The First World War left a huge amount of bereavement in Australia, and a day of remembrance and solidarity with the bereaved was highly appropriate in its aftermath. With the passage of time, this function has become less important, however, and I wish to question the current relevance of the commemoration, not wanting it to be an empty spectacle, or a celebration of war itself.
In initial solidarity with the bereaved, a selectively positive account of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli had been constructed, despite the loss of young lives. It was seen as an occasion when many ordinary, anonymous Australians participated bravely in a dramatic enterprise of international significance. Australians were ‘defending our freedom’, it was said, though it is hard to justify this description. Also that Australia ‘came of age’ in the Gallipoli campaign, forcing the mother country, England, to acknowledge our worth in our own right and not simply as a British colony. Also that our participation gained a reputation for Australians internationally as a distinct type, with particular characteristics and qualities. Many have since questioned the truth or the wisdom of any of this, yet these ideas have persisted as the version preferred and promoted by our politicians today.
The Gallipoli campaign represented an attack on another sovereign state, in fact, rather than a ‘defence of freedom’. It failed in its intent of taking possession of Turkish waterways, but that made no difference anyway to the progress of the war in Europe. It was followed by a war of conquest and territorial acquisition in the Middle East by Britain and France. Our troops were used recklessly by Britain, many now acknowledge, with much pointless loss of life, rather than that Australia was especially respected. Viewing the campaign as a ‘coming of age for young Australia’, is also likely to have been popular only in Australia, rather than in England, or any other country involved, where they had their own suffering and misgivings to deal with.
A distorted, selectively positive account may have been important to Australians at the time, and again after the Second World War. To those who had remained at home, to some of the bereaved, and to some returned servicemen, it may have provided comfort. For others, however, it may have increased their suffering. My father, for example, found such sentiments a painful mockery of his experiences as servicemen, as do others.
Since a period of serious questioning in the 1960’s , when ANZAC Day lost much of its popularity for a time, it has undergone a revival in the past two decades, both as a day of remembrance and reflection on young lives lost, and as an occasion for national pride. This has been one aspect of a general increase in expressions of nationalism and militarism in Australia, I think, meeting some popular needs perhaps, but also subverting others. Celebration of the myth is now encouraged by some politicians, for example, apparently as a means to gain favour with the electorate, and by some in the corporate world, apparently as a marketing strategy.
How authentic are these current expressions of sorrow and respect for the young men who died, if we fail to acknowledge the fear, anger, horror, and sense of betrayal they may have felt, as described by many, and as continues to be described by servicemen returning from current conflicts? Not at all if we pretend, for our own reasons, that they died gladly as a gift to us.
How authentic is the other traditional view of the ANZAC campaign as a declaration of a distinct Australia to be proud of? Not at all if we fail to acknowledge that our servicemen were lackeys of the British, meekly serving Britain’s expansionist ambitions at times, and that Britain went on to command our troops and to treat us, as a nation, with similar indifference in the Second World War, not informing our government where our troops were to be deployed, nor even when and why it suited Britain to surrender Singapore to the Japanese? Surely we had done much else to be proud of before Gallipoli, of greater worth to ourselves and the world, and have done much else to be proud of since.
And do we notice that we often take a similar role militarily nowadays, as American lackeys, serving American expansionist interests and calling it the ‘defence of our way of life’? Do we notice that our purchase of defence equipment is designed mainly to assist America in its military enterprises rather than geared to the defence of Australia?
So the commemoration of ANZAC Day can have good and bad consequences. On the one hand, it can be a contribution to our public life, encouraging honest reflection and support of rational debate, encouraging pride in how we may be seen by others, and also in our capacity for independent thought and action in international affairs. On the other hand, it can be an exercise in propaganda, encouraging mindless support for our participation in controversial contemporary wars, merely appealing to the irrational and emotive in the gullible and uninformed among us.
War is a way of getting people to do what we want by killing or injuring them or their loved ones, by destroying their property or infrastructure or means of livelihood, by making them homeless or depriving them of their liberty, or by torturing them. Those who perpetrate acts of war also risk their own lives, their physical and mental health, and their liberty. They also risk creating for their country new, or greater, enemies than it had before. These inhumane and destructive outcomes, and the personal and national risks, are justified under some circumstances, as when we, or our allies, are under direct organised attack, or threat of attack, that cannot be countered in any other way. But let’s not glorify war in any way, and let’s not support it as an act of revenge for an attack already suffered, or as a means to gain territory or commodities, or to eliminate competitors in trade and international influence, or to change regimes that do not cooperate with our aims.