ANZAC Day: Poignant Remembrance or Mythologisation?

BY BEN HABIB.

I attended my first ANZAC Day dawn service in Mount Gambier in the early 1990s, with a friend and his Vietnam veteran father.  It was a cold, drizzling morning, a poignant backdrop for sombre remembrance.  I remember being deeply moved by a couple of hundred people standing in complete silence, completely enveloped by the sound of the bugler and the melody of raindrops falling on umbrellas.  The prevailing sentiment was that war was hell and such pointless sacrifice of human life should never happen again.

Indeed, who could not be moved by the sacrifice of those young men, from many nations, on both sides of the trenches, who lost their lives on the Gallipoli Peninsula during that hellish eight months in 1915?  Who could not appreciate how the cultural distinctivness of the Australians and New Zealanders became apparent in relation to their British cousins in the British imperial force?  Who could not fathom the deep bonds of friendship that would develop between troops fighting in the trenches and the tradition of mateship that would linger in Australian society?  These are all worthy of sombre remembrance as key developments in the Australian national story.

However, I have a hard time stomaching the jingoistic claim that the ANZAC diggers fought for the freedoms we enjoy today.  No-one can adequately explain to me how the Aussie diggers, fighting as part of a British imperial country, invading a sovereign country on the other side of the world in a war with a competing empire has anything to do with fighting for freedom in Australia.  As former Prime Minister Paul Keating has argued, the idea that Gallipoli was fought to defend freedom and democracy is a nationalist myth.

I find it hard to embrace the ANZAC tradition on the grounds that the Australia the diggers were fighting for was an exclusionary, racist country that persectued the Lebanese members of my family lineage through the White Australia Policy.  When I consider the other side of my family, hailing from Ukraine after World War Two, the ANZAC tradition has little personal resonance at all.  Despite the fact that I deeply empathise with the courage and sacrifice of the ANZAC diggers, I find it difficult to identify with the ‘freedom and democracy’ ANZAC myth.

Monash University political philosopher and occassional ABC TV pundit Tim Soutphommasane shares a similar story:

As a first-generation Australian who was born overseas, bearing Chinese and Lao heritage, I once struggled to see how Anzac Day could have meaning for me. During my teenage years I found myself at a loss when others at school spoke about the sacrifice made by ”our forebears” in defending ”an Australian way of life”.  This wasn’t something to which I could relate. I didn’t have a grandfather or great-grandfather who served at Gallipoli or on the Western Front. I knew enough to know that the Australia that Diggers fought to defend was one that would have excluded my forebears under the White Australia policy.

Australia has a complicated national story.  We do no justice to any of the protagonists in this epic tale by leaving out portions of the story or inventing myths to obfuscate its darker moments.  I feel sorry for the people who cannot ponder the Gallipoli story in all of its complexity.  On April 25th, I choose to remember the humanity of those who lost their lives at Gallipoli, rather than the excesses of the politicised mythology that has become their unfortunate legacy.

How does ANZAC Day resonate with you?  Please share your thoughts in the comments thread below.

References

Anzac Day,’ Australian Government, 8 January 2009.

Anzac Day Media Style Guide,’ University of South Australia and Monash University.

David Day, ‘The myth that binds,’ The Age, 24 April 2012.

Editorial: The meaning of Anzac Day,’ The Age, 25 April 2011.

Paul Keating, ‘In conversation with Robert Manne,’ The Wheeler Centre, 11 November 2011.

Mapping our Anzacs,’ National Archives of Australia.

Sharon Mascall-Dare, ‘Need new words to tell an old tale,’ The Age, 24 April 2012.

Guy Rundle, ‘Anzac Day and why we need to question ‘myths’ of war,’ Crikey, 24 April 2012.

Tim Soutphommasane, ‘Where does Anzac Day fit in a culturally diverse Australia?‘, The Age, 23 April 2012.

Rebecca Wheatley, ‘Give young the freedom to engage with Anzac tradition,’ The Age, 23 April 2012.

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Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben is an internationally published researcher with interests including North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

 The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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8 responses to “ANZAC Day: Poignant Remembrance or Mythologisation?

  1. I agree! Anzac Day is about commemorating or preserving the memory of killed Australian servicemen and servicewomen such as nurses who were the tragic victims of ugly and mostly pointless wars. There is no glory in war; therefore, parades and banners seem as pointless as the futile wars they sadly endured. Originally, a few mates gathered together to remember and honour their lost mates. Let’s keep it at that honourable level!

