On November 11 2022 I was heading to the US for work in their national archives. It was one of these warm, sunny and busy mornings and Adelaide Airport was buzzing. COVID seemed a distant memory everyone wished to forget.
That busy day was also Remembrance Day.
When the announcement echoed through the large departure hall at 11 am, airline staff stood up and froze by their check-in counters. Some travelers recognised what was going on too and dutifully observed a minute of silence, commemorating those who had fallen in the First World War and subsequent conflicts.
There were also others in the hall who appeared less than half a century old and likely some international visitors too, possibly from countries with minimal involvement in the First World War, who instead looked surprised. After all, how could an entire airport come to a complete standstill so quickly, stay utterly quiet, while all landing and take-off operations stopped?
As a historian of the First World War, in that moment I wanted to reflect on that dreadful conflict but I also watched those around me who, unlike me, don’t spend their everyday trying to understand war in the way I do.
While I couldn’t read what was in people’s minds, there were some clues – some travellers looking a little annoyed at the imposed delay, some a bit restless, a few scrolling on their phones. Such gestures in the airport on that day last year gave away that this time of reflection and remembrance that many of us share are not universally valued or understood. Of course, I don’t think they meant to be rude or disrespectful; they probably didn’t know what they were meant to do or reflect, which I admit somewhat saddens me.
I thought about all the people who had died alone and a long way from their homes and families.
As the generation that fought in the First World War becomes increasingly distant from the living, it is not surprising that fewer people pause to remember family members who were involved in the conflict. There are also far fewer veterans today in Australia than we have had for most of the 20th Century.
But it also speaks to the fact that war is also becoming a distant concept for many Australians, something in and of the past. In a way, this is a good thing. Australians don’t want a militarised society and Australia hasn’t had to mobilise an entire nation for nearly eighty years. On the other hand, forgetting the horror and loss of war and the significance of Remembrance Day are also problematic. Not so much for not remembering someone specific, but because it infers that the First World War, or any war since, is no longer applicable to us – and that is indeed a grave error.
If we think our world today is smarter and more peaceful than the world of 1914, or even 1939, we are mistaken. History shows us time and again that societies can plunge into war very rapidly, even seemingly overnight. With the war in Ukraine, in Palestine and Israel, it presses upon me and I share with you that we really ought to make time, perhaps more than before, to reflect on the meaning of Remembrance Day.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, and even well into the second half of the 20th Century, people would pause during the minute or minutes of silence on Remembrance Day to remember those they had lost. Faces were sad, families mournful, with deep awareness of what war meant to them and the losses that war carved deep into communities.
The millions who died in the First World War had hoped it would be “the war to end all wars”. Many veterans who returned home knew of the futility of war and Remembrance Day was instigated across many nations to remember those who never came home and the consequences of wars: death and destruction. The Second World War provided an even worse reminder, only a generation later.
If we forget the death, destruction, massacres, diseases, rapes, sufferings, maiming that wars fundamentally and inevitably inflict, it diminishes our impetus and determination to work toward peace and peaceful resolution of differences, for us and for others.
Wars are easy to start: with words, a bellicose attitude, a general mobilisation, sometimes with some degree of excitement and patriotism. It is much harder to put an end to them.
Afghanistan should come to mind here. Vietnam, too. And those were “short” wars compared to past conflicts that lasted decades, even centuries. Because wars are so much easier to start than to finish, we all have an immense responsibility to think about them – often.
Remembrance Day is a time when we should ponder in individual and meaningful ways the value of peace and humanity’s shared interest in protecting it.
So this Remembrance Day, I hope that you will be joining me to pause and reflect on the First World War and other conflicts that have taken loved ones, even strangers on the battlefield. Talk about those losses with others, especially those younger people in our communities so they too are warned of the danger of war and risk of complacency.
By Dr Romain Fathi,
Senior Lecturer in History at Flinders University (College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences)
2018 South Australian Historian of the Year
Associated Researcher, Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po, Paris,