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Apr 24, 2014

Anzac Day's disjuncture from the bloody failure it represents

At least the women who protested against Anzac Day in the 1970s and '80s had a real cause. Lest we forget what the remembrance of a bloody failure has become today.

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They launched themselves across no-man’s land in the early dawn, never expecting they would make it, but determined to make their mark, to serve a higher cause … I speak of course of the black-skivvied foot soldiers of WAR Women Against Rape, who conducted, amazingly, a few charges against the Anzac Day march in the late 1970s and early ’80s. They argued that the march did not recognise the single greatest casualty of 20th-century war, the civilian, and that war was essentially a male activity — whose least recognised victims were the women raped and murdered in the invading armies’ path.

God knows what would happen if anyone tried that stunt today. Charged under anti-terrorism laws I suspect, if they were not set upon by an enraged crowd. The WAR protests occurred at a time when second-wave feminism was still relatively unified, had a cultural-political presence and was not yet divided by the issue of whether you could legitimately shop for fancy shoes. But everyone assumed that Anzac Day would die with the actual veterans marching in it. No one imagined that people would take up medals of forefathers one, two, or three generations distant, or that the event would start to be commemorated at the Gelibolu peninsula in Turkey, and laced into some sort of mixed pilgrimage-backpacker trek, which usually, ironically, ends at Oktoberfest.

But how could that have been anticipated?

Right from the start Anzac Day resisted attempts to draw it back into a narrative of national heroism. Though it had originally been drawn into the idea of Empire Day, it never acquired the triumphal quality of July 4, Bastille Day, coronations or the like. Even when it acquired a world war — the Second — that had real meaning and a sense of ethical national purpose, it could not escape its contradictory origins. The Korean War was forgotten, and the moral turpitude of the Vietnam conflict completed the circle.

Whatever purpose it served in cementing a notion of Australianness, grounded in “mateship”, it failed to become the heroic, outward-looking ceremony that its planners had hoped for it.

Planned it undoubtably was. The curious thing about Gallipoli and Anzac was that it was designed as a national bonding device all along. There was no question but that Australia would be involved in the war once Britain joined it — we were in no real sense an independent country in 1914 — but Billy Hughes, who would become prime minister in 1915, insisted that we be front and centre, not out of any strategic imperative but for the sealing impact that a “blood sacrifice” would have. Nations could only be born in war and death, and spilling blood would effectively create an Australian “race” — a unity out of the six colonies soldered together as a dominion.

Gallipoli and Anzac was that most amazing event — a lethal and pointless campaign that would serve as a pretext for the ceremony that would commemorate it. That the campaign was pointless in the larger scheme of things goes without saying. The idea that World War I was some sort of crusade against German militarism has gained great currency lately. The more reasonable argument would be that Germany was trying to dominate Europe, while the British empire was trying to encircle them and choke them off, in alliance with France and Russia. But even if you gave some credence to the anti-German argument, the decision to attack the Ottoman Empire has not a jot of moral character.

The “Young Turks” running the Ottoman Empire had been persuaded that joining the war would be in their interest in creating a modern state — at least half those doing the persuading (such as the mercurial Marxist millionaire Parvus) were doing it on the basis that the war would break the empire up altogether. So were the British — Churchill having switched the British navy to petrol from coal (and been rewarded with shares in the forerunner of BP), the emerging Caucasian and emerging Middle Eastern oilfields were vital to its interests, not to mention the Suez canal and the route to India. The United States joined the war in 1917, in response to German attacks in civilian shipping; it saw no need to declare war against the Turks, and never did.

“Anzac Day was founded on a double absurdity, at the heart of a series of imperial power struggles.”

The entire attack had not even the vestige of a moral angle. And the argument that it was somehow a defence of Australia’s interests assumes that those interests were not only imperial in nature, but fully justified — something that many of the soldiers at Anzac Cove, trade unionists and socialists, would have had no agreement with. (Nick Cater, in a piece that projects pro-war values onto a population that shows no indication of subscribing to them, manages to write 800 words on the Anzacs without mentioning that the Turks were actually involved). Anzac Day was founded on a double absurdity, at the heart of a series of imperial power struggles.

That has been the source of its residual strength. When Paul Keating tried to switch nationalism over to the celebration of an event — Kokoda — that had all that anyone could want from a celebration of nationhood, it failed utterly. Indeed, Kokoda seems even less fixed in the national imagination than it was a decade ago — possibly because it was a life-or-death struggle, with a racial dimension. The Turks we fought against at Gallipoli are not so much forgiven as unknown — as an adversary they have no character, no image. There is no spine of logic that connects Gallipoli to Kokoda to Long Tan, in a way that connects Lexington with Gettysburg, much as anyone would want it to.

So it was not unusual but inevitable that Anzac Day would really take off only when the last people who had any real involvement with it had died — and when many of the veterans of the next big war were gone, too. Though military celebrations usually serve as the recruiting sergeant for the next war, Anzac doesn’t seem to flow through to actual military commitment — much less an actual desire to enlist. It mourns an object it cannot specify, which is root cause of melancholia. Even the thematisation of “mateship” has been undermined by the rise of a more gender-mixed society, a deindustrialised economy and the atomisation of relationships in a more complex world.

What appears to have fallen out of the mix is the very thing that Billy Hughes, the little gravedigger, wanted kept in — the seal of blood. As World War I has receded in the visceral memory, so too has the mammoth slaughter at the centre of it. The phalanx of right-wing pundits who want to argue for a kernel of moral sense at the heart of the war — including now, apparently, Greg Sheridan, who wants to be reincarnated as a Joint Strike Fighter; satire is dead, too — have to simply remove the idea that the event, at its bloody core, was not simply a giant crime against humanity, whose participants could have made different, less lethal decisions along the way (even that oaf Niall Ferguson now argues that the British Empire could have stayed out of the war, and withdrawn from it at several stages along the way).

