Lest We Forget – A Very Unaustralian Anzac Post

24 Apr

I vacillated on whether to post this today. Or at all, but I’ve needed to say this publicly for a whole year, so here goes. Exactly one year ago, on Anzac Day 2012, I was involved in a Facebook debate with a man I’ve never met, a friend of an old friend of mine. The conversation is repeated below, with my friend’s name changed to “Rob’s mate” and his friend’s name changed to “Digger”. Both men served in the Australian Army Reserve. It’s a Facebook discussion, so please lower your expectations when it comes to intellectual rigour and/or punctuation.

Uluru - a big, incredible sacred rock in the middle of the de

Rob’s mate (status): What ever you do today please spare a moment to remember those service men and women who died for us, those that served and those that are still serving today. These people are not the ones that start wars, just are prepared to give themselves for others. Lest We Forget.

Rob: I will, but I will also spare a moment to remember the servicefolk who died for “the other side”. Some of us, many of us, descend from ancestors who would have fought against ‘us’. Let this holiday not become (or remain) an excuse for mindless patriotic fervour, but an honouring of ALL who have died in the meaningless (or meaningful, if you must) slaughter. Bless the troops. ALL the troops, on all sides.

Digger: Sorry Rob but you have missed the mark here……..

Rob: Hi [NAME], I might be swayed if you explained _how_ I’d missed the mark.

Digger: Sure. ANZAC day is about the Australian and New Zealand defence forces and the sacrifices they made for this country and NZ. Rememberance Day is for remembering everyone else from all side; soldier or civilian. ANZAC day is very specific. I say lets not forget or dilute that!!

Stuart's Desert Pea (not a pea at all, of course), Alice Spri

Rob: hi [NAME], thanks, I appreciate your argument and it makes sense. HOWEVER there are banners up all over Brisbane at least, official Anzac Day banners, that say “Remember all who served on Anzac Day”. Also this from the Australian War Memorial’s official website: “ANZAC Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day we remember all Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. ” Also note no mention of the poor old kiwis here. Once we extend it beyond the events of Anzac itself to a memorial of all who died from this country, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, beyond the parochial, not to extend it to ALL. Rememberance Day is not a national holiday. I don’t agree with raising the value of “our” citizens lives above the lives of others. But that’s just my opinion.

Digger: As we are all entitled to our opinion. Like I dont like politicians……. like some one who appolagises and then says BUT. You either agree or disagree – black or white – your choice!! I have the opinion that if you think someones opinion makes sense you then dont follow it with a HOWEVER which inticates you dont think the opinion has any sense what so ever. Like saying ‘with all due respect’ when in fact you have no respect at all.

Digger: Are you also saying that just because Rememberance day isn’t a national holiday it is of less importance????

Rob: I’m sorry to offend, [NAME], it was not my intention. Your argument makes sense IF the function of Anzac day is to remember Gallipolli. But the Australian War Memorial’s own site seems to suggest that is no longer what Anzac Day is about. That’s what I meant by your argument makes sense. Black and White, eh? I don’t happen to think life is black and white. I prefer to look for the varied colours of the rainbow. I believe in dialectics. That is, two apparently contradictory things can both be true, or both have value. I _do_ respect your opinion, because it seems well reasoned insofar as it goes. I choose to disagree with aspects of it. That doesn’t mean I refute the whole thing, or that I don’t respect your opinion. I don’t agree with your opinion that it’s a black and white matter.

Digger: I do believe in raising the value of Australian lives above that of others because I am PAROCHICAL and would fight for the citizens of this country and who we are. Would you???

KangaroosAtLonePine KangarooAtLonePine

Rob: No, [NAME], I would not “fight” in the sense of pick up a weapon and kill someone. I would and have advocated and argued for the rights of many of the citizens of this country. I’m not a politician. I’m also not a soldier. But I personally draw the line at the taking of human life, for ANY cause. That’s me.

Rob: As to Rememberance Day vs Anzac Day… I think that if one day of recognition is given official holiday status and another is not, yes that is implying the importance or value of one over the other, in the official view. But… heh heh… maybe it’s not that black and white, eh?

Digger: I think that some people forget what it means to care and forget to respect what other people believe in, like those that thought enough of their fellow Australians and the concepts of peace that they were prepared to fight for it as opposed to those who benefit from it in future years and cannot be bothered fighting for it.

Rob: I am not parochial. I am patriotic. But in the sense of patriotism advocated by folks like Ben Franklin and Tom Jefferson… a patriot has a duty to question what his government and country does.

Digger: Rob I hope you would fight to protect your own children if the need ever arose.

Rob: Again, depends what you mean by “fight” and what’s at stake. It’s a meaningless question without the specifics. Is someone about to kill my child? Or my friend? Or someone whose life I value? Would I then use preventative force? YES.

