“They don’t care who fucks soft Helen”

— Christopher Logue, War Music (Illiad books 16-19)

Between an army chaplain, his black-n-white surplice beneath a light green uniform and phalanx of medals, a smart young man in a sharp suit from the Irish government, and a platinum blonde fashion plate from the Turkish embassy, Australian ambassador Ruth Adler rose to address the Dublin Anzac Day dawn gathering at Grangegorman cemetery.

Behind her, a memorial wall with names of the dead, scrolling and scrolling, and flags of all nations. Around her, about 500 people, a quarter in uniform, a lot of tall, ramrod-straight people. Adler isn’t. Short, owlish, in black, she’s a career diplomat and LaTrobe Latin American studies PhD, which is like coming here straight from the Cuban brigades. But she was doing her job, and started the reading:

“In Flanders Fields we do not lie
Where poppies grow and larks will fly …”

And, well, it’s a tough gig, doing the poems at this sort of ceremony, because none of the good ones can be used: “What passing bells for these who dies as cattle; Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight …” etc. Only good stuff in which we no longer believe, the richer dust concealed, or these plainer and more equivocal words, this one a poem We Are The Maimed, anonymous, signed only “Tassie Digger” in 1921, its heartfelt feeling (“we are the maimed. Death did deny/Its solace. Crippled, blind, we try …”) undermined by its music-hall rhyme, Oh What a Lovely War come early.

She got through it and was seated again. We turned the page of the ceremonial. The 23rd Psalm was announced. Clearing of throats. And then the harpist began to play. That was the point, beneath the greyish morning sky in this acreage of headstones and crosses, that I wondered if I would make it through without a serious attack of the giggles.

Strange to be observing Anzac Day in Dublin. The Irish were at Gallipoli and lost thousands, men who’d signed up mostly for the money in a place trapped in permanent underdevelopment. A year later to the day, a number of them turned their guns on the British, in an uprising whose leaders sought and got a shipload of German guns, to open a front at the heart of the British empire.

“My great-uncle fought at Gallipoli, and a year later was part of the Easter Uprising,” said Communities Minister Aodhan O Riordain, giving the address, ticking off every box.

The audience were quiet throughout. They got, if possible, quieter still, a sort of minus quietness, during the speech by Erik Eklund, the Australian studies professor at University College, who began by noting that Gallipoli was “… a special place for the Turkish people who defended their country” and went on to note that not only had Anzac Day proved “adaptable” to present needs, beginning as “a way of demobilising disaffected soldiers” and becoming something else and more, and wondering if it could be widened to “acknowledge the deaths of civilians”.

I looked around at the military faces in the crowd — the attaches in blue, active soldiers in khaki, the ridiculously elegant liaison from France in a sort of elegant loose drape, cream-beige uniform that must have been cut by Yves St Laurent — and wondered if there were at least one civilian whose death they might want to acknowledge.

The ceremony was teetering on the edge. The chaplain — a full Monsignor, bet Pell wishes he had a few tanks — gave the invocation, and there was Ataturk’s “To the mothers of Australia” epitaph (“Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace”) to come, but before we reached that high plain of good sense, there was the next musical number to surmount, and it was a doozy.

I turned the page, and there it was, a sheer cliff of absurd rising from the beach-head of solemnity, concealing the heavy guns of kitsch. All I can say is: yes, you can get away with having a harp as the music for a dawn service, accompanied by an am-dram mezzo-soprano voice. Plinka plinka “the lord’s my shepherd …” And yes, you can get away with, at a ceremony commemorating an operation to open a third front in Europe, and plunge a whole quarter of the continent into total war, reciting the invocation of St Francis of Assissi (“Make me a channel of your peace”).

It’s when you have the harpist sing the invocation to peace in a field of death that it becomes all too clear that what looked good on the maps cannot be completed in the field of battle.

