So it’s Anzac Day again. In fact it’s the 103rd Anzac day.
Usually I’d just reblog this post and be done with it. And I stand by that post. I stand by the sentiment I tried to convey in it. But I think I’m getting old. I only realised that it even was Anzac Day when a student emailed me to ask if classes were still running. I went into the lecture and asked the professor, an ex-cavalry officer, if they were running. He too had forgotten about Anzac Day.
For the record, classes didn’t run.
We’re military historians. I study at a university which is also a military academy. All the students I teach there are serving members of the military. Everyone in the history department is a military historian and all the humanities staff study war and its effects in one way or another.
And yet for most of the people I’m around, Anzac Day is a merely a day off. If they engage with publicly with Anzac, and the ones who do are rare, it’s to decry what the day has become and to bring attention to those who deserve a place in Anzac Day, but who are overlooked by the bombast.
And I know I’m sounding like a grump or that I’m being contrary because Anzac is an important day to so many Australians. BUT…
There’s something going on here and I’m really not sure it’s about commemorating service or remembering sacrifice.
But I understand this. This is basic capitalism. Anzac is a brand, and a really popular one and you can make a lot of money from it. While I’m disgusted by the money grubbing, it’s a vague sort of background disdain that permeates most of modern life. I can deal with that.
What saps my will to live and makes me now hide away from anything remotely Anzac related is the rhetoric that completely envelops the day. And I’m not even exaggerating here. On Anzac day in 2013 prime minister Julia Gillard gave a speech at Anzac Cove on Gallipoli. The words she used were two and a half thousand years old. She reached back into antiquity and quoted Pericles funeral oration. “They gave their lives. For that public gift they received a praise which never ages and a tomb most glorious – not so much the tomb in which they lie; but that in which their fame survives, to be remembered for ever when occasion comes for word and deed…“
Politicians can nearly get away with that. You expect that from politics. But if you keep hammering this narrative long enough it’s going to stick. And it has taken root. Anzac is our secular religion. To question the myth is blasphemy and to fail to take part in the public adulation marks you as suspicious. Again, I’m not exaggerating.
Front page in the Murdoch (whose daddy was a famously dickish war correspondent) press for a tweet saying to remember refugees on Anzac Day. Nothing demeaning, no insults, but public castigation, excoriation and humiliation. The furore on talk-back radio was especially sickening given its target was both a woman and Muslim.
There’s a self-congratulatory element to Australian Anzac Day, a sense of big-noting, that raises the Australian contribution to the war out of all proportion. That Australians contributed more (false), sacrificed more (false) and fought more (false) than anyone else. If you don’t hold to the Australian soldier as the pinnacle of military, or maybe human, achievement then you’re disrespecting the Anzacs, belittling their accomplishments and insulting their legacy.
They strip the humanity of the soldier and turn him into a one dimensional symbol. He’s what Peter Stanley has called an ‘Avatar of the Great War’. He’s not a person who made choices and mistakes and was scared and troubled and there to do a job. He’s a statue onto which you can paint your politics. In the words of a much better writer than I. “What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience!”
Maybe we should be a little bit more like New Zealand on Anzac Day. That it should be a day for remembrance and commemoration. For gratitude and recognition, not just for the white men who make up our image of the AIF, but for the actual people and the wonderful diversity of Australia then and now. Maybe we should have a little more introspection about Anzac and the Great War and our place in it rather than another excuse for chest thumping and flag waving. The National Library of Australia has over 4,000 book entries on Anzac. There is space aplenty for new stories that haven’t been told about those we’ve forgotten.
Lest we forget the Aboriginal, Maori, Chinese, Jewish and Russian Anzacs. Lest we forget all those written out of the story and who deserve to be remembered.