Rob:  But it’s the “us” and “them” mentality in the question that I am opposed to. Why my children? Why not someone else’s? All life has value, even that of my enemy. To me.

Digger: I believe that if you wont fight for it then it cant mean that much to your – your too selfish to risk what you have for others. Thats what communities are about. Peace and freedom are only valued when others have taken them from you. Conversations are great but unless your prepared to back them up hten the barbarians will ulitmately get you – no matter how sophisticated you are.

Kookabura in a tree Sulfer-crested cockatoos

Rob: Also, I can’t help wondering whether in your earlier comment you were specifically referring to me (whom you don’t know, nor do I you) when you spoke of ‘cannot be bothered fighting for it’. My decision to draw the line at the taking of human life has nothing to do with effort, with not being bothered. Those who know me will tell you that I have been known to fight pretty hard for what I believe in, sometimes at great personal sacrifice (though not, not yet the ‘ultimate’ sacrifice). Not being bothered doesn’t come into it.

Rob: Maybe we’re the barbarians

Digger: No – maybe I’m the barbarian!!!

Rob: “Peace and freedom are only valued when others have taken them from you” – I find a lot to agree with there. For sure. I work with prisoners. Also, during WWII, my people had their freedom taken away in this country. They were imprisoned for nothing more or less than having been born in Italy. No crime, no evidence required. So sometimes we are the barbarians.

Rob: Hi [NAME], sorry we’ve hijacked your status, but nice day for it, eh?

Rob’s mate: What ever you do today please spare a moment to remember those service men and women who died for us, those that served and those that are still serving today. These people are not the ones that start wars, just are prepared to give themselves for others. Lest We Forget.

Looks like a big slice of cake - King's Canyon DSCN0943

Reflecting on this conversation, I was even more convinced that Anzac Day, in its present form, has done its dash. It encourages us as a nation to consider ourselves superior to others, and to value our lives above those of others. When I think about the Anzac services at Gallipolli, I don’t feel proud, I feel a little ill, and somewhat in awe of Turkey for allowing it. Of course, Turkey lost that war, and the modern state of Turkey is not really a direct descendant of the Turkey of 1914. However, how would Australians feel if the Japanese decided to stage annual memorials in Darwin, to commemorate their failed attempt to invade this country? Parochial is what we are indeed. And I must say that the above exchange was the first time I have ever heard someone refer to themselves as parochial, and to use the word in a positive way.

The Anzac legend holds that Gallipolli was the place where our national identity was forged in the heat of battle. To the extent that this is true (more on that shortly), it’s an identity that excludes pretty much anyone not Anglo-Irish. Yes, there were indigenous men at Gallipolli, but they’re barely mentioned in the Anzac stories. And as for Australians descended from southern European, Asian, or African immigrants, we’re totally not welcome. But the worst thing about the Anzac legend is that it’s mostly baloney – a bunch of scared and disorganised Aussie kids blindly following the blunders of an aristocratic English leadership that didn’t value them or their lives at all. Is this really what our nation is founded on? We’re told that such values as mateship and courage in the face of adversity are peculiarly Australian, and that these stem from our experiences in World War I. The weird thing is that those qualities were present in the 1850s Gold Fields, at the Eureka Stockade, and at many earlier events. Furthermore, there’s nothing peculiarly or particularly Australian about those values.  If you ask people from just about any country on the planet what they believe their national character is, they’ll all tell you the same thing.

DSCN1163 9 foot tall termite mound

I won’t do a blow-by-blow knockdown of all the aspects of the Anzac myth, because this has been done time and time again – a good introduction is this Sydney Morning Herald article and references therein.

I stand by my original statements made a year ago, that I’d like to see a commemoration of the sacrifices and suffering of all who have fought in other people’s wars, regardless of which side they fought on. If Anzac Day cannot be that (and Australians seem rather disunited on what Anzac Day actually stands for), then let’s dump it as a public holiday and elevate Remembrance Day to that status.

Oh yeah, and the photos here are for any bloody idiot that somehow thinks all this means I don’t love this country.

DSCN0940

The final words go to Wilfred Owen, a British Captain in WWI and ‘notorious’ anti-war poet, killed in battle just one week before the war ended:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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12 Responses to “Lest We Forget – A Very Unaustralian Anzac Post”

  1. johnlhadden April 24, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    Mmm. Rob, thanks for waging peace. I know it’s not easy–the heart tightens–but so important to both hold the line–and do whatever possible to dissolve the needless divisions between us that are so useful to hegemonic(?) structures.

