I was in New York during May last year. At the end of the month, there was a public holiday. It was their Remembrance Day. Not that much happened in New York. There were no flags, no marches or processions. Apparently, it is a tradition for a naval ship to come into port for the occasion and there were a few white uniforms in the crowds of tourists. On Third Avenue, a woman rushed up to a sailor who was just in front of me and declared in a loud Manhattan voice that she greatly appreciated his service. But I was more interested in the experience of my ten-year-old grand-daughter who was in a junior public school. I asked her what the holiday was for. She had no idea. I asked her if she had any discussion in class about Remembrance Day and she said that no one had said anything about it. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the weekly debates that she and her class engaged in dealing with every aspect of contemporary politics in a way which would have been out of the question for my Tasmanian grand-daughter who was about the same age.When it came to Anzac Day it was quite a different story. Politics was eschewed in Tasmania’s junior classroom but by the middle of primary school the children had been thoroughly inducted into the official version of the central importance of the day. I was somewhat taken aback several years ago when my grand-daughter rushed out of her grade three classroom declaring she wanted to be an Anzac girl.
But for all the differences Anzac Day is our memorial day. At its heart is the lament for all the Australians who have died in our overseas wars. This is as it should be. Few people would have it any other way. The symbolism and the emotional charge are about sacrifice and the loss of young lives. But the rhetoric goes much beyond our respect for the dead. The whole day in encumbered with layers of interpretation relating to the nation and to war itself which are much more questionable but which draw their cogency from the solemnity of the occasion. It appears that the sacrifice has sanctified a specific and highly partial interpretation of history. Partisanship comes disguised as patriotism. Scepticism is construed as sacrilege.
The Americans have numerous other national holidays to place beside Memorial Day. Columbus Day and Thanksgiving serve the same purpose as our Australia Day. George Washington Day and Martin Luther King Day commemorate great political careers. Above all, of course, is July 4th Independence Day. Australia’s problem is that we don’t have such an occasion, unlike almost all the modern nations detached from the great empires. Our decolonization is incomplete even now. And so Anzac Day is called upon to make up the deficiency. And do much else as well especially among children of the present generation. To do so requires the distortion and the militarisation of our national history.
The most common assertion is that the Anzac landing made Australia a nation; that the young men died so we could be free. There is little attempt to put the assault on the Ottoman Empire in its historical context, that the principal beneficiary of a successful venture would have been Czarist Russia which would have achieved geo-political objectives denied to them by Britain and France for much of the C19th. How can we in all seriousness choose this as marking the birth of the nation let alone suggest that the young victims died to make us free? And yet children are taught this all over the country. An alternative view would be that the Anzacs were not fighting for Australia but for the Empire….or as many memorials have it for God, King and Empire…that the true patriots were those who stayed at home to help develop the nation, to raise and nurture the next generation. But the rhetoric stands like a barbed wire entanglement preventing us asking the really important questions. Whatever did Australia gain by its Middle-Eastern adventures? How was it worth the very sacrifices we commemorate? Would Australia have been a better place if we hadn’t plunged into war in 1914? That our ongoing embrace of the British Empire after 1901was disastrous?
There other serious qualifications which arise from the assertion that Australia was born on the beaches of the Dardanelles. It is surely an odd view that such an important development took place on the other side of the world? How could that possibly be? But it also greatly diminishes the nation building work of tens of thousands of men and women in all parts of the country who established the industries, founded the institutions, wrote the books, raised and taught the children. Australia in 1913 was one of the most successful societies in the world and perhaps the most democratic. Whatever did the young Anzacs do to add to this?
It seems the answer to many such questions is that contemporary Australia still draws on the public discourse and popular rhetoric of the late C19th and early C20th that nations are made in war, that they are tested in the heat of battle and emerge purified and burnished by the experience. They were ideas that died on the Western Front. A few countries persisted with them notably Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. But it is surely a sinister and dangerous doctrine to be lodged at the centre of the nation’s most enduring myth.
Henry Reynolds co-authored with Marilyn Lake What’s Wrong With Anzac in 2010.