OPINION

How do you even explain what war is to children?

This late, late Easter has thrown my internal calendar out of whack. It wasn't until I was driving to work this week that I even realised that Thursday would be Anzac Day. I do a drive by the Australian War Memorial most mornings and staging for the 2019 event is well under way.

I've been lucky this year to do many a story at the memorial. From stories on works of art and sculptures, to the people doing amazing things behind the scenes.

How do we explain to children what Anzac Day is all about? Photo: Australian War Memorial

How do we explain to children what Anzac Day is all about? Photo: Australian War Memorial

But I've been lucky too, to have the opportunity to just visit the place.

The memorial is one of those places that is easy to take for granted, probably much like the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of Australian men and women who have gone to war over the past 100 years or so.

We drive past it, bask in its splendour, but do we really appreciate what it represents? Indeed, do most of us really understand what it represents? According to its corporate documents, the memorial's purpose is "to commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war".

"Its mission is to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society."

I could wander there for days. Not the sort of wander you do with out-of-town guests, or even the kids during the school holidays, dare I admit I actually had a date at the memorial this year, meeting a complete stranger on the steps.

There is nothing more fascinating, more humbling, than looking at the faces of the men and women, in photographs, in paintings, men and women who were hours from death, or were lucky enough to return home to lives they could barely remember. Wondering who they were, what they were thinking, what was in store for them.

I remember going there with the kids when they were little. I loved that. It's free, can you believe that.

I'd pester them with questions about things, about what they thought was happening in the paintings, in the G for George presentation, what the holes were in the lifeboat at the entrance.

They'd be happy to take in all the galleries, pick their favourite exhibits, talk about them. They were always fascinated by the dioramas - and who can blame them? They are fascinating. They'd always find details I'd miss. Men were lying in the mud, fire and smoke, little vehicles, or animals.

Taking the kids there, and knowing that the memorial is one of those places most school children get to when they're in Canberra, makes me think about how the memorial explains the concepts of war to those generations who never really have experienced it.

God bless our troops in places afar afield as Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. Their efforts are no less worthy than those who fought in World War I and World War II, Vietnam or Korea, but for those of us not immersed in it, war seems a completely different concept now.

How do you even explain to children what war is?

I remember my young son, he couldn't have been more than eight telling me "it's when the good men fight the bad men because they want to keep their world the way it is".

And that's about right. If only the definitions of good and bad were easy ones, if only we could be sure that "our world" is a better and more just world than theirs. Perhaps then, there wouldn't be as many wars.

One of our favourite exhibits is the Discovery Zone, the "hands-on" space for children. He loved the Oberon class submarine, sitting in a seat and turning wheels and wearing headphones and listening for noises. He loved building bridges in the peacekeeping area and turning the wheel to supply fresh water.

He was always a little wary of the World War I trenches "it looks dark and scary" (probably not the first person to think that) but hopscotched just like he does on the footpath at home in the World War II backyard. (Make sure you get a quick read of the copies of the Australian Women's Weekly that are there next visit.)

I remember too that once he was flying the Iroquois helicopter as I sat behind him and another young boy climbed into the co-pilot's seat. His grandmother sat next to me and we got to talking about what things at the Australian War Memorial fascinated our little boys. The helicopter was one of them for sure. I wondered if she had sent any sons to war, a husband, brothers or uncles.

It was a reminder, as these two little boys pretended to fly over Vietnam, to shoot down the bad men, that every face in the memorial was once someone's five-year-old child. Boys who liked to rough and tumble, girls who liked to play pretend, boys who liked to play hopscotch, girls who snuck off with their mother's copy of the Women's Weekly.

In this Anzac week we should especially thank every one of them. It is because of their efforts, past, present and future, that the chances of us having to send our sons and daughters to war has diminished. We should be eternally grateful.