  2. obsessivelyblogging April 24, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    I’m marching as the a supervisor with my students today… Food for thought definitely. At the heart of my desire to march is respect because like you, I wouldn’t willingly sign up to become a murderer for my country. I will be marching with these thoughts in my mind today.

  3. Gareth April 24, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

    Hi Robert
    As I think back on the (very distant) memories of what I was taught about Australia as a child – the things I agreed with then and the ones I failed to understand at the time; the usual mythology of the culture of courage, mateship and loyalty (all, as you say, on display well before 1915 – what is the Ned Kelly myth built on, after all, if not precisely those qualities?); the idea of Australia as a “free” country, a “lucky” country, even a “multicultural” country; the idea of a country proud to be a part of a wider community of nations and of a country built on the labours of all – immigrant and indigenous – the peoples who made it what it was, and is – I find myself agreeing with your position, in all but one detail. There is nothing “unAustralian” at all about the sentiment and ideas to which you are giving voice, and it is entirely appropriate for an Australian, or a New Zealander, or, indeed, anyone else, to use the day to reflect on the horrors of war and its impact on all those whom it affects. Debates about the meaning, purpose or significance of Anzac Day are not new – I read The One Day of the Year at school, as did so many of my generation, although Eric Bogle summed it up best for me: “….. And the young people ask me, what are they marching for?, And I ask myself the same question…..”.
    So, to borrow a phrase, “with all due respect”, I would describe this as an entirely Australian Anzac post, and entirely in keeping with the spirit of the day.

  4. chrisdawson April 24, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    Have to agree with your conclusions Rob. Just last week my wife also mentioned the absurdity of the Japanese holding a similar commemoration at Darwin (her grandad was there when it was bombed). Nippon Nippon Nippon! Oi Oi Oi! They had the ANZAC thing at school yesterday (both my kids laid wreaths) and the principal gave a fine speech about remembering ALL who suffered. Then the RSL bloke spoke (former Nasho) and banged on about the ‘menacing Turks’! My son, aged 10, said a little bit too loudly ‘but weren’t we invading their country?’ but the speaker never heard (unfortunately). He then launched into a long bitter rant about index-linking pensions that had the prep kids rivetted, I’m sure. Idiot. The invasion aspect is an inconvenient truth, and I’m amazed the Turks put up with the annual nationalist rally on their shores.

    I’d like to think there will be some point when this day is done. Behind the sombre veneer it is an increasingly garish celebration of a mythical national character. I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘national character’ anyway, but the sight of wealthy whingers and refugee-haters espousing the ‘ANZAC spirit’ is absurd. When we have National Servicemen whinging long and hard to 5-year-olds about their pension, it’s time to move on.

  5. Caitlin April 24, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    The movie, Gallipoli, taught me that boys of Australia were used as objects of slaughter by the English. So for a long time as I grew up that is what ANZAC day was about for me. I didn’t blame the Turkish who shot them, I blamed the English for sending them in. So ANZAC day was a day to be mad at the English for devaluing Australians. Seriously.
    Now that I’m older, I think more like you, Rob. On this day I just feel sad for all of them…
    When one of us dies we, as a community, lose that piece of insight and unique perspective that was all a part of that person. We lose all their stories, that will always be unique to them, and all the potential they have. When we lose so many people before their time at once, the loss of stories and potential is horrific. I think that is a fact that applies to all countries and cultures.
    Also, are you sure Digger knew what ‘parochial’ means? Maybe he got it confused with ‘patriarchal’? I’m being serious – I think he made a mistake.
    Anyway, I am proud of you for arguing for the side of the rainbow (and the grey.)

  6. Amanda April 24, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    Well said. From the descendent of a white autstralia policy endorsed refugee whose grandfather would be considered a war criminal. And the mother of a child who removes himself from school on anzac day memorial day.

  7. P April 24, 2013 at 11:59 pm #

    I’ll be honest, the whole concept of one country waging war on another is almost otherworldly to me – I just cannot fathom the logic behind widespread death and destruction being the answer to any problem; a prime example being the so-called war on terror, and the mentality that fighting death and destruction with death and destruction will somehow work things out. I think there are a LOT of economic and political principles of war that go way beyond this particular discussion.

    However, I do think a very peculiar point was missed about the other side automatically being referred to and denigrated as ‘barbarians’. Horrific and inhumane acts of violence are committed in war – on BOTH sides. I respect that. There are, equally, victims of this violence on both sides. Why add insult to injury by refusing to let go of this blind hatred to those that OUR people killed and injured and destroyed the lives of? As long as this blind, racist, superior and, yes, parochial perspective of what it means to be an “Australian” prevails in the mind of the average Aussie, we can never hope to move beyond the wars of the last century or the history that long preceded it.

