This Anzac Day is a time to add prayer to our thanksgiving. Australia has an increasing military and police commitment around the world. As we remember with thankfulness those who served our nation in the past, we need to pray for those serving in the present.
Even if we disagree with our government about the wisdom of military or police deployment or the justice of a particular conflict, it is important that we support our service personnel.
Recently a retired air force officer recounted to me his personal experience of returning home. He did not like the suggestion (or was it a command?) to avoid publicly wearing his uniform in Sydney. He had served his nation with distinction. So what if the war he was involved in was unpopular? He had done his duty. He wore his uniform with pride.
As he walked along a city street demonstrators stood in his way. Young girls. They would not let him proceed. He stood before them, waiting for them to part and allow him through. Then he experienced the ultimate indignity of one these young women spitting on him. He took no action. He just waited. They parted and he proceeded down the streets of Sydney. Welcome home from Vietnam!
Not since the First World War’s debate over conscription had the Australian community been so divided. There were deep feelings on both sides of the issue of whether we should ever have been in Vietnam. Many people saw it as a matter of national shame that our troops were involved in that conflict.
But irrespective of how deeply we may have opposed that war, the rejection of our forces after the war was one of the more shameful episodes of our history.
Politicians, not military personnel, decide to go to war. We, the electors, decide which politicians will make those decisions. The military have no choice. Once enlisted, they are duty bound to follow their orders within the limits of the Geneva conventions.
The Vietnam wound in our community is healing. Vietnam has become a tourist destination. Historical perspective is entering the analysis of the war. Anzac Day is once more well-supported by the whole community. Vietnam veterans are no longer blamed, they are honoured.
But war has not ended. The number of Australians serving overseas is growing. It is important that we pray for them and their families.
At present the Australian Army is serving in the Middle East, Sinai Peninsula, Sudan, East Timor, Afghanistan, Solomon Islands, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The Federal Police have members serving in thirty-six countries.
These men and women represent us, and are risking their lives at our nation’s request. We owe them a debt of gratitude for being willing to serve, and the assurance of our support of them and their families.
Often the spouses and children suffer from long absences, the uncertainty of warfare, and the changes that come to people through stress and trauma. They continue to need the support of the wider community. The pride and yet worry of parents and grandparents can only be experienced to be understood.
As a community we need opportunity to express our support of these people. It is wonderful to know that others are thinking of us, but it is far better to know that others are praying for us.
Prayer changes things, for God is powerful and generous. In his generosity he listens to the prayers of his people. In his power he changes the circumstances of life for us. Telling people we are ‘thinking of them’ or ‘remembering them’ can be emotionally supportive—but it does not change anything. Only God can change our world and us.
Prayer keeps us humble. Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem, after observing the British Navy display celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The British Empire was at its zenith. Kipling’s poem was not a celebration of military strength but a sober warning to keep our trust in God over empire. He remembered the other great empires, which had come and gone. He warned that God our judge requires a humble and contrite heart.
His poem was so popular at the time of the First World War that its key phrase entered into public usage. Ever since then we have been quoting his line: “Lest we forget”. It does not mean “Lest we forget those who have died” but “Lest we forget God”.