How I feel about Anzac Day

Every so often I have to post about Anzac Day. And by every so often, I generally mean every year on April 25 – and this year is no different.

It’s a mark, I think, of the civic gravity Anzac Day exerts: annually there are reams of paper dedicated to the national memory, books are published, the internet is flooded with think pieces. I return to it year after year, because I find Anzac Day so fascinating as an insight into Australia’s national character.

It is more important to Australians than Australia Day. The solemnity of Dawn Service, thematically Christian yet attended religiously by Australians for whom faith has become a rare curiosity, belies our broad secularism. For years I attended Dawn Service at Davistown RSL and watched the crowds grow and the reverence deepen. It’s very moving, and I think that kind of reflection is an important thing.

The reason I’m writing about it all this time, however, is because I watched another breakout of rage on Facebook, and I think it’s worth analysing.

In short: a friend of mine commented on Facebook:

Teenager and 40ish year old woman at the table next to us at brunch: “I don’t understand Anzac Day, I hate that we glorify war and suffering. But I love all this time off we have had. It’s so nice and quiet….”

Whoever you are, you disgust me more than anyone else I have ever seen. Get some education, and have some respect for how you have everything you have you fuck.

The comments that followed were also instructive:

Too many retards!

Oh how some people do not understand the freedom they have from the cost of others actions.

Ooooo that is beyond words , gets my back right up. Clearly they are a waste of space & oxygen. They have no idea of sacrifice & what people have gone through & achieved & how countless soldiers & families have suffered. I dont think i would have been able to restrain myself but then again cleaely their brain capacity is minimal & taken up with simple tasks like breathing

I’d have turned around and given her my 2 cents. Fucking nob

You can solemnly respect the fallen while simultaneously being dedicated to peace, what you absolutely cannot do is be ignorant to the privileges you have that in so many ways were brought by the sacrifices many made that you would not have been prepared to make #gratitude#respect#sadness#neveragain#lestweforget#servicemenandwomen

The last comment I think actually does the whole conversation a bit of justice – at least as far as ‘being dedicated to peace’ at the same time as you ‘respect the fallen’.

The conversation was an interesting one because of the way my own views of Anzac Day have evolved over the years. When I was young I never gave too much thought to it. Then university changed that, as I studied Australian history in a way I had not before – with a truly critical lens – and came to rage against the militarisation of Australian history. Then, as those undergraduate naiveties settled, I became more reflective – particularly as I attended dawn service, and came to understand the views of others.

And so I want to share a few of those thoughts.

The Unquestioned Tradition

This history of Anzac Day is drummed into us in schools: the fabled story of the diggers in trenches at Gallipoli – the annual screening of Peter Weir’s film – the centrality of ANZAC in defining our national values. Gallipoli is arguably the firmest historical event rooted in the consciousness of school children.

Paul Keating once observed that he would never attend a dawn service at Gallipoli. For Keating, a strong republican and believer in Australian independence, that was a war fought for England. And it was. His reverence was for those who fought in closer wars – in World War 2 in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific against the advancing Japanese.

While the first five years of my schooling were under Keating, the balance was made up under John Howard. Howard loves Australian history (or a particular reading of it), and he expanded its remit in the curriculum. During his years a book was commissioned under the aegis of the National Australia Day Council by John Hirst called The Australians. In defining the national character, Hirst’s first three chapters are telling: ‘Independent Spirit’, ‘Mateship’ and ‘Diggers’.

For school children, the notion of the digger popularised by World War I journalist CEW Bean rendered this heroic figure into the Australian identity: “the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born at Gallipoli”.

The Militarisation of Australian History

But there’s something wrong with this picture. Was our national consciousness really born in a conflict for England on the other side of the world during a failed invasion of Turkey? Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ excellent book What’s Wrong With ANZAC? explores this question in detail.

Anzac Day hasn’t always been so central in the national identity. Mark McKenna notes in the book that

In order to understand why 25 April has become holier than 25 December in the Australian calendar, we have to look beyond the changing patterns of commemoration of Anzac Day itself, and examine the wider historical context in which the Anzac revolution occurred.

