My name is Thomas Harold Bisset.

It is so because my parents chose to name me after my uncle, Lieutenant Thomas Harold Bisset – known affectionately to family and friends as 'Hal' or 'Butch'.

Butch was my fathers’ youngest brother and my mother’s pre-war boy-friend.

On 29th August, 1942, Butch took a burst of Japanese machine gun fire to the stomach during the battle for Isurava on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea.

Eight hours later he died in the arms’ of another brother, Stan, as Stan sang their favourite ballad – O Danny Boy.

His death broke Stan’s heart. It broke my father’s heart. It broke my mother’s heart. It changed their lives forever.

Lest We Forget knitting

A display at the Cairns RSL Club in Cairns, Australia. PICTURE: David Clode/Unsplash

Seventy-nine years later Butch’s death continues to break my heart as it brings to mind the suffering, the horror, the trauma and the grief of war experienced by my grandfather’s generation in World War I, by my father’s generation in World War II, by my own generation in Vietnam and by my sons' generation in Timor-Leste, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

This is why I continue to acknowledge Anzac Day.

"Anzac Day is a time to stop and reflect on what it is about our country we think is worth fighting for, what it is that is worth dying for and then to honour those who actually paid the ultimate price and to stand with their families who then had to live with the loss and grief."

Like many I think it absurd that the nation chose a battle on the other side of the world in a war started by imperialistic competitors and led by generals who had little regard for the welfare of Australian soldiers. Not only was the Gallipoli campaign riddled with strategic mistakes – it was a disaster from beginning to end costing Australia more than 8,000 lives!

It might make a lot more sense to have selected a key date in the Kokoda campaign – not because that is where my uncles fought – but because it was a campaign fought on Australian soil against an enemy who saw New Guinea as the last stepping stone to the conquest of Australia. 

Had they failed in their defence of New Guinea, had there not been more than 6,000 men willing to sacrifice their lives on that island just off the north coast of Queensland, then the outcome of the war may have been very different and the lives of Australians could have been dramatically altered. 

But, in the end, the choice of date is irrelevant because, in my view, Anzac Day is not an excuse for a military pageant, nor an attempt to glorify war, nor an opportunity for venting nationalistic pride.

Anzac Day is a time to stop and reflect on what it is about our country we think is worth fighting for, what it is that is worth dying for and then to honour those who actually paid the ultimate price and to stand with their families who then had to live with the loss and grief.

For me that reflection is focused on my uncle – Butch Bisset - who gave his life and my father who spent the remainder of his life in the service of his fellow veterans and the wives and children of those who died.

For other Australians the focus might be:
• a great-grandfather – one of the 60,000 who did not return from the World War I
• a grandfather  - one of the 35,000 like my uncle who did not return from World War II
• a father – one of the 500 who did not come home from Vietnam
• a brother – one of the 50 who have died in Afghanistan, a war that has been going on for 19 years

Whoever is the focus of your reflections, the question is: What did they die for? What is it that men and women are prepared to die protecting? 

I think those who died did not care too much for institutions. 

But they did love the land on which they toiled, their families in whom they invested heart and soul and their mates with whom they built communities.

They fought and died 
• for peace – our right to live without fear
• for justice – the right of the little people to not be downtrodden by the powerful
• for dignity – that all men and women count and should be afforded respect
• for opportunity – where everyone regardless of colour or creed gets a fair go

These are noble ideas and powerful motivators.

More than that, they have lived out that which Jesus asked of His disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

With this in mind I want this Anzac Day period to focus on one group of veterans that have always been neglected in our commemorations.

I speak of the very first Australians who sought to defend this land against those who came to take it from them. 

Indigenous Australians, First Nations People – who resisted the invasion by the British Empire and who fought battles against foreign troops and new settlers for 150 years all across the whole continent. 

Many Indigenous men lost their lives in battles while their women, children and elderly were massacred in surprise raids upon their camp sites. 

Recent research estimates that over 100,000 Aboriginal people died directly at the hands of white people during these frontier wars – more than the number of lives lost by Australia in the two World Wars combined.

First Nations people never ceded control of their land, were never afforded the dignity of a treaty and were relegated to inferior status. 

In 2017, Aboriginal leaders gathered in Uluru and after months of consultation issued the Statement from the Heart

One of the three things that statement calls for is “truth-telling”.

With an aspiration for genuine reconciliation between First Nations people and the immigrant population the statement calls for an honest reckoning of Australian history including the conquest and dispossession of the land and the murder and mistreatment of Aboriginal people. 

Truth-telling, what we might call national repentance, is an essential first step toward genuine reconciliation.

I believe that this is what the Anzac spirit calls for. 

I believe that those who died in the battles and wars we have fought under the modern Australian flag would want to see peace, justice, dignity and opportunity extended to Aboriginal people as well as their own kith and kin.

After all many Aboriginal people fought alongside Aussie diggers even before they were afforded the vote and without the entitlement to veteran’s pensions and support on return from war.

On Anzac Day, I attended the dawn service in my home town of Ocean Grove along with what looked like a crowd of at least one thousand people. I am sure many readers will have done likewise. 

As is traditional the Ode to the Fallen was recited. The poem was written by an English poet in 1914 early in the Great War and has been used in Anzac Day services ever since they commenced in 1921.

It reminds us not only of the fact that the fallen have been deprived of their life but that we who remain have the responsibility to live out the values for which they died. 

In concluding with the Ode, I invite you to not only remember our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers who never returned from war but also the First Nations people who died defending this land even before it was ours to defend.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

Hal Bisset has walked the Kokoda Track twice with members of his extended family to honour the legacy of Lieutenant T H ‘Butch’ Bisset. He is also a consultant who provides housing policy advice to the Central Land Council in Alice Springs.