The cliffs are too high, the howitzers too heavy. You are being pounded apart. Whether it’s the wreath from the Turkish embassy — “from the republic of Turkey”, like a bouquet from Carl Williams at a Moran funeral — or the sheer number of priests in bloody uniform, or, most grotesque of all, 30 kids from a local primary school dressed up in battle fatigues, complete with wooden guns and plastic helmets, everything has been thrown at this, and yet still the mystery remains.

I had stopped off in Dublin on the way to somewhere else because I thought that Anzac Day here would be ripe in contradiction. I had not anticipated the degree to which it be a place where one could see the whole thing coming apart in real time.

“My granda was there! My granda was there!” the taxi-driver had said, taking me there at half five that morning as we barrelled through the quiet streets. “And he was a rebel too.” “What did it all mean to him?” I asked. “Well, he did it for the money, didn’t he? But you know in the end they were fighting for world peace.” No. They. Bloody. Weren’t. But, ah, what’s the use?

This was the third or fourth person I’d spoken to who had given the received version of the war, the great compromise version, whereby we do not think about it too much. That is all some nations have, ourselves included, as a way of making something out of these miserable engagements.

“When I first saw the uniformed 12-year-olds marching up, bagpipes swirling behind them, I’d felt sick to my stomach, wanted to leave. I wondered if they should have had another class dress as Turks in fezzes, fought it out as a rematch.”

But Ireland of course had something more. A year after this imperial adventure had begun, a force of men had occupied the Greek revival General Post Office in O’Connell Street on the city’s east side, taken position and proclaimed a free Ireland. Hundreds then thousands had rushed to their side, even as many or more had scorned them for idiots. City life continued as a small revolution began.

They were blasted out of there by British artillery after 10 days or so. Their defeat was rapid, their victory total. They knew that the British government, engaged in a world war, could not simply let them off with a prison sentence. They had hoped to succeed in arms, they were ready to continue in martyrdom. London rewarded them beyond their dreams, committing not one, two or five to execution, but 15.

Intellectuals, folklorists, trade unionists who had taken to arms to force the situation, they were hauled out and shot one by one in a stone courtyard, their leader James Connolly, so weak that he had be put in a chair to be shot, and then had to be tied to it, so he wouldn’t fall over before he fell over dead. The killings turned public opinion overnight.

The Irish had given their young men in their thousands to the war not only for the money, but in the forlorn hope that this would prove their loyalty to the empire, and hurry on the decades-deferred dream of home rule. The spectacle of mass execution was a real event, when all else had been romance and fantasy.

Thousands understood that there was no love lost between British and Irish because there had been none in the first place. The Irish rose up, and by 1922 they had their country. They gained it by perfecting that essential weapon of 20th century liberation: terror. They got so good at it, that they soon turned it on each other.

But that was in the future. Or in the past’s future. Arriving in Dublin, the day earlier, I had stopped off at the GPO, now in a shoppy/scruffy zone of burrito bars and cinemas, to pay my respects. There were two or three bouquets in front of the small display commemorating the rising, a man explaining it wildly incorrectly to his two small sons in football strip.

The 15 men executed represented an alliance between two radical forces: old nationalists, Catholics, taking back old Eire, and revolutionaries, Marxists, rising up for the Irish people, but also for the world, seeing in Ireland, the same thing Lenin saw in Russia — a weak link in the chain of domination, whose sundering would bring on much.

The Catholics had the easier time of it; being shot for them was a way on to the next world, a season in Purgatory from which one could look down on the excellent progress to whatever they had sought on this imperfect earth.

Atheists such as Connolly had the harder time of it; the failure of the people to rise up en masse had disconcerted even the most hard-headed among them. They had staged a revolution that had barely disrupted the city’s street-trolley system, let alone set fire to the country. They could only hope that it was the start of something whose end they would not see.

Now, there was no promise of eternal life. Just the cold dawn, and no more dawns, and extinction. But such deaths, hurtling towards darkness, acquire a mass as all energy, all life, leaves. Their weight becomes incalculable. Their gravity shapes all around them. Thus it was.

