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Happy Anzac Day?

By Catriona Elder - posted Wednesday, 25 April 2012

I may be in the minority, and it may not be totally acceptable to write this, but I don't like Anzac Day. It is hard to say this because it tends to get interpreted as me saying I don't like people's grandfathers, or classed as some deeply un-Australian statement.

But I don't like it and the more intense the national investment in the day becomes, the more I feel the need not to like it.

Anzac Day is not a simple day and it shouldn't be treated as such. Commemorating a nation's dead is always fraught. Which dead are to be included? Which excluded from remembrance? A friend of mine explained she became disenchanted with Anzac Day when as a child the wreath she had made and laid at the suburban remembrance space was removed. It was in memory of her Holocaust survivor grandparents.


Anzac Day has become more popular in the last few decades because it has shifted from a time for the solemn remembrance of the military dead, to a more generic celebration of the essential goodness of Australia and our capacity for mateship. We take iconic Gallipoli and Kakoda/POW stories and use them to retell some sort of tale of the Australian bloke. The holiday is more like a classic national 'who are we?" day. It has become a means to communicate to each other a sense of Australians as laconic, laid back, generous, big drinking, profane and yet respectful, undisciplined yet effective.

To this end the Australian state has spent millions of dollars to teach us to love and appreciate this newer meaning of the day. Commercial venues have jumped on the band wagon and it is possible to celebrate Anzac Day doing a range of mostly traditionally male activities – watching either rugby or AFL, sitting in the pub for the afternoon and 'raising a glass' and playing two-up. Of course the inclusion of alcohol and gambling is an old tradition for the day. What has happened is the returned service people's afternoon activities have spread to more places and it is now a classic way of spending the day. Even amongst all the drinking there is a discipline to celebrating Anzac Day.

There are good and bad – or at least better and worse – ways to take part in Anzac Day. There is no place for protest on 25 April. The military are off limits for mockery and critique. Armed with the didactic stories, such as that of the servicemen who were spat on when they returned from Vietnam, all citizens are expected to learn how to celebrate the day and to recognise the need for a solemn and respectful attitude.

In the 1980s when Women Against Rape in War coalitions protested on Anzac Day they were often vilified or more often asked why they could not just move their protest to another day. They were asked to not ruin the day for the diggers and other Australians. What if your point is to disrupt the unchallenged respect for the military and the endeavours of defence personnel that gets recognised on Anzac Day? What if your conviction is that war is bad and that we have fought in lots of bad wars? What if you think that the cost of war on women or children is appalling? If you believe these things then Anzac Day is where you make your case about this complex and messy military history of Australia.

I think Anzac Day has become harder to critique because it has morphed into a day for the celebration of some sort of Aussie innocence. It started all those years ago with the Peter Weir film Gallipoli where mostly naïve, beautiful and innocent men were represented dying for empire/Australia. The film became a late twentieth century touchstone for teaching us how to love Australia

The performance of Anzac piety has become more sophisticated in recent years. Wealthier and more globally savvy young Australians travel to iconic war sites – Gallipoli, Flanders' fields, Kakoda Track – to perform their attachment to nation. Wrapping themselves in flags they travel thousands of kilometres to other nations and use the stories of Australian military hardship to bind themselves to Australia. Back home the marches on the day are also places for these performances. A friend told me a few years ago he was walking through early morning Sydney on Anzac Day and came across a group of young people dressed in 70s suits and polyester as a salute to the Vietnam War. Their connection with war was to raid their grandparent's wardrobes. These young people, with their flags and flares, come to stand for a "good" Australia. Perhaps more than actual military personnel bogged down in ambivalent space of war.


The connection between innocence and Anzac Day is perhaps best exemplified by the sometimes controversial practice in the parades of substituting the children or grandchildren of serviceman or servicewoman who have died. The idea is obviously to recognise family links between and pride across generations. Yet I wonder why we would want to insert children into a military parade? Do children belong in a space that is occupied by ex-military personnel who have sometimes been asked to do the unspeakable?

The glib and increasingly popular greeting of "Happy Anzac Day" may suggest why we find it sweet to see kids in the parade. It is not about war. It is about a simple nationalism. We repeat "lest we forget", "they died for us", 'they protected Australia" as mantras without really thinking what they mean or if they are accurate. Of course Anzac Day is not about accuracy. It is about a feeling – feeling proud to be Australian. We aren't engaging with the grief, trauma or ethical dilemmas of war. We don't use the day to think collectively about what it means to go to war as an individual or a country.

One of the reasons it is getting easier to "celebrate" Anzac Day is that the World War One diggers are all dead. World War One is the emotional and historical heart of Anzac Day. The voices of this group of veterans – with their many different reactions to going away to war – have disappeared and so we can substitute cliches to stand for their often negative and complex responses to war.

If Anzac Day is a national day that takes place in public space then it needs to be open to debate, critique, argument and counter-argument. Even if this discussion is upsetting or distressing. I might –or not – be proud of my Dad's military career but if we were to go to Anzac Day together I'd still be in the crowd that was protesting.

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About the Author

Catriona Elder is Chair of the University of Sydney'ss Department of Sociology and Social Policy and has a research focus of 20th century Australian cultural identity. She is the author of Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2007.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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