Anzac Day – Lest we forget the wrong things

Lone Pine Cemetery

Lone Pine Cemetery, Gallipoli (Photo: Esther Lee)

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:

  1. Brandzac Day! Commercialising Anzac Day
  2. Song for Sunday – The Band Played Waltzing Matilda
  3. Parenting for a better world
  4. Principles of nonviolence
  5. 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

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Social change and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Anzac Day – Lest we forget the wrong things

  1. kinnayi says:

    Thank you for so beautifully articulating everything I also feel and would want to say about ANZAC day. I am also thinking about my German colleague, a young mother and immigrant, who says she feels so bad on Anzac Day that she feels she needs to hide in her house. Her family suffered terrible atrocities in World War Two, just like many others, but she says she feels she is regarded as the ‘enemy’ in Anzac Day and feels quite ashamed and alienated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks kinnayi.
      I do want to find a way to remember the many people who have suffered in war, and to work for the ending of all war, but I do not find ANZAC day helpful in do so. I am sure it is valuable for many people but, like you highlight, it is not a day that includes everyone, and there is a risk that it suggests the pain and suffering of some people is more valuable than that of others.


  2. Anonymous says:

    the woman or man? who wrote this story is abousoley stupid


  3. Mark says:

    Good comment Graeme,

    The only Romanticism in war is in “Boys Own Adventure” stories.

    Where my immediate family is concerned, Before the war my Grandfathers had good lives with strong family foundations, however, WW1 (Futility at its strongest ) virtually decimated both my Grandfather’s families. They returned to Australia in 1919 after enduring the horrors of the battlefields in the Middle East & France, there was very little support from the Government and jobs were scarce. Both men were broken and became “shattered anzacs” now we understand they were suffering from PTDS. Their stories of their lives back in Australia are sad and alcohol played a part in their “self medication” They threw their medals away, one of my Grandfathers was awarded a Military Medal, they both died early, where’s the romance in that? Of course there are many soldiers, Nurses who returned and got on with life and kept their lives and families together, but I believe the majority were adversely affected in some way, how could it not!

    I have attended Anzac day ceremonies to remember & honour my Grandfathers to stop and think of them and thank them for my existence and also to my Dad who was a WW2 soldier (He returned from war as a Totally & Permanently Incapacitated pensioner) he also died relatively young. I understand WW2 was a different scenario to that of WW1. I dont need Anzac day to remember my Dad but I go to also remember and honour uncles and cousins involved in WW2, Korea & Vietnam. A a result, I couldn’t be more anti war if I tried. These Men & Women who serve(d) in the Australian Armed Services are ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances and Australians, both then & now, are no different to other peoples from countries around the world in times of war. There a feats of heroism, sacrifice & bravery (Certainly not taking away from the importance of armed services personnel who are awarded medals & citations) but on the other side of the coin there are also acts of savagery and in times of war any of us can do either.

    I like to think most Australians can see past the commercialisation of the ANZAC name or as described these days as marketing term “Brand”!! , “To raise a Glass in remembrance” as promoted by a Alcoholic company sickens me, so then again perhaps not? We live in a great country where we have, relative freedom of movement & speech, whichever way that’s perceived. Like many countries over history Australia has its great stories and its not so great stories which we are only just starting to recognise, with this knowledge in hand we can move forward encompassing all the good & right things and accept & learn from all of this country’s peoples from the indigenous through to our latest immigrants regardless how they came to this land. I can only hope that as a Human Being I try to have empathy for all Human Beings in this world and try to learn from our past that war and the varying causation of war is not the answer.

    For myself of course, I only hope that war of any sort never comes to Australia as is happening in other countries right now.

    Thanks again,

    Mark Vorherr

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Mark. Great statement and I think I agree with it all – except that unfortunately I think war is romanticised outside of Boys Own; probably mainly by people who haven’t fought in one. But I take your meaning. Thanks again.


