ANZAC Day has long been a curiosity for me. I had various members of my family go to wars, fight, die, come back and not talk about their memories. One of my mentors was my mother’s accompanist, who worked in Intelligence during WW2 and he never spoke about it – though always referred to the Japanese as the “Nips”, even though he drove Hondas. Each ANZAC Day, I’d see (mostly) men marching, with commentators talking about what each battalion did. That was interesting, but removed from me as a child, then teenager.
As I studied history at school, then university, it became increasingly clear how removed ANZAC Day was from the actual gristle of war. First of all, the day was a celebration of failure, worse still, of an absurd back door plan drawn up by Winston Churchill. We also know him as the man who used Australian troops away from the main theatre in World War 2 as well. It still puzzles me why we don’t commemorate a day that remembers when we fought for the protection of Australia, like Kokoda, rather than ANZAC. But that is never asked. As well during ANZAC Day, we weren’t having the Wilfred Owen picture of war history, it was the CEW Bean history. I also wondered what the actual returned soldiers thought of the way it was promoted. It seemed to me to become a day removed from individuals and made into a day of sweeping generalisations.
As a result, in the 1990s, I thought Australians were being encouraged to embrace a war history that was increasingly irrelevant to a nation that was multicultural and was struggling with the realities of our shame in relation to our treatment of our indigenous peoples. But then John Howard was elected.
John Howard’s Prime Ministership was a time to rewrite history and the way we see it as Australians. His disdain for multiculturalism was obvious and his unwillingness to accept any kind of national responsibility for the way our indigenous peoples were treated was embodied in his embracing of Keith Windschuttle, with his shameful historiography of leaving out the unofficial oral histories and sticking to the “official” history of the early days of the colonies.
During the Howard era, we saw a rise of prominence in the concept of “official” history, to the exclusion of other forms. Therefore, we saw an increased emphasis on an unquestioning mass celebration of ANZAC Day. More and more young aspirational Australians colonised Gallipoli with their cans of VB and ocker “spirit”; ANZAC Day at RSLs started to feature more young drinkers “celebrating” than old diggers gathering together to remember. ANZAC Day seemed to become a way for white Anglo Saxons to have a day for themselves, to wave a flag that represents only our past as an Imperial outpost. Again, I was wondering just what the actual soldiers were thinking of these young blokes coming into RSLs asking for Khe Sanh to be put on.
ANZAC Day has also been taken by many as a way to tell others what to think, by making sweeping, generalised comments by saying “these men died for…” and then attaching their own political rhetoric to it. Some say it to justify excluding asylum seekers, others, like Jim Wallace from the Australian Christian Lobby (@jimwallaceacl), say it was for this – “Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!” To take the sacrifice of individual Australians and make it this amorphous “sacrifice” is to disfigure that sacrifice.
It has also become a way for companies to make a quid. Just look at the “Raise a Glass” campaign, which purports to be a fundraising and awareness raising activity to support the work of Legacy. It is, however, an elaborate advertisement for VB. The font is VB, the background is the VB green. The front picture is of diggers making bottles into a VB shape, telling people that VB is an integral part of celebrating ANZAC Day. I think it is a sick, disgraceful piece of marketing.
I don’t begrudge individual people their right to commemorate war – it is an important part of healing. I also know that we need to have war as a part of our history. I have long supported the teaching of war stories in our high schools – I especially like Patrick Carlyon’s book for teenagers – Gallipoli Story and David Metzenthen’s fantastic teen novel Boys of Blood and Bone as a way to show teens an unvarnished account of just what people went through, without the unthinking bombast that often accompanies ANZAC Day. I also think more and more people should see John Misto’s play The Shoe Horn Sonata, in order to see what Australian female POWs during WW2 went through – an entirely forgotten history.
However, it is, to me, a day in the calendar only as important as Labour Day, a day where we remember when workers’ rights were important; as important as Remembrance Day, where we wear the poppies and remember the futility, pain and heroism of war. It does become for me, however, a reminder of how jingoistic some Australians can be, which is unfortunate.