I’ll be going to an Anzac day service for the first time this year. It’s not because it’s the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli, nor have I suddenly discovered the true meaning of Australia’s “most sacred day”. It’s simply because Alexa (who’s in year 6) is one of the school captains and has to represent her school. I’d like to say, “No, you can’t go” as I don’t want her to be caught up in the Anzac myth, the way in which Anzac day helps normalise (if not glorify) war, and the political layers of the day, but she takes her role as school captain seriously and I don’t want to force my beliefs on her.
I find stories of Anzac day quite moving, even heartbreaking, but I also find the Anzac myth unconvincing if not unbelievable. According to the official historian of WW1 the Anzacs stood for “valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat” (Bean, 1946, p.181). This Anzac myth continues to be propagated today.
On Anzac day in 2010, then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, quoted a British Officer to illustrate the nature of the Anzacs and how these were “values for a nation.”
They were at home in hell-fire… They laughed at it; they sang through it… We saw them fall by the score. But what of it? Not for one breath did the great line waver or break. On and up it went, up and on, as steady and proud as if on parade. A seasoned staff officer watching choked up with his own admiration…
All part of what we call Anzac. Courage, sacrifice, mateship, compassion and our common humanity. Values for a nation.
When I hear what the Anzacs endured, other words come to my mind: blind obedience, futility, willingness to kill, pointless sacrifice.
The Anzac legend is still used to justify our involvement in the war on terror and other people’s wars. For example, when talking to Australian troops in Baghdad, in 2004, John Howard linked the Iraqi intervention to the Anzacs.
You are seeking to bring to the people of Iraq, who have suffered so much for so long, the hope of liberty and the hope of freedom, and your example, your behaviour, your values, belong, belong to that great and long tradition that was forged on the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915. (Quoted in McDonald, 2010, p. 297)
While the horror of war might be acknowledged on Anzac day, war is sanitised and described in terms of comradeship, honour and nobility.
Mateship, humour, and respect for an honourable foe – as well as an implacable will to win – have characterized the Australian soldier from that day to this: in World War II, Korea and Vietnam; in Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other places where Australians have served. (Tony Abbott)
So this [Anzac Cove] is a place hallowed by sacrifice and loss. It is, too, a place shining with honour – and honour of the most vivid kind. A place where foes met in equality and respect, and attained a certain nobility through their character and conduct. (Julia Gillard)
At the heart of Anzac day is a belief that we are honouring people who died protecting our freedom.
Today we stand safe and free, clothed with all the privileges and rights of citizens in these great free countries. And all these things – liberty, security, opportunity, the privileges of citizenship – we owe to those men who fought, endured, suffered, and died for us and for their country. Their deeds and their sacrifices gave us the invincible, the intangible, the Spirit of ANZAC. (Anzac Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland)
I do not see how most wars Australia has fought in have protected our freedom. Australian soldiers fight to protect the political interests of Australia and its allies. Sometimes there are also humanitarian issues involved in military interventions (e.g., WWII, East Timor), but I find it hard to think of examples where Australia has sent its military without an underlying political interest. Why else does Australia seem to be so much more likely to intervene in countries with oil or gas reserves than those that do not?
As Paul Keating argued, after he was Prime Minister, Gallipoli had nothing to do with our freedom.
The truth is that Gallipoli was shocking for us. Dragged into service by the imperial government in an ill-conceived and poorly executed campaign, we were cut to ribbons and dispatched.
And none of it in the defence of Australia. Without seeking to simplify the then bonds of empire and the implicit sense of obligation, or to diminish the bravery of our own men, we still go on as though the nation was born again or even, was redeemed there. An utter and complete nonsense.
I struggle with what is not remembered on Anzac day. We don’t remember the innocent civilians who have been killed by Australian bombing raids or other operations; we don’t honour pacifists who showed great courage by refusing to take up arms (and who were persecuted for their moral stance); we don’t mourn the women raped during war.