  4. Harry Harker says:

    I’m a Vietnam era veteran from a world that seems far away. I’ve heard, read and been engaged in discussion similar to those in this blog. Those of us who served did so for various reasons. Some of us saw it as duty, some were conscripted into service and a number of our peers just ran away. My part of the war was tame in comparison to many who served in Vietnam, but when I was there I did my duty because I had a crew to care for, a ship to defend and they were what was my motivating force… period.

    Any day that remembers the courage of those who served isn’t a celebration of the war they fought in, or maybe the conflicts that our governments should have become involved in but didn’t. It’s about lives lost, friends who didn’t return and our duty, regardless of the perceived justice of the war, to remember them.

    Stand with your daughter. Shed a tear that your politicians, like ours, are often misguided and pray that in the future when men and women are asked to bear arms they will do so for a just cause.

    Harry Harker, USMMA, Class of ’69

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment Harry. As I said to Judi, this was a really hard post to write. I think remembering like you speak about is appropriate – it is all the other layers that are also brought in that I struggle with. As a community I think we owe a real duty of care to people who have been sent to war. It is much easier (and cheaper) to remember the dead than to remember the living and to provide the support and resources they need. I also think it is inappropriate to blame the people sent to war if we disagree with war – it isn’t their fault.

      I particularly like your closing paragraph. Thanks again.


  5. Thanks Wendy for your comments. It is important for nations to own up to their past and their role in atrocities. That is one reason why the apology to the Stolen Generations was so important and why Australia needs to recognise the violence inflicted on Aboriginal communities from the time of colonisation. I don’t know much about the Armenian genocide (beside what I’ve heard in the media) but agree that Turkey needs to admit their role in it.
    I don’t think Woolworths really had the good sense to stop their branding campaign; they were forced to. Target has also been forced to remove some of their branded products (the stubbie holders, beanies and hoodies) but for some reason the other products are OK. VB continues to tell us to raise our glass. (


  6. Judi Geggie says:

    A powerful comment Graeme. We went to Galipolli as part of our three week tour of Turkey last year. A solemn and empty place and we were so glad we were there at a quiet time for true private reflection and not with the crowds and the hype of Anzac Day. Ataturk’s quote carved on a giant sandstone plaque is very moving and highlights the futility of war.


    • Thanks Judi, I’m sure it would be powerful visiting Gallipoli. I still remember visiting Hiroshima when I was 7.
      I actually found this a really hard post to write. I think it is quite appropriate to remember the people who have died in wars, so I didn’t want the post to be disrespectful. Through the work I did with Dee, we met some great people in the armed forces who have great motivations. But, as you can tell, I really struggle with the other messages that often get caught up in official remembrance days like Anzac Day.


      • HI and thank you for your courageous post.

        I also have been agonising about Anzac Day and the centennial and now I cannot even read about it or watch programs on TV. I was born in Canada and have been here only 45 years so I did not “drink the Kool-Aid” in school (

        However, as a person of Armenian heritage, I am appalled that another – and much more shocking—anniversary — is being ignored by Australia — and, importantly, by our new best friend, Turkey, a country with an appalling human rights record that denies the genocide of more than 1.5 million Armenians in 1915.

        That really IS something to remember – and to be vigilant about.

        Turkey’s denial of the genocide is keeping them from membership of the EU. Well done, EU, I say!

        Yet, there we will be, at Anzac Cove and Lone Pine, embracing Turks and celebrating our bloody history when they unrepentantly deny that the Armenian genocide occurred.

        This is not “ancient” history.

        It is my immediate history.

        My father’s family members were massacred and whole lineages wiped out. Refugees lived with decades of intergenerational trauma.

        So how about we reframe Turkey and our relationship with that country so frozen in denial?

        And how about we honour – as a country – the brave Armenian heritage that has survived a systematic genocide?

        We have 17,000 people of Armenian heritage from 43 countries living in Australia.

        How about honouring us in our time of remembrance?

        And how about we stop praising war? Just stop it now.

        Even Woolworths had the good sense to stop their branding campaign.

        Wendy Sarkissian


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