What an editor learned from publishing the story of our most famous Anzac
I have an uneasy and uncomfortable relationship with war stories—even of great heroism or sacrifice—and with war anniversaries. But as a student of stories, I am aware that the tides of battles and the actions of characters within them offer endless material for gripping narrative, for showing the best and worst of humanity, the possibilities and temptations to despair and the endurance and power of hope. And that such stories say as much about the people who tell and read them as about the people who make and experience them.
In a 1939 sermon called “Learning in War-Time,” C S Lewis argued that “war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” He points out that 100 per cent of people still die—be they in times of war or times of relative peace—so the question is always whether what we give our time to and invest our lives in is worthwhile, of significance and ultimately eternal.
While this might sound philosophically grand, it is lived out in the messiness, uncertainty, disappointments and sometimes straight-up horror of our lives. Such is the story of William McKenzie.
I first came across the McKenzie’s story while working with Daniel Reynaud and It Is Written Oceania on a monograph called The Faith of the Anzacs. When Daniel began researching and writing McKenzie’s story, I began coveting the opportunity to make it into a book. I eventually got to read the manuscript and my covetousness remained. What I found was not only a good story and work of serious historical research but a true Australian hero and a story of national significance.
I have since had the privilege—and the responsibility—of working with Daniel to share the story with a wider audience. And I have repented of my coveting.
But this was never only a Daniel and a Signs Publishing story. It belongs to our nation, to the best of our Anzac tradition, to the Australian church and also particularly to The Salvation Army, which has kept the story alive through its history and so provided a platform for Daniel to share in this fuller way and for us to be able to give it back to them.
And stories such as McKenzie’s are worth sharing because they are not about how to wage war or merely how to survive but how to serve in even the most difficult circumstances. They are not about who it might be justifiable to kill or what we might kill for but about what we might be prepared to die for and—more importantly—what is worth living for.