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The Meaning of ANZAC Day

By Tristan Ewins - posted Thursday, 29 April 2010


ANZAC Day is a day of remembrance for Australia and New Zealand: a time of reflection upon the involvement of those countries in terrible wars. Specifically, the term “ANZAC” is derived from the words “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”: the military organisation within which Australians and New Zealanders fought in World War One.  

Almost 80,000 Australians and New Zealanders died during the First World War: and many more still were terribly maimed, or left with grievous psychological scars.

The day has also developed to be considered a day of remembrance with regard to all wars and conflicts in which Australia and/or New Zealand have been involved. It should also be mentioned, therefore, that in the Second World War almost 30,000 Australians died. And tens of thousands suffered terrible cruelty as prisoners of war – especially of the Japanese.

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More recently annual commemorations of the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey have seen tens of thousands of Australians undertaken a “pilgrimage” to ANZAC Cove. The bloodbath of Gallipoli has been established as a cornerstone of Australian identity.

Australians have also been involved in conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and more recently elsewhere – including Afghanistan and Iraq.

In modern times ANZAC Day has been developed into a day whose meaning and significance is hotly contested.

Australian academic Marilyn Lake has contributed to a book: “What’s Wrong with ANZAC?” - along with Henry Reynolds, in which she dares to criticise the “ANZAC legend”.  Her views were expressed recently and concisely, also, in an op-ed in The Age.

Lake criticises the “coming of age” narrative: the idea that Australia needed its “baptism of fire” to prove itself in the horrors of war, and thus take its place amongst the nations.  But instead Lake sees a way beyond what she calls “the AZNAC myth”:

“until we have the courage to detach ourselves from the mother country, declare our independence, inaugurate a republic, draw up a constitution that recognises the first wars of dispossession fought against indigenous peoples. Thus we can truly make history in Australia.” 

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For Lake, ANZAC is a myth which excludes women: essentially “[locating] our national identity in the masculine domain of military warfare.”  Further she sees the ANZAC story as eclipsing other narratives: of struggle against war and oppression, racism and sexism; and “the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia.” 

As many of us would have expected, the reaction from the dominant right-populist elements in Australia’s media has been one of apparent outrage and indignation.

Neil Mitchell from radio 3AW in Melbourne might be considered a liberal in comparison to Melbourne Talk Radio’s Steve Price, but on April 21st he went so far as to say about Marilyn Lake and other contributors to “What’s wrong with ANZAC?”:

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.
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