And paradoxically, at places like the GPO, it is those of us without belief in anything after who utter what amounts to a prayer. A hope. A request of the world. That you would have the courage of that sort of death if ever tested. That you would have the courage to refuse and resist other deaths. That you would know the difference between necessity and waste.

Thought I would find more of that in Dublin. I didn’t. Didn’t think I would find it at the Anzac Day service. And I didn’t. I was there about the time that Scott McIntyre was sending out his fateful tweets, and I absolutely understand the emotion. At some point there is simply too much bullshit to not say anything, to not record dissent.

When I first saw the uniformed 12-year-olds marching up, bagpipes swirling behind them, I’d felt sick to my stomach, wanted to leave. I wondered if they should have had another class dress as Turks in fezzes, fought it out as a rematch.

“Shoulda dressed them as black and tans,” I scribbled in a notebook, muttering it too loud under my breath. A priest beside me looked up sharply. I could see what he was thinking. “WE’LL BE HAVING NONE OF YR BULLSHIT, YOU GOBSHITE! STOP WITH YOUR BULLSHIT!” and a gormless pair of Australian hipsters beside me, homo Newtownus, looked at me quizzically. Black and tan? With a craft lager? Little early for drinking, isn’t it, even in Ireland?

After the ceremony had finished with Flame Trees and Slice of Heaven — I wish — and everyone was rushing for the buffet tent like the last hospital ship out, I looked around for vox pops. My heart wasn’t in it. My heart is never in it, this bailing up for insta-quotes. I wasn’t going to tax any old bloke wearing a bunch of medals with justifying whatever memories of whatever friends and comrades he was honouring here.

In front of me a 40-something woman in a navy uniform, her two small children either side of her, had stood and sat through the whole service, snapping a salute each time it was required. Who, what was she honouring? I chose a couple of Aussies, Jane and Peter, working in IT here, and I got what now recognises as Anzac 21C, a sort of memorial that does not make a blind bit of sense: “Well, it’s about remembrance.” “It was a doomed campaign from the start.” “They were sent there and they didn’t know what for.”

I spoke to the head of the Australian-Irish association, whose grandfather had fought in the 1916 uprising — did anyone not? It’s like the Boys Next Door first Crystal Ballroom gig, everyone was there — “They were guinea pigs, sent on a badly planned mission for the mother country … I feel sorry for them …: all heartfelt emotions, but all a sort of rushed version, jumble, of the loyalty, and pacifism, and the pity of war.

The last half-century of Anzac arguments all landing in wave after wave. Near the steaming runs at the exit of the crowded marquee, I saw a bloke with a long beard and short hair, a beret and a half-dozen clanking medals. Got it, I thought. This was the hipster I needed for the triptych. “Excuse me, writing for some Australian publications. Whose medals are you wearing?

Big mistake. Big mistake. Dardanellian.

“Mine. Quick tip. Worn on the right side above your heart, they’re yours.” Steve had done tours in Afghanistan, lost mates there. I felt like more of a worm than I usually do, but proceeded: what was a day like this for? “For remembrance.” But what were we remembering? “Remembering all our war dead”, and then we went round the houses for about 20 minutes.

It was never hostile, but I decided that fuck it, I wasn’t going to let anything go, and so Steve’s reasoning about the day emerged as a sort of Chinese whispers. “Yeah, we invaded Turkey … There was a strategic element, but it didn’t justify … You gotta say at some point, it is what it is … It’s a memory of people who thought they’ve got to do what they’re told … But really there’s a point in battle … where the days of fighting for your country disappear … and you’re fighting for your mates … you’re fighting for your personal best … and you know we could do this all on November 11 and it would sort of make more sense … but we’ve chosen this day … and it’s weird,” he said, breaking off to think a little. “But it’s not about making a positive, it’s about leaving it as a negative …”, and that, in its tumbling Finneganesque, Luckyesqye riverrun, is about as close and honourable as we’ll get to the sense of the day.