Central to that conception is the idea that men, our men, were noble and died stoically, laconically — that they saw a sense in their own deaths. We can be pretty sure that the former was not true — much of the Australian forces’ reputation for “larrikinism” was really gained from their appalling treatment of local Arab populations, unquestionably a transfer of anti-Aboriginal racism. And we can be reasonably sure, from every record of violent combat, that they died as men often die, shitting their pants and crying for their mothers. What they would think about people three generations down wearing their medals cannot be known, but we can be reasonably sure that there is a total disjuncture between the event itself and the ceremony that has survived it.

The strange thing about the WAR protests was that they accorded as much meaning to the event as their opponents chose to. No such protest could be done today, because there is nothing concrete that it would be protesting against, save for a vague unspecified feeling of the hallowed.

Lest we remember.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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30 thoughts on “Anzac Day’s disjuncture from the bloody failure it represents

  1. Ingle Knight

    I would love to see Women against Rape have another crack at it again next year. And to add to their list of victims to be remembered, the long-suffering wives whose husbands brought their traumatic memories home with them.

    To be fair to Churchill, his logic was that, with the fall of Constantinople, the allies could open a second front in the south and break the deadlock on the Western front. But, mainly as a consequence of racism and wishful thinking, he and Kitchener underestimated “the unspeakable Turk”.
    So, whoopee, we get a public holiday.

    As his troopship headed for Europe in November 1914, a 40-year-old dentist wrote in his diary: “At last, my life is finally beginning!” He wasn’t alone in that sentiment.
    Most of them went because life here was so damn boring. Later, in the foxholes, when they saw the real consequences of what they were doing, they claimed it was for “King and Country”. Either way, the poor fools were utterly deluded.

    Lest we forget, Little Billy tried twice to inflict conscription on the nation. That he failed twice indicates very clearly that support for the war wasn’t universal. Hundreds of thousands attended rallies against conscription. They won their fight (unlike the diggers) and in doing so saved the lives of many thousands of Australian sons who would otherwise have been sent. So perhaps they are the ones we should commemorate. And particularly John Curtin who was the driving force behind the anti-conscription campaign.

  2. Ken Lambert

    Guy has done his best again …to provoke, distort and insult…yet his best this time is a pretty shabby effort.

    I do remember vividly his heroes – the black skivvied WAR women snarling at old WW1 diggers in the twilight of their ANZAC day marches. You could find the footage somewhere in the ABC archive of one particular lady bailing up a mustachioed old boy and screaming at him about raping women presumably in France or at Gallipoli.

    The dignified old boy was shocked and speechless at the attack and could only protest something about the absurdity of the accusation and the impossibility of raping anyone in the stalemate of the trenches whether in France, Belgium or Turkey.

    I remember it well because it painted in bright colours the rabid lunacy of the feminist left when let loose on our streets in the early 1970’s.

    Ferguson an oaf? I’m sure he speaks well of you Guy.

    Winston a sly oil profiteer – or a far sighted decision maker converting the Royal Navy from coal to oil. Winston also ‘invented’ the tank in an attempt to break the stalemate and slaughter of attacking machine guns with men’s chests.

    We are all children of our times Guy. The Australian men and women of 1915 were simply patriotic and saw value in their 14 year old self-governing white dominion as part of the Empire upon which the sun never set.

    The current enthusiasm for ANZAC (and its inevitable cringeworthy kitch excesses) has grown as the WW1 generation has gone and the WW11 men and women mostly gone as living memory fades. No doubt the placing of all the WW1 records online since around 2004 has stimulated children and grandchildren to look up their veteran ancestor’s records, read the badly typewritten pages, be intensely moved by the terse messages of death and mutilation and the pathetic requests of mothers and fathers for information about their sons.

    What Guy has to ponder about the ANZAC generation is why 325000 men and women volunteered to go overseas from a population of little over 4 million. Nearly one in two of all men of military age left their jobs and families for greater reasons than falling for the little digger’s propaganda machine. Age should not weary them nor the likes of Guy condemn.

    You essay next time Guy, is to try explaining those greater reasons.

  3. warwick fry

    I am in Latin America – Central America to be precise – where the veterans of a ghastly civil war are ‘getting over it’. They do so with dignity, aplomb and a generosity of spirit that I have yet to see in Australian nationalists. Latin Americna countries all have their national days, usually constructed around Independence from the Spanish colonial rule. When asked if in Australia ‘is there something like this ?’ I have to say no. Then I have to explain that our ‘National Day’ with military parades to mark it, actually celebrates a magnificent defeat.

    A lot of headshaking ensues. But I stand by that as a uniquely Australian value. I agree with Guy that we should abolish the military parades and bullshit that goes with it. But I believe in the Dawn Service. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let us keep that. It is a moment of stillness where the tragedy of the warrior and the experience of the survivor meets. the humility and recognition, and the acquired wisdom of a defeat that nevertheless, on a personal level let human beings recognise each other as human beings. Australians should recognise the uniqueness of that experience, without the brass bands and the marches. At 4.00 am in the morning, the words ‘lest we forget’ … what idiots we were, what bonds were forged in that Pratt-manufactured exercised of insanity at the expense of normal human beings.

    Good piece Guy, but there is a seed of experience there, for the vets.

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