    If we, as is preached incessantly by our national representatives to the global community, truly wish to take our place within that global community, then actions need to follow words. This doesn’t mean abolishing ANZAC Day – in fact, quite the opposite, it SHOULD make its meaning far stronger. Remembering and respecting those who died in the wars is all well and good, but if you are spitting on what they died for by refusing to move forward in global relations because of your own petty racist ignorance – and ‘your’ OBVIOUSLY being used here in a global sense, not towards any individual in this conversation and blatantly not yourself, Rob, just to make sure that’s not read into this final statement – then you may as well forget ANZAC Day, because you have clearly forgotten what those people died for.

    They did NOT fight for the right to be an Aussie and walk over inferior barbarians, so determined by their country of birth not being Australia or her allies. Sure, some individuals may have held that belief, just as some do today. But I believe that it was for PEACE with those countries and their people, who also died for exactly the same thing. Can you (again, purely universal you, not any particular individual here) genuinely say that you are honouring the ANZACs if you use their day of remembrance to promote nationalistic egoism and war-mongering? Perhaps I’ve missed the “meaning” of the day, but I would say that you are not.

  8. Rob Darvall April 25, 2013 at 6:04 am #

    For as long as I recall ANZAC day has been about remembering “a bunch of scared and disorganised Aussie kids blindly following the blunders of an aristocratic English leadership”. Yes there have been and are those who use the day for their own purposes, pick a commemoration & you’ll find them. Should that damn the day, whatever day it be, for evermore & everyone? Some of my earliest memories of ANZAC day are the stories of Australian units being recalled from their early effective penetration of the Turkish lines, of a desperate defense by a handful of under-prepared troops and police until reinforcements arrived (that was the Turkish side for those who don’t know), and generally a bungled & possibly unnecessary campaign, and indeed war.
    From my point of view, as one who has signed up to be a ‘murderer for my country’ and would do so again if I had my time over, (cf. ‘Air Sea Gap’ also WWII) we need ANZAC day precisely so that the bastards can never again proclaim the old lie with impunity.

  9. Renee C April 25, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    It’s strange – my immediate reticence about ANZAC day appears to come from observing which young people seem drawn to it. In my experience, the most fervent and overly reverent ANZAC day status updates on facebook are from the exact same people who are highly critical of anything I and others write about Indigenous issues. Coincidence?

    Your post is very helpful as it scratches beyond that surface reaction and really gets to the heart of why I am increasingly uncomfortable with what ANZAC day means today.

    Reading Owen’s poem at the end, made me well-up with tears. I still remember the first time I heard that poem read aloud. It was in 1999 in an auditorium at a Brisbane school we were visiting for an English excursion – I can still hear the man’s voice as he read, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”.

  10. Justin Di Lollo April 25, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    Thanks for posting this Rob. It’s vital that true patriots (those who deeply care for their country and the world) question these national institutions. I feel teary and sick every Anzac Day. I despair that a government could send the flower of its youth to kill and be killed in a battle over political matters against the flower of other country’s youth. War is the greatest tragedy in human history. We should be horrified every day (especially on Anzac day) that we allow this to happen. The Anzac day I recognise is one where we reflect on the horror of war and remember the legacy of those whose lives we sacrificed for so little and the families and communities destroyed by that loss – regardless of what “side” they were on. I see no place for the military, its guns and machines of death in this rememberance – it’s a purely civilian thing. I despair that in the last couple of decades conservative Australian governments (with their so-called “culture wars”) have encouraged jingoistic nationalism on this otherwise solemn day. The traditional “our glorious dead” is bad enough without the contemporary “it created our nation”, “it was the beginning of Australian mateship”, etc. Stand by for much more of this from an Abbott Government. Thanks again Rob for being always prepared to stick your head above the rampart in an iconoclastic way!

  11. Nick v April 26, 2013 at 2:37 am #

    My dad had cousins interred while his brother fought in the pacific. Nonna spent every anzac day wailing (as only an Italian mamma can) for the loss of one of her sons – nothing made in japan was ever bought by her. I teach kids here that are the ideal of cannon fodder for future conflicts. I teach those out of refugee camps in various parts of Africa, refugees children from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan – the post traumatically stressed either directly or indirectly.
    I just call it dead soldier day.
    Can’t bring myself to worship the historically marketed logos.

    I always ponder the reminiscences of my late wife’s grandfather – a ww1 vet who went through multiple trench warfare battles in France and Belgium.
    When he got home he recognized the organisers of many of the ceremonies to commemorate the war as those from logistical and support units. He never dissed them, but he didn’t march for about 20 years following his return.
    anyway

  12. Edith Schauble April 26, 2013 at 5:43 am #

    I am so grateful to have been able to read all the above – I thought I was the only one thinking very hard about Anzac day. Thank you all for your thoughts

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