McKenna is referring to government campaigns to raise the profile of Anzac Day, in recent years. During the 1920’s, the government in conjunction with the RSL wanted to better socialise returned servicemen who were antisocial and violent, and Anzac Day was born. Historians Bill Gammage and Alistair Thomson have referenced the trauma of returning from war at this time, and the RSL was formed to give veterans a political voice. However, this voice has been abused by politicians over the years – taken up for political causes unrelated to the needs of veterans. McKenna noted that with the bicentennial celebrations and the growing awareness of the Stolen Generations and the discomfort with Australia Day, successive governments sought to emphasise the Anzac legend as a national holiday apparently unencumbered by the bloody burdens of our imperial past.

I alluded earlier to Keating’s remarks at in PNG, where he claimed ‘Australia’s modern image was formed not at Gallipoli, but in the 1940’s’ in the South Pacific. However it was Howard who really emphasised the focus on Gallipoli, McKenna argues, as a ‘positive counter-narrative’ to the ‘black armband’ view of Australian history (the view that acknowledges the violence perpetrated against the Aboriginal people). Howard attended dawn service as Anzac Cove in 2000, and McKenna explains:

Standing on the soil ‘rich with the lives of our kin’, Howard vowed to ‘finish’ what the Anzacs ‘began’. As he told Channel Nine’s A Current Affair shortly afterwards, there was a ‘resurgence of national feeling, a passion for the Anzac legend and tradition amongst young Australians’.

Indeed this has been the case – Howard was, and is, a master at constructing a powerful image of national identity, and his deft hand can be found across much of the present centrality of Anzac in Australian identity.

The ANZAC legend is steeped firmly in the crucible of Gallipoli. Peter Hoffenberg writes:

Australian collective memory is anchored in the fantasy of migration to and across a national landscape identified by its apparently unique present and mythical past. This mythology is about the primordial, or pre-historical character of the physical environment, seemingly a ‘new’ land without any connections to the historical past, and about the social relationship between struggling to claim that land and the experiences of migration, labour and death.

This is not fantasy as pure escapism, but one which integrates experience and imagination, thereby linking citizens in a seemingly viable and tangible way not only with one another, but with a shared past. Gallipoli and the Western Front were spatial forms and spatial fantasies, as well as harsh material worlds. That harshness was made comprehensible by its apparent similarity to a more familiar local world.

Gallipoli represents a mythical space for Australians – a distant, ‘savage’ land to which Australian troops must bring the light of civilisation and decency. These echoes are examples of – to borrow Martin Ball’s excellent phrase – ‘the pleating of history’. The ‘terra nullius’ of the Dardanelles are often divorced from the broader context of the campaign – and of the cultural context in which Turkish citizens might read our invasion.

Australia’s founding myth – our ‘baptism of fire’ – exists at Gallipoli because it echoes our darker foundations: the dispossession of the Aboriginal people.

Maybe that argument seems too esoteric, but there is something about the ‘militarisation’ of Australian history that rings true: why would a country that federated as a nation peacefully at the turn of the century – a truly modern nation capable of freeing itself of the violence and brutality of Europe’s colonial past – why would a country reject this success and reach out for meaning in war?

The National Rage

Perhaps the most striking thing about ANZAC Day is the intensity with which people engage emotionally. In many ways, I think it captures the ideas of sociology and the  public psychoanalysis that goes on quite perfectly: how is it that people feel so deeply this emotional connection to a particular day? People fire up in defence of Anzac Day – unable to demarcate the ‘public holiday’ (and industrial process to which all are entitled to enjoy) and the political and spiritual event that is the Anzac legend.

Part of this, I think, goes to the deep ways we imprint national identity as part of our personal identity.

Australian soldiers have arguably never fought in defence of ‘our freedom’, but they have perhaps fought in defence of ‘the idea’ of freedom. Many historians note that the Japanese Imperial command had no intention of invading Australia (though this is not an undisputed fact). World War I was essentially an old imperial conflict, as the dying great powers of the Old World gave one final gasp of violence, before the tide of postcolonialism began to sweep the world.

World War II is the ‘just’ war we fought – noble because it was a clear cut case of good versus evil, a deferral of ‘the Great War’ (itself a troubling name for a war), and a fight to hold back the nihilistic terror of fascism and nazism.

And yet ‘the defence of our freedoms’ is routinely cited as one reason for which we remember the Anzacs. Likewise, the unquestioned central role that violence plays in our holiest of national days.

