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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.


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.


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

  1. Richard Scott

    This piece fairly spectacularly manages to miss the whole Iraq/Afghanistan thing, which has reinvigorated Anzac Day with not-insignificant number of new veterans. Guy may have blinkered himself to the bravery of these men and women, but VCs don’t get handed out willy-nilly. And, regardless of the rights and wrongs of being involved in either conflict, the public seems to want to support the folks in uniform.

    It’s also a stretch to say that ADF larrikinism was merely anti-aboriginal bias translated into the local Arab population. I was struck recently when diving into some Kipling writing on the Boer War by his casual description (fictional, but with the ring of transplanted reporting) of Australian troops massacring Boer farmers. And I remember reading that the Germans were very keen to surrender to someone other than Australians. Perhaps it would be fairer to just say that ANZACs were largely hard men of their times…

  2. Yclept

    Excellent piece Guy!

  3. Bo Gainsbourg

    Interesting. I always thought the Keating Kokoda thing was twofold, trying to get focus off Britain and towards the home front fight (more important for Australia) in WW2 as well as sending a clear message to the Indonesians that invading PNG would bring an Australian response, unlike the East Timor invasion. Nevertheless war imagery is strong and will always be used successfully by canny politicians. As an infamous German once said…sad that we fall for it so repeatedly.

  4. paddy

    Thanks Guy.
    Well worth a read as usual.

  5. zut alors

    ‘What they would think about people three generations down wearing their medals…’

    Worth pondering at length, possibly they’d be bemused. I’ve become conflicted about Anzac Day & prefer to pay quiet homage on 11 November.

    A terrific piece, Guy.

  6. klewso

    There have been too many wars the flower of our youth have been asked to pay too high a price for, and been placed in harms way, for the sake of politician’s self-gratification.

  7. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    I watched Abbot the other day talking at some Monash Scholarship thing and he was saying that ‘the Western Front was a Victory’ and I realised that he just doesn’t get it. A victory for who I wonder given the carnage on both sides, a victory for what?

  8. Venise Alstergren

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

    Perhaps this is because hard right wing governments (e.g. John Howard) seize on the chance to seem at one with the ‘good old mates that died.’ After all nothing is more guaranteed to produce photo ops than a PM mourning our great and glorious dead.

    Of course the right wing shock jocks pump out the pro war drivel better than anyone. This morning I started the car only to hear Neil Mitchell (3AW Melbourne) throwing a fainting spell because a female journo, (I think,) had had the temerity to see the ANZAC day march as something far less than in the majestic terms Mitchell was using. One could almost see the face becoming red and his wattles jiggling up and down.

    For the past week the media has dredged up every sickening detail and the poor school kids are being frog marched into shrines in order to leave flowers everywhere. What a waste of flowers. The recipient never gets to see them, they die very quickly and they mean nothing.

    I daresay the visit of the royals had been planned to the nth degree to almost coincide with ANZAC day.

    No wonder Australians still have abundant chips on each shoulder re the English. The English pour buckets of scorn over Australians. And we blindly lap it up. We have no shame.

  9. dke

    Good article Guy.
    I remember those anti-War ANZAC day protests well, including a performance piece by Jon Deeble who draped himself in plaster of paris on a footpath outside an RSL with a poppy in one hand and a bottle in the other. As he emerged from the sculpture – “Another Fallen Soldier” – he was arrested.
    I think you have addressed Mr Scott’s concerns (above) with your fleeting reference to Long Tan. Australia continues to unnecessarily involve itself in wars around the world. There men at times act bravely and get medals. Wouldn’t we all be better off if they stayed home and put their good energy into something more positive?
    I’m going for a bike ride in the bush with a few mates at dawn tomorrow.

  10. AR

    Sez it all really, “regardless of the rights and wrongs of being involved. My country right or wrong, better dead than re(a)d,dulce decorum ad nauseam.

  11. Uncle Mareko

    As you say, the establishment of ANZAC was planned. But it wasn’t devised as a national bonding device. It was the result of one.
    It is unlikely that “there may have been no real sense of an independent country – actually it was two countries – in 1914” but to assert it was designed as a national bonding device ignores the reality of that time in our history.
    After almost 40 years of struggling to agree between each other to create what became two new nations, there was an extremely tight bond already among the seven colonies. So tight that even though one of them decided against becoming part of Australia, it too participated under its own flag.
    That Gallipoli was a lethal and pointless campaign does not of itself make it special – there are numerous such campaigns in war. Most have been forgotten. What makes Gallipoli special is that the Australian and New Zealand who fought there did so as nations – dominions if you like, but nations nonetheless – for the first time.
    The narrative is more national that heroic. It is significant that in the aftermath of war’s carnage, every city, town and hamlet of both nations made an effort to erect memorials to their sons who served and died.
    Many of us will attend them this year, as we do every year.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. Elvis

    And the young people ask, ‘What are they marching for?’
    And I ask meself the same question…

  15. Graeski

    I found this quote from Ted Matthews, the last surviving member of the original ANZAC landing at Gallipoli:

    “The whole point of ANZAC Day has been lost,” he said on the eve of last ANZAC Day. “It’s not for old diggers to remember, it’s for survivors to warn the young about the dangers of romanticising war.”