  2. People are free to embrace or not embrace ANZAC Day, Most do, so get over it. It is called living in a democracy.

    In any case, I dont think your article is that big on describing complexity.

    Please unsurscribe me. I previously attempted to do so, but now i got this article.

    • Thanks for your contribution Chris. A couple of points in response to your reply…

      (1) I implore you to read my peace again more carefully. I am not advocating not embracing ANZAC Day per se, but rather the extremely narrow mythologisation of the ANZAC legend. A critical thinker should choose to embrace or not embrace ANZAC Day based on an understanding of th totality of the historic experience, legacy and broader context of Galipoli and the ANZAC tradition, not only on the narrow jingoistic interpretation of some conservatives.

      (2) I’ve attempted to provide some logical reasoning for my position and am happy to refine it through dialogue with people who disagree. You have attempted to shut me down because my position is not the same as yours. The “support the diggers or fuck off” mentality evident in your first sentence is a poor analytical defence of your position and a failure of critical thinking. You’ve taught undergrads before, you wouldn’t cop that from them in an intellectual discussion.

      (3) You have an interesting interpretation of what it means to live in a democratic society. I would have thought that living in a functional democratic society means being comfortable holding and defending your own reasoned position amongst a multiplicity of views. Democratic societies function best when people with opposing viewpoints can have an open and respectful dialogue, which improves the reasoning of all protagonists.

      By retreating into your shell with an analytically lazy comment like “People are free to embrace or not embrace ANZAC Day, Most do, so get over it. It is called living in a democracy”, you’ve missed that opportunity to refine your own position. It’s unfortunate that too many people in our society take that lazy option, advancing poorly reasoned opinions based on prejudices instead of making logically argued positions with supporting evidence.

      If you’re up for it, I’d like to hear your analytically reasoned argument in defence of your position on ANZAC Day. No insults, no cliches, let’s have a proper respectful discussion.

      Ben

  3. ‘Anonymous’, I don’t think that’s what this brief entry was about. It highlights that there’s a lack of complexity but makes no great claim to ‘describe’ the complexity. The complexity of Australian history is explored through entire careers worth of work which you surely don’t expect to be detailed here in a brief blog post? Have you heard of Manning Clark? Just checking. Yes, we are living in a democracy. Yes people are free to celebrate ANZAC day or not. And? Congratulations with your insight. Is this discussion somehow a threat to your perspective, ergo, your democracy? You have rather proven yourself to be part of the myopia that this entry poignantly highlights. I suspect brow beating you will do nothing to convince you otherwise, and instead only plays to your level. I would, however, like to be proven wrong.

  4. Despite having ANZAC soldiers in both my mothers family (Australian) and my fathers family (New Zeland), every ANZAC day I also find myself questioning the ideals and meanings behind ANZAC day. I am anti war, and I do not understand how the diggers were ‘defending’ our country by invading another. However, I do have pity and sadness for these people as they were merely pawns in the contest for power and money. I find it difficult to express these doubts with other people whom have ANZAC’s in their family heritage, and the few times I have disscussed my opinions I have been called un-Australian and un-grateful. It is refreshing for myself to read published work that asks the same questions that I have continued to ask myself for years.

    • Krystle, of course there’s lots to question about Anzac Day, and about wars generally – but the fact remains that sometimes war is necessary to avoid a greater evil – eg Nazism or Japanese hegemony in WW2 or North Korean invasion of the South in the 50s… Its all very well saying you are ‘anti war’ but does that mean you’d be happy living under Nazi rule?

      • This is a good point Mick, to which I would add is the reason why we should not conflate the very different legacies and lessons of Australia’s participation in wars into one narrative. Ileads some to make spurious claims about the legacy of some conflicts, which leads others to question question the validity of the entire story, rather than treating every conflict as a discrete historic episode with different causes and consequences.

  5. Ben, you seem to think Anzac Day is all about the Anzac campaign at Gallipoli. It isnt. I attended the Anzac service here in Chiltern with a couple of hundred other people in the cold wind. I attended because my mum (now 98) and dad fought in WW2 so Australia wouldnt be occupied and ruled by either or both of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Were they wrong to do so? I don’t think so. So I attended, for the first time in many years, to thank them in my mind for giving up 6 years of their lives for a greater purpose.

    Of course most wars are meaningless (WW1, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan in my opinion), and the Australian values we fight for are not above criticism, but please accept that many people do find meaning in Anzac Day beyond your rather narrow understanding.

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