By now in the refreshments marquee, things were coming apart a little. In a vindication of Stanley Milgram, the kids from the primary school — boys and girls had both been included, contemporary liberalism being that all shall have the opportunity to be fooled into dying for their country — had started to get rowdy, invading the cake line for repeat servings, high on sugar.

Pint-size freckled squaddies, vaguely menacing. A PIRA tribute, that would have done it for me. Thirty year fives in XS black balaclavas miming a funeral volley with cricket bails for guns, burying the class guinea pig in a tiny beret. WE’LL HAVE NONE OF YOUR BULLSHIT, YA GOBSHITE.

Nothing will redeem this day, nothing will complete it. In his address Erik Eklund had done his best, but he had the look of a man who knew that somewhere, someone had blundered. “It was for world peace.” the cabbie had said. “It was for free speech,” Hugh Riminton remarked in part defence of Scott McIntyre.

It never was, and there is no point in trying to make it so. Anzac Day has been managed to a point of such deliberate emptiness that it has started to collapse through itself into the void. When it was revived and repointed by the Howard government, the ghost of a sense of purpose to the original landings was returned. It had to be, lest it fall apart entirely.But it could not be maintained. It was a mere salient to fall back from, to a notion of duty in the face of higher blundering. The heroism of the Anzacs has now become that they made the best of a flawed, catastrophically planned campaign and in this lies their valour and the birth of a collective sense of nationhood, grounded in immediate relations like mateship.

But this will not stand, either. The Gallipoli campaign may have been a failed one, but the fact of it wasn’t an error. We didn’t go to the wrong country or anything. Churchill and others simply misjudged the capacity and willingness of the Ottoman Empire’s army — Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Turkish Greeks, Turkish Jews were all part of Kemal/Ataturk’s forces — to resist invasion and defend their homeland.

The fact of what the Gallipoli invasion was cannot be dodged — it was an attack on a people, not a manoeuvring of empires. This wasn’t a nipping or tucking of this or that bit of a sprawling set of possessions, but an attempt to subjugate the Turkish people. The British were at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but they never intended to occupy and dismember these states.

They had exactly that in mind for the Turkish people, with the idea that they would do there exactly what they did do in the Arab world — divide up, parcel out and establish puppet regimes. The Turks knew exactly what was in store for them if the British had prevailed. Had the invasion force got off the beach, it would have cut its way up through the hinterland to Istanbul/Constantinople, shelled it to the degree of rubble needed to invade, and occupied it.

There is no reason not to believe there would have been mass killing and rape along the way. The racialist ideology of Australians — the exterminatory attitude to Aborigines and the white Australia policy — would undoubtedly have dictated how a Muslim, brown-skinned people were treated by some, far from all, of the Diggers.

Nor is there any reason to believe that this invasion would have halted the Armenian genocide, the post-hoc justification that’s currently fashionable. The Turks would have withdrawn to central Anatolia, and the genocide would have been ramped up, to secure territory against the Russians.

That we were defeated at Gallipoli was unquestionably the best thing, a demonstration to the world that the Europeans could be stopped from turning the whole world into their empire. The meaning of the deaths of Anzacs, as an event, can only come from defeat. It was necessary to a good result that we be thrown back into the sea. The private and particular meanings we make of the invasion is a way of avoiding that melancholy truth.

But it also has another effect, which I do not think many people have acknowledged, since Paul Keating attempted to reorient our memory of sacrifice. Our one truly meaningful moment of national struggle — the New Guinea campaign — cannot be celebrated and recognised, precisely because it has been twinned with Gallipoli.

