The ANZAC story is inadequate as the basis for of a national identity

Apr 24, 2022
Australia Anzac hat
I do not share the Prime Ministers view that no person wearing an Australian soldier’s uniform has ever died in vain. Image: Pixabay

Anzac Day is upon us and there’ll be the usual effort to promote the notion that participation in WW1 is the basis of our national identity. I have serious problems with this concept.

Born years after WW1 ended it was a disaster for me and it didn’t do our nation much good either. Historians are exposing the unsavoury motivations behind WW1 and the lies told to encourage men to enlist but our government fiercely resists any attempt to undermine ANZAC Day as ‘our most ‘sacred day’ .

My father was an ANZAC who died from war injuries when I was seven. Evacuated from Lone Pine to a Cairo hospital with typhoid fever he was ill for months. His doctors insisted this was the cause of his damaged his heart.

I only knew my father as a sick man. I remember being woken in the dead of night by the cries of his nightmares. He spent a great deal of time in bed at home and in hospital. I remember my many visits to the Caulfield Repatriation Hospital with its wards full of war damaged men.

Despite constant petitioning, the Department of Repatriation refused to accept Dad’s illness was war service related. For years my family’s income was five shillings a week – the welfare payment available during the Depression. We survived because of the resourcefulness of my mother and the generosity of the extended family. Fortunately new medical evidence emerged and Dad was awarded a Total & Permanent Invalid pension. He died a year later in March 1938.

My most indelible memory of my father is of his body lying in our living room. How could I ever forget standing beside that coffin looking at that body. Dad but not Dad. Next day I stood with my weeping mother and my solemn sister and brother watching his coffin being lowered into the grave and I can still hear the thud of the handfuls of earth we threw on to his coffin. I came to known that cemetery very well. For years it was a Sunday ritual to visit Dad’s grave.

After Dad’s death we moved to Victory Square, the Prahran District’s war memorial. Sixteen houses rented to war widows for a shilling a week. Living there was a constant reminder of the dreadful toll exacted by WW1. Stories of widows raising their children with very little money doesn’t grab the attention like stories of ‘do daring’ on the battle field but those women were also courageous. It was just a different kind of courage. If mateship means unconditional support for one another when things are tough then those women were its embodiment.

I do not share the Prime Ministers view that no person wearing an Australian soldier’s uniform has ever died in vain. WW1 was about the lust for power of a few elite men on the far side of the world. Lives were sacrificed for no good reason. If WW1 brought our fledgling confederation together as a nation I suspect it was shared grief as much as pride in the fighting prowess of our soldiers.

The role of women during that conflict and its aftermath is mostly ignored. Search on line and you will uniformly read that Australian women made little contribution to the WW1 war effort. I ask myself with 38.7% of the male population aged 18 to 44 in the defence forces how did the country keep going? Surely women played a significant role filling the many gaps.

Burdened with a huge war debt and the loss of 62,000 men in the prime of life the nation was in very bad shape following WW1. Many soldiers returned with severe physical injuries and many more with ‘ shell shock’ i.e. PTSD, an illness not then recognised. Self-sacrifice was asked of all the women (mothers, sisters and wives) whose men came home in need of care. Over 3000 men returned with TB and the disease spread rapidly. For years there was little infrastructure to deal with this potentially deadly infection. It was up to a family’s women to care for those who fell ill. When, in 1929, the Great Depression struck there were not the resources to cushion its impact. Many people faced years of poverty.

Little mention is now made of the two, very divisive conscription referendums or how they significantly increased discrimination against Irish Catholics. One of that mob I lived with that. It was toxic and lasted until well after WW2. There were no anti-discrimination laws offering some redress.

The impact of WW1 did not cease on November 11, 1918. The years of hardship that followed are as much a part of the story as the Gallipoli campaign or the fighting on the Western front.

In the last few decades successive governments have spent vast sums of money memorialising WW1. Once a very solemn day of national mourning, April 25 now feels like a celebration of our performance in war. The digger is held up as the pinnacle of what it is to be an Australian, the person we should most admire.

As a foundation story it is very limited and very blokie. It ignores the contribution of so many who were not soldiers and as a women I do not identify with the digger role model. And this constant eulogising of warrior men reinforces a culture in which many men have an outrageous sense of superiority and privilege including the right to control and abuse women.

This focus on our performance in war blocks out a very admirable part of Australia’s history. Before WW1 we were regarded like Scandinavia is today We had an international reputation for social and political innovation (the eight hour day, the concept of a living wage and a gold standard electoral system). When, in our 1901 constitution, women were given right to vote and, uniquely, the right to stand for election the world was amazed and eager to learn how this had been achieved. Australian feminists leaders became international superstars packing auditoriums where ever they spoke in the UK and the USA. We are in a time when the ability to think laterally and to experiment with new ways of living is vital so its these forebears we should be promoting as role models.

Women were part of the fight for justice on the goldfields and shaped the 1901 constitution. During the 70’s feminist revolution they achieved many significant changes to our society. And women are still fighting for equality and social change. Apart from the role women have played as change agents, they play a fundamental role in ensuring the nation survives by bearing and rearing of children and by caring for the nation’s sick and elderly. Ignoring the role women have played in shaping our nation supports the continuing undervaluing of women’s work.

The ANZACs have a place in our national story but it’s an extraordinary distortion of the truth to claim that blokes fighting wars in distant lands are the people primarily responsible for the creation of our national identity, of making us who we are as Australians. It does not provide a role model appropriate for the majority of citizens in our very diverse population. And I for one do not want war at the heart of who we are as a nation. Our First Nations people rightly point out we will never truly reach our potential until they are integrated into our national story. They are not the only ones left out. I hope that the digger myth is not so entrenched that we are unable to fashion a more truthful, more inclusive and multifaceted story of what has gone into creating the unique nation that is Australia.

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