or not we comprehend this mentality, or even disagree with this mentality, they deserve recognition. We can’t judge their motives from comfortable chairs in a peaceful, modern Australia, but we need to show this lost generation, and probably ourselves, that it all meant something. It needs to mean something.
Do we see some connection between this and a game of footy?
Certainly there is no direct connection. Fighting for possession of the ball cannot compare to fighting for one’s life. To put it another way, the great cricketer Keith Miller once famously said pressure is having a Messerschmitt up your arse, not facing a fast bowler.
But perhaps our game still reflects some of what we saw as being good about these blokes from early last century. Perhaps we love the footy because we believe it mirrors the attributes we saw and admired in the diggers: toughness, resilience, improvisation, vigor and valour.
So when the commemorations are over and we sit down to watch Collingwood and Essendon play we will be looking for these qualities, and we will consider how lucky we are that they need to be shown only in a sporting arena, rather than a theatre of war.
And perhaps this is why our game needs to be protected from the regulators and the money men who want to purify it beyond recognition.
We need to be careful that football doesn’t become obsessed with this nonsense called a level-playing field, that it is not a game that simply fits snuggly between television advertisements. We need to ensure it has spontaneity, that it has toughness, and that it requires resilience and the ability to improvise. We need to protect our heritage.
“The brightest memory of the lot is that I have known real men. Men with the cover off. Men with their wonderful nobility of character, of mateship, revealed. It’s a glorious memory to have. To have known men as men. That is something that does not come to everyone.
The war is over. The trial was long and severe. The prize was worth it …”
Somme Mud, by E.P.F. Lynch, edited by Will Davies