Whatever the origins of the war with Japan (spoiler alert: we didn’t want them to have an empire, for the same reason we thought Turkey shouldn’t have one, so we blockaded them), by 1941 it was clear that this was a fight against a brutal enemy with an intent of subjugation. The soldiers and nurses who died there knew exactly what they were fighting for, exactly why it was worth dying for, and that their deaths had a weight to them, a meaning.

We cannot honour them in that, cannot name our enemy, because in Gallipoli, we were the Japanese. We have in our history, in our recent memory, in Kokoda and its wider circles, a struggle both epic and of historical moment and with the balance of good on our side.

Yet it goes untouched, passed over for the next round of Gallipokitsch. We are so desperate not to have a real confrontation with the deep racist and imperialist roots of our purported founding national event, that we will let the real sacrifices for our national life go unrecognised.

Dublin is as good a place as any to observe the fact that it matters more what you die for than how you do it. It’s pretty terrible to be shot tied to a chair, but it’s worse to die up on your legs to no purpose. The uprising that began in Dublin near the heart of the empire would be the start of something that unravelled all the empires, surrounded them, defeated them over the next half century. The implicit pacifism of much Gallipoli rhetoric tries to invalidate that, the good war, an attempt at annihilation, borne of envy.

That is not to argue for the separation of those key moments in our history, now. I guess, if there were a Kokoda day, I would be out there at dawn, come rain, shine or blizzard, to be with the nothingness, to make the gesture for a memory that did not require committees to repurpose it every decade or so.

Gallipoli appears to change hourly now; the meaning of Kokada will not change an iota in 500 years. But if it did exist, it would be a rallying point for a racist right, a moment so ready-made that even Reclaim Australia couldn’t fuck up the opportunity. Anzac Day defeats them all, a void we cannot fill. It consumes all meaning, and its champions do not appear to realise how unstable it is.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the day was at its most contested, culminating in the Women Against Rape protests (bout time they had a veterans march themselves. Now that was guts.). When it began to revive in the 1990s, it disconcerted many, but cheered the right, who believed it to be the re-emergence of a “real” Anzac Day.

By the 2000s, with the Contiki-style backpackers’ march to Anzac Cove, the contested version seemed a thing of another era. It was clear to some what was happening: with the death of most participants not only from WW I, but also many from WW II, the day was passing from the real to somewhere else.

Like white-painted bicycles at accident black spots, Time of Your Life photoslide shows at teen funerals, and parents taking their kids to see the original Star Wars trilogy, Anzac Day was being enrolled in a post-religious, post-British-ethos creation of a new framework of ritual by which life could be given meaning. Such processes are mass, undirected, the movement of spirit in a modern, polycultural people. They live only by maintaining their sleight of hand as transitional objects, on the boundary between reality and fantasy. Push them too hard and they come apart.

That is exactly what successive Australian governments have done to, well, just about anything that Australians evolve spontaneously. Keating went in too hard on the collective experience, just as he was pulling apart the reality of collective life by individualising work, society, pensions, you name it.

Kevin Rudd — the second-least relaxed Australian ever — took our relaxed, undemonstrative Australia Day and under the tutelage of “progressive patriot” Tim Soutphommasane — gold to KRudd’s silver in the unrelaxed stakes — tried to turn it into some ghastly crowdsourced government non-holiday holiday.

But it was Howard who really went the tonk and ramrodded the renewed nationalism of Anzac to a point beyond the tolerance of a culture that has a strong urge to nothingness at the heart of its history.

Anzac Day is coming apart because it cannot bear the weight that has been placed on it. When one does that to a meaning-event, subversion of it always returns as a way of reclaiming life. Thus, as Chris Scanlon notes in a piece in Fairfax, the memorialisation of it, even in the best intentioned, least co-opted versions, is erasing its stark meaning, even as it tries to mark it. The Woolworths debacle is an example of it.

In the US, every jerk with a bedding store puts on a tricorner hat come July and runs a late-night ad saying “I declare independence from paying too much for mattresses!”. But no one runs a mock up of the Declaration with the signature of “Ronald McDonald” below the John Hancock. The event polices its own boundaries.

