photos: Maiia

Holding Firmly to the Truth of War's Grief

The Cairns Cenotaph is a curious structure. It stands on The Esplanade, Cairns' tourist walk, opposite the RSL Club. Up high on guard on a column of stone, a white soldier gazes out to sea, standing on a clock. The hands of the clock are perpetually stopped at 4.28 (am), the disembarkation time of the Gallipoli invasion.

On the evening of 3 August 2014 we occupied the Cenotaph with lanterns and lamentations

To our front over the bay, truncated rainbow blazed billiant between rain clouds as we began our lantern rigging. Auspicious, it seemd to say, brilliance bookended by rain. At our backs from the bars and street cafe tables of the RSL, many curious eyes watched as we worked.

We were there to commemorate the centenary eve of the beginning of WW1. We were aware that the 4 August also marked the beginning of the 4 year, $300 million government funded campaign of WW1 commemorations aimed at militarising Australian history and normalising war.

We were gathering to lament the losses that war brings and offer alternatives to the narratives that would suggest war is about high service and noble sacrifice.

My lamterm making and rigging companions were a bunch of young HelpX travelers, aFrench, Filipino (via Gympie) and Hong Kong-ese, all of us strangers to Cairns. We hurried to array the base of the Cenotaph with lit lanterns in time for the sounding of the Last Post and the reading of the Ode ("We shall remember them ...") which takes place every evening in RSL Clubs across the land at 6 pm. In Cairns they stand and face the Cenotaph.

The event had been negotiated with the Cairns Council permit people, the cops and the RSL and everywhere i had gone with the proposal, i had been received with respect and goodwill. This the nature of satyagraha, of holding firmly to the truth: it draws forth respect.

But come set up time, a "fractal of complexities" (as my friend Willem Brugman later described it) arose beginning with a middle aged couple who appeared as if out of nowhere like demonic guardians, eyes glazed by alcohol and jaws set with anger.

They took exception to the lanterns being tied to the stone plinths about the Cenotaph and demanded to see my police permit and to know who was funding the event. It was a public offence, they asserted, to have "Japanese" lanterns on an Australian war memorial.

While humouring and placating this distraction, a crash was heard. Falling lanterns, i wondered? But no, it was a falling bicyclist. A supporter dressed in white, a friend named Steve, lay sprawled unconscious on the kerb. Helpers with cell phones at their ears, including RSL staff, came from all directions and soon Steve was on his way to hospital.

I was to later learn that his injuries were slight and that he was well known to local ambos. Paralysed on his right side, Steve is determined but unsteady on a bike and he crashes at least once a week.

Returning to the set up, i found our special guest, Cr Robert Pyne, a paraplegic in a motorised chair, had arrived and, recognised by the demonic guardians, was being harassed. "Are you supporting this sacrilege?", "Is the Council funding it?" etc etc, like crows pecking carrion.

What to do?

Satyagraha! Hold firmly to the truth!

I asserted myself as Master of Ceremonies, bade the 'demons' hold their peace and respect the sacred ground. And they did, withdrawing to the shadows on one side as i called the company to gather in front of the Cenotaph and begin our ceremonial lament for the losses brought by war.

Theatre-meister, Willem Brugman, began the turning of a Tibetan singing bowl to produce an eerie resonance which, complementing the visual frame of the lanterns, provided the aural framework which was to define and, dare i suggest, protect our ritual space for the rest of the evening.

At maximum we would have numbered 20 people made up of old and young, Cairns residents and visitors, intentional participants and those engaged by the serendipity of being there on The Esplanade that night.

Intended as a participatory performance, some elements had been pre-arranged but for the rest it was a creation of the moment. One moment not knowing what the next would bring forth - a poem, a song, or a story.

We prayed for the guidance of the ancestors and lamented the dead, all the dead of all the wars.

We then took up the lanterns and paraded down the board walk Steve's bike accompaning us like a riderless horse in a military funeral.

Pausing along the way to gather in a circle at what we described as a "Station of Sorrow" themed on the different kinds of loss war brings on - the l loss of life, the loss of well being (the maimings, the famines and the plagues). the loss of resource (wasted taxes, destroyed infrastructure and habitat), the loss of humanity, liberty and the rule of law, and the loss of safety for children and all living things.

Actress Cat Hassall delivered a powerful poem from Iraq and local song writer, Stu Martin, sang his "Come on everyone, let's put flowers in the guns" (FaceBook YoutTube) and we finished of course singing John Lennon's Imagine together.

By 7.30 pm we were back at the Cenotaph. The RSlL was near empty, no guardians to be seen. As forecast a light shower of rain swept over like blessings from a passing angel.

Our wee lantern-lit Lamentation had been conceived as a counter to the 4 year, $300 million government funded campaign of WW1 commemorations which began the next day, a campaign whose consequence if not base intention was to militarise Australian history and normalise war.

We recalled that WW1, the so called "Great War", was justified as the war to end all wars. This has been revealed as another lie born of loss of truthfulness that war always brings. Now we have permanent war and permanently lying governments.

What to say of our Lamentation? Was it worth the effort? And was i not doing the RSL's job for them?

We had acted with respect and dignity, occupied public place and public imagination and got noticed - a WIN Tv camera was there and also there was ocial media Ithanks Maiia Bindle) which has the power to magnify the significance and influence of small events.

But compared to the pro-war Murdoch media barrage (Cairns is another Queensland city whose news monopolised is limited news by News Ltd) we were like birds calling from the margins, easy to deny and ignore.

But being visible holding to the truth - our Satyagraha foundation - has power in and of itself and it is a power which acts in mysterious and unpredictable ways. Our Lamentation at core was an act of faith.

The horror of the vicious and contemporaneous Israeli attack on the citizens of Gaza was close to our hearts and minds that night. For me it was satisfaction enough to stand in public place and share that that grief with friends.

Graeme Dunstan

5 August 2013


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