Two years ago, at the hundredth anniversary of World War I, when Australia spent more money on commemorations than Great Britain, a large sculpture was put up in Hyde Park Sydney: huge bullets. Obstructing the peace and tranquility of the park and it’s solemn Cenotaph.

Why was this necessary? In a sense it is typically Australian – violence sits beneath the idyllic surface of our country. It is not enough that Hyde Park carries the implicit mark of the tragedy of war with the Cenotaph, but the point must be thundered home – bullets, to carve out a space for the disavowed, to interrupt the silence with the national rage. And people get angry when you challenge this.

Anzac Day is a markedly different myth to other public holidays – say the Queen’s Birthday. We don’t commemorate those, but we take the holiday. The same applies to Easter and Christmas, even if we don’t go to church – and stupidly our founding fathers chose January 1 to federate, and denied us a potential alternative day to celebrate our peaceful democracy.

For a lot of people, the ‘values’ of Anzac have been imprinted from youth in a far more profound and persistent way – through the school years, through years of dawn service, perhaps a visit to Gallipoli. Any challenge to these ideas, or a suggestion that they are constructed, or a different view, is treated as an assault on personal identity.

Lest We Forget

The fact that the Anzac legend is an artificial construct – that it is as much a product of politics as it is of history (as is most national myth-making) – does not make it any less meaningful, nor does it make it less real.

What matters is the meaning that is carried out of it, and the awareness and reflection that gets carried in.

To not question the meaning of Anzac Day is to disrespect it fundamentally. Anzac Day is about questioning: questioning the point of war, the point of bloodshed, of the millions of lives extinguished in the name of empire, of the hundreds of thousands of Australians whose families – including my own – have lost someone to conflict in our history. It is about remembering the fallen, but also challenging the primacy of violence, and an occasion to call for peace, tolerance, compassion and openness as much as possible.

Because if it is not for these values, then nothing has been learnt over the past 100 years, and any acts of remembrance are false ones.

For me there are two contrasting images of Anzac Day. CEW Bean’s narrative that reads like fantasy:

The water was as smooth as satin – a gloriously cool, peaceful night…
Only the soft dip of the muffled oars in the water broke the silence…
About this moment from the funnel of one of the northern-most steam
boats there flared out a trail of flame…Three full feet of sparks and flame
continued to trail for twenty or thirty seconds…
Just then…on the summit of another and rather lower knoll a thousand
yards south there flashed a bright yellow light…it glowed for half a minute
and then went out…Then suddenly: “look at that!” said Captain Leane…
The figure of a man was on the skyline of the plateau above them

And that of then Governor-General Quentin Bryce, at Anzac Cove in 2010, which reminds us not to get angry with one another, but instead to understand the stories we each bring to bear:

We are coming to liberate our deep knowing, so that it may no longer weigh formidable and helpless in our hearts.

We have seen the value of openness in healing, learning, and validating the experiences of so many affected and torn by the workings of war.

The servicemen and women. Those in combat; those imprisoned; those who nursed and transported and administered them. Those who stayed behind to sustain our nations.  The loved ones they found, and those they were separated from. The children they had, and then farewelled.  The parents they never saw again. The homes they returned to.

The isolation, confusion, melancholy, relief and pride they each felt in their own profound ways.

Anzac Day is all the things I have spoken of, but, at its heart, is love.
Love of every kind

Love of nation,
of service,
of family.

The love we give and the love we allow ourselves to receive.

To use some words that many of us know:

It is the love that is patient and kind, not jealous or arrogant.
It rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And it never fails.

This is what gives meaning to human triumph and defeat.
This is what enables us to forgive, and to learn from our successes and our failures.

It reminds us of why we must never let go of Anzac Day.

This is a day about remembrance, deference and thankfulness.
It is about who we are now; the values we live by and hold dearest; and what we collectively hope and strive to be.

Today is a day for all of us.

Beloved members of families, and of nations in our memories, in our arms, and in our dreams.

Lest we forget.

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2 Replies to “How I feel about Anzac Day”

  1. Over the years I have watched the changing shape of the way that we share and celebrate Anzac Day. It’s significance can be held differently for each of us. This year I sensed a particularly poignant sense of respect. This pleased me as I have always been happy to hear differing opinions and points of view. It remains Australian.

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