Anzac cannot do that, because it has no meaning of its own. So a Woolworths ad can go through four, five layers of authorisation — from some pinhead “brand-planner” to the vice-president for marketing, and no one, no one stops to say “errrr, hang on”. The purpose is more than mere sales. It’s a profaning of the pseudo-sacred.

Scott McIntyre’s tweets were a related example — he was just the first person in the mainstream meeja to crack. The fact that the Minister of Communications felt the need to step in on four tweets shows how brittle the whole thing has become.

Indeed, it’s astonishing how lame and defensive the right’s celebration of Anzac was this year, just when one thought there would be some sort of orgy of celebration. Check out Paul Kelly‘s and Greg Sheridan‘s arguments in the Weekend Oz — the latter’s especially is the sort of meta-argument for Anzac Day, that it brings us together, etc, which Fairfax ran a couple of.

It’s the equivalent of the Diggers landing on the cove and finding that disabled ramps had already been installed. If your argument for Anzac is that believing in Anzac promotes cohesion for the people ostensibly founded by Anzac, then the thing is almost over (“what is Mussolini’s program to run Italy? Mussolini’s program is to run Italy.”).

The right looked at the revival of Anzac and scorned earlier criticisms of it. But in 25 years’ time, the Anzac Cove gathering may seem as distant and alien as the “Women Against Rape” protests do now. History happens, and the least guide to how it does is history.

The morning wound up. The service had an anti-climax it could not overcome. Nine Anzacs buried here, and they all died either on a troop ferry from here to England, torpedoed by a U-boat in 1918, or in local hospitals of the Spanish flu. Deaths as commonplace, random and procedural as a traffic accident.

And then, the buffet. I looked for more people to vox-pop, knowing I wasn’t going to. I had a strong urge to find whoever organised the children’s platoon and punch them in the face, and realised at one point I was standing beside the grave of a man or boy who was killed on Armistice Day. It was time to go.

The place was just death. It’s one point to acknowledge suffering in its raw state, but at some point the refusal to inquire as to how a quarter of a million men came to try and kill each other in an inlet wrongs the people whose memory you are meant to be honouring. It’s vapidity masquerading as humanism, conducted under the excuse that we honour what they believed they were doing, etc. Which is bullshit.

If we were doing that, we wouldn’t be inviting the Turks, for chrissake. We don’t invite the Germans or Japanese, and I doubt we ever will, which should tell you something. Having the Turks there is just weird, like two people who tried to stab each other having a 10-year reunion of the event, and hiring a hall and making an afternoon of it. Gah.

Gah, I staggered out the gates at about quarter to eight, in the smoky morning, on three hours’ sleep, half a coffee and no cake, ’cause those little shits in uniform had got there first. I leaned against the poll of the bus stop to wait the 25 minutes until the next, running the Velvet’s Sunday Morning in my head, as you do.

And along the road, past the stone wall of the cemetery came a young woman, staggering along, six foot in clubbing heels, golden limbs and split skirt up to her thigh. Her make-up was mussed, her Mojito-and-ekky-shrivelled eyes retreated back into her face.

She passed slowly, tottering, doing running repairs on her warpaint with an open compact. It was a Walk of Shame so glorious, so insouciant, that I thought she ought have had a muffled-drum and fife quartet marching behind. Amazonian, blonde bed-hair mussed up, maybe still drunk, she seemed the pure refusal, someone from an ancient time before the fields became fields of war and the dragons’ teeth, the plough, bred soldiers.

A warm bed, the touch of another, the sun on your face, all the things that should be of the morning, ten thousand, five thousand, one hundred more times before you die, rather than bleeding out on a beach somewhere, rather than this awful memorial behind the wall, this vast enterprise, Death’s Starbucks. She walked on clack clack clack, and seemed to carry with her all love, all life, all the good things.

Peter Fray

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