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.

Peter Fray

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