    Here’s the link:


  16. Kfix

    Lest we remember indeed. Wonderful writing.

  17. Gavin Moodie

    But why do the young pay any attention to anzac day? Why do they drape themselves in the Australian flag which Australians didn’t even fight under in WWI? Oh, for a national football team that could divert fanaticism away from nationalism and religion – militaristic both!

  18. klewso

    Was the reality like the one we see in movies that glorify it – or the sort elicited by the words of the likes of Eric Bogle (The Gift of Years; The Green Fields of France; The Band Played Waltzing Matilda)?

    In this compensation, let’s remember their sacrifices, placed in circumstances beyond their control (to satisfy clueless politicians), with due respect by all means – not glorify it.

  19. prodigy

    The dawn service at Villers Bretoneaux this morning was, to me, a wasted opportunity. Wonderful weather and audio visuals, it was really about a feel-good occasion for Aust & French politicians and senior military figures presenting the usual lectures.
    Thousands of ‘ordinary’ Australians attended. A wasted opportunity to get the stories of these ordinary folk (who are left standing in the cold to allow the VIP fleets to disappear).
    I felt really sad. I would have preferred to hear from and support those who were quietly grieving or moved to attend.

  20. Waste of Time

    On the news this morning yesterday was described as having been “celebrated in fine style”. Says it all really.

  21. zut alors

    They’ll be ‘celebrating’ to the hilt next year. While our nation is in the current alleged economic ‘crisis’ Abbott & Co have allocated $300M to the centenary of Gallipoli. Meantime they intended pruning a piddly allocation to children of veterans, a programme costing an insignificant $266K per annum, small change in any budget.

    Two sets of values…or perhaps no values at all.

  22. Kinkajou

    All just a rich part of the recolonisation.won’thurt a bit did it?

  23. prodigy

    The AM after numerous celebrations on the Somme, with Julie Bishop et al strutting their stuff. I attended a BBQ with aussie travellers last evening & the feeling was generally one of disappointment, of a missed opportunity. ‘Fine style’, yes, but for what purpose and at what cost? The focus should be on individuals, families and communities. Let’s hear their stories.

  24. whatnext

    Thank you Guy for your interesting article. In a simpler vein I remember the words of my father, a WW2 veteran who chose not to march. “War is a mug’s game but we went and we fought the bloody thing. We did that so that every bloody Australian could say what they bloody liked. We’d have wasted our time if the ones that came home couldn’t remember the poor buggers who died in any way they want. Me? I like to watch the march on TV and have a quiet beer and a quiet cry!”

  25. Rortydog

    Wearing your great grandfather’s medals is simply to prove you’re not a wog.

  26. 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.

  27. Drew Blue

    “But in his estate shall he honour the God of forces ( War ) and a god whom his fathers knew not shall he honour with gold, and silver, and with precious stones ”

    If that’s not good enough then how about Eric Burden.

    “looks up at the sky pilot and says, thou shall not kill.”

  28. Handy John

    Ah yes. Eric Burden and the Animals. I think it goes “looks up at the sky pilot and REMEMBERS thou shall not kill.”

    Sorry to be a nit-picker, Drew.

  29. katas

    Very sad about the hijacking of our simple sincere commemoration of our fallen service men and women. It is being turned into a circus for political and commercial self promotion. Plus the rude and intemperate rubbishing of Tasmania’s Governor’s thoughtful comments on the day by Andrew Nikolic has made many very angry. Thought our defence forces fought for the goal of peace. Apology required.

  30. Venise Alstergren

    We used to live next door to a man who was sent to Ipoh (Malaysia) on one day and the very next day he became a guest of the Greater Eastern Co-prosperity Sphere aka The Japanese. on the Burma Railway. I pass on a couple of his comments.

    On ANZAC day: “This is nothing more than a collection of old fools marching to celebrate what the RSL and the politicians want them to celebrate.”

    On who was morally inferior, the Japanese or the Germans. “The Germans of course, they were supposed to have been brought up with the same sort of beliefs as ourselves.”

    Did this man ever go to an ANZAC day parade? Not to my knowledge. “I’ve always thought the men who had gone through the greatest hell were the ones who didn’t boast, about it, or celebrate it.”

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