“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.

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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.

From that absurdity, the myth of Anzac has salvaged two things — the myth of mateship, and more recently, a symmetrical notion of nation-building, given that Kemal Ataturk was the Turkish commander at Gallipoli, and used the disaster as a lever to throw off the Ottoman leaders once and for all. But neither bear too much examination. Mateship appears to have been forged as much in an Australian disdain for British objection to our troops’ propensity to commit war crimes against Arab populations. Much of what we construct as “stuffy” British reaction to our rough-and-ready boys was really General Allenby’s disgust at an army that looked on the mass killing of Arabs with such insouciance — a habit that was unquestionably a transfer of white attitudes to Aborigines, to a new indigenous population.

Nor does the Turkish-Australian bond come out squeaky clean either. Its hard not to be moved by Ataturk’s entreaty to the “mothers of Australia”, that ‘Johnny and Mohammed’ lie together on a Turkish beach, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that Ataturk’s nationalists went on to massacre and cleanse their own minority populations — Armenians in the East, Greeks in the West, in an attempt to create a Turkish ethnos that mirrors white Australia.

Now, in a country that has raised the postmodern problem of meaningless, decultured, post-religious existence to a world-standard level, we are disinterring Anzac — the politicians to shield themselves in the shrouds of young men, more naive, and possibly more simply decent, than professional politicians that have been playing the angles since they joined the ALP club in O-week, and a public desperate for some meaning — hence its lacing into Beaconsfield, an inept piece of drama, unwilling to explore the most interesting thing about the event, the bizarre media-political circus that erupted round the rescue, the deep-cut of elite cynicism that the disaster exposed.

The whole meaning drought has created the most distinctive recent phenomenon — people wearing the medals of long-dead relatives, men who, in many cases, they never knew, and whose views of those medals they have no sure knowledge of. The mere fact that the medals were kept indicates no certain view of them — naive patriotism and adventurism turned to revulsion and anti-war sentiment after the conflict, as people began to understand what they had been let in for.

Today, we should retain the same circumspection. It is a day for a dwindling number of soldiers to remember fallen comrades. To deny anyone that right would be less than human. To pile on it for other reasons — and to underwrite the wars of the future with the pointless ones of the past — is a travesty of what remains genuine at the heart of the day. Don’t march with someone else’s medals. They’re not yours, you didn’t earn them, and you might not feel so good about them if you had. Unpopular as it may be, we need to keep questioning the “ecstatic myths” of war in the hope that by doing so we may actually save some — Australian, Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian — lives to come, not those that have been.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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