Anzac Day and why we need to question ‘myths’ of war
“Good morning, good morning,” the editor said
When we met him last week to work out the line
Now the bits he commissioned read as half-dead
And we’re cursing his pages for wasting our time
“He’s passionately interested in national identity,” said Harry to Fred
As they called to the bar for another cheap red.
But he did for them both with his Anzac op-ed
— with apologies to Siegfried Sassoon
So once again we slog up the hill, shouldering the usual baggage for the Anzac wars. The papers opened the batting yesterday, with a tub-thumping peace by Jim Marett, president of the Vietnam Tunnel Rats Association, in the Hun, and the premiere of Beaconsfield on the Nine Network, a piece of drama so bad it managed to make a mining disaster and rescue boring.
The coincidental timing of the 2006 Beaconsfield disaster — it occurred on Anzac Day, the cave-in at the Tasmanian gold mine occurring due to the effects of mining activity on seismic shifting in the area — gave the network and the culture a chance to conflate the mateship of being two miners trapped in a hole for 15 days with the Anzac mateship myth.
Yesterday the debate had gone meta, with Tim Soutphommasane in The Age, digging out a few lines from a 2010 Veterans Affairs report that worried over the impact of the hundredth anniversary of Gallipoli on multicultural relations, and comes up with a formula for commemorating Anzac Day which appears to achieve harmony by removing all content from the day whatsoever — no war, no Australian ethnos, nothing except the day as a “touchstone of mateship”.
Soutphommasane’s take is designed as one that can fit Anzac into his ideal of a progressive patriotism — he has toned down his language somewhat from the book of the same name, where he suggested that the day should be seen as “an ecstatic myth” of mateship, to be put beyond question by crtical minds — but Labor’s use of the day is probably closer to Marett’s “tunnel rat” take, where Anzac starts out as a commemoration of the devotion of soldiers to each other, and ends as some addled notion that each war we have been involved in was some sort of fight for freedom.
Labor needs to hew to this decidedly unprogressive nationalist line in this day and age for one reason alone — Afghanistan, and the desperate need to confer meaning on a meaningless conflict, being run by a government of old student lefties, who would not have ventured near military service in a million years. Thirty Australian troops have been killed in Afghanistan, another 50 or so seriously wounded, there will be another 50 to 100 or so seriously f-cked up by the experience.
These are wasted lives, pointless deaths of young men who could have filled the next 70 years of existence with spouses, children, careers, and 20,000 sunrises. Perhaps it is a terrible thing for the relatives of the dead to hear that — but it is worse still to continue a war simply to double-down on your losses, and give those deaths some retroactive meaning. The only thing more wicked than such a policy is the one Labor is now pursuing — staying committed to a fake war to limit the Right’s ability to criticise it on foreign affairs grounds (lest it look unpatriotic). The front they are defending runs through the swing seats, not the AfPak border.
But when was it ever otherwise? We were pitched into the First World War, not merely out of unquestioning imperial duty, nor out of racial fealty, but also as a confected nation-building exercise. Billy Hughes, the little grave-digger, was quite clear on this — a nation, federated from six states, and existing as a dominion (at the time Australia had no independent diplomatic missions, and most national activity still occurred under the Union Jack) would never find an identity until blood had been spilt, in its own name, and in copious amounts.
Gallipoli served perfectly — and in a weird way it continues to serve for the empty zen patriotism of a Soutphommasane as much as for the “meaningful sacrifice” school of Jim Marett. The Ottoman Empire was pitched into the war by a cabal of German financiers, young Turkish nationalists, Marxist and Zionist agitators. All except the Turks did so on the belief that the conflict would destroy the empire, allowing for either revolution (the Marxists) or a Middle East carve-up by Western powers. Even in the framework of the First World War it was pointless — the US when it joined the war in 1917 never declared war on the Ottoman Empire, seeing no need to. Our whole encounter was a double fatuity.
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