While the focus of Anzac day, particularly this year, is largely on WWI, we now remember “all Australians killed in military operations” (Australian Army). But Anzac commemorations very rarely, if ever, acknowledge the only people who have died resisting a foreign invasion of this land. Remembering Aboriginal people who were killed by the British during the violent colonisation of Australia would not sit comfortably with the Anzac legend.
The reaction to the 2014 Anzac Day speech by Tasmania’s Governor, Peter Underwood, demonstrates what can happen when people step outside the accepted response to Anzac Day. In his speech Underwood quoted Joanna Bourke: “The characteristic act of men at war is not dying but killing”. He warned against:
Glorifying war with descriptions of the mythical tall, lean, bronzed and laconic Anzac, enthusiastically and unflinchingly carrying the torch of freedom… Australia needs to drop the sentimental myths that Anzac Day has attracted. (p. 4)
He called for the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli to be observed as a year of peace.
The truth is that in the last 100 years, Australia has, on several occasions, engaged in conflict, sending our men and women into the business of killing and being killed. We should remember and honour all of them for they went to where they had no wish to go, and did what they had no wish to do, because they believed that they had to do so in order to give us peace and freedom. But remembrance and honour will neither bring nor preserve the peace for which they thought they died. That is not enough. We must actively strive for peace on a daily basis and I think that we could best begin that process, and thus properly honour and remember those who were killed or wounded while their country engaged them in the business of killing, by declaring this centennial year of the start of the War to end all Wars, the Year of Peace.
In the spirit of true remembrance, the Year of Peace should be spent examining and talking about the causes of war and how we got involved in wars. We should spend less time studying Simpson’s donkey and more time looking at why we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for so long. All this is not in order to criticise past decision makers, but in remembrance of the dead, to help us avoid doing it again in some other place, simply because we failed to examine all the alternative means of resolving conflict. (p. 5)
While many welcomed Underwood’s speech as a powerful contribution to public debate, many others labelled it as “insensitive and a disrespectful politicised critique” (The Mercury). Andrew Bolt (a newspaper columnist) declared
Many insults are flung at Anzac Day but none was so savagely timed as Peter Underwood’s last Friday. And none has been such a betrayal.
Geoff Crocker from Menzies House (an online community for “conservative, centre-right and libertarian thinkers and activists”) and others called for his resignation.
Such an insensitive and cruel delivery on a day of remembrance for those who gave their lives for this nation can only be appeased by his immediate resignation. Underwood has foolishly chosen the wrong time to advance his personal ideology.
I will go to the Anzac dawn service and I will remember the people who have suffered during war. I will remember the many soldiers who go to war believing they are protecting the freedom of others and are willing to face many sacrifices and even die for what they believe is right. I will be grateful for the humanitarian work done by our armed forces during natural disasters.
But I will also remember with sorrow the way war dehumanises and corrupts. I will remember with horror the many innocent people who are the victims of war. I will remember with remorse the many Aboriginal people who have died and suffered through the violence and dispossession of Western colonisation. I will remember with anger that our leaders think it is appropriate to send young men (and now young women) to their death protecting narrow political interests.
I will renew my commitment to resist the use of violence as a way of solving difference or protecting our interests. I will refresh my commitment to nonviolence as a way of being. I will continue to stand for justice and equality that can help prevent the horrors of war.
If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:
- Brandzac Day! Commercialising Anzac Day
- Song for Sunday – The Band Played Waltzing Matilda
- Parenting for a better world
- Principles of nonviolence
- My background in peace and environment groups
Bean, C. E. W. (1946). Anzac to Amiens : a shorter history of the Australian fighting services in the first World War. Canberra: Australian War Memorial.
McDonald, M. (2010). “Lest We Forget”: The Politics of Memory and Australian Military Intervention1. International Political Sociology, 4(3), 287-302. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-5687.2010.00106.x