Here at Crikey we’ve grappled with Anzac Day many times before. In 2015, Bernard Keane remembered how Anzac day wasn’t always such a big deal. In 2012, Guy Rundle recalled that our entry into World War I was itself a confected nation-building exercise.
This year in the bunker we’ve pulled together some more personal reflections on the meaning of Anzac. Please write to [email protected] with your own thoughts.
Ben Birchall, associate publisher
I’ve attended the Torquay dawn service a few times, in memory of my grandpa who I used to go with as a kid. I find it undeniably powerful, and this is why.
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In our deeply secular society, there is little room for contemplation. As neither a church-goer nor a meditator, I don’t often get to feel the undisputed power of a group of people in silence. The dawn service affords the non-religious the contemplation of a mass, as well as the pageantry — uniforms, gunshots, formation, memorable verse.
There’s also power in the dawn and seeing in a new day, which few of us do regularly, and very seldom do in a moment of contemplation or reverence. Cold and in the dark, it becomes easier to imagine oneself in a moment of existential test like “the diggers” faced.
So before we even get to the problematic layers of cultural reverence of our armed forces, or the collective memory of military fetishisation, or family history, Anzac Day is imbued with power. Even for someone sceptical of jingoism as I am, and mindful of the colonial forces at play (of which I am a product), I find myself powerless. And that powerlessness in itself is a relief from the constant cultural questioning that sceptical people are forced to do.
I agree with Yassmin Abdel-Magied that we as a culture tend to commemorate a small part of our experience and history on Anzac Day, often at the expense of darker and more urgent matters. I think she has been unfairly maligned, hounded and persecuted due to her gender, religion and skin colour. But standing in the dark at dawn, surrounded by a community in silence, Twitter is the last thing from my mind.
Meg Watson, associate editor
I had close family members who served their countries (at least one of which who suffered enormously as a result of it), but my most vivid memory of Anzac Day is a hulking young drunk guy screaming at me because I didn’t know what two-up was.
I was 19, working overtime at a crowded pub which had heavily marketed the “festivities”, and brought to the verge of tears because some dickhead sinking 10 pints “for the diggers” wouldn’t accept that a Kiwi-born teenager who’d been on her feet for eight hours couldn’t indulge him and outline the specifics of an Australian gambling game (yes, NZ soldiers played it, no it’s not the same kind of tradition over the ditch).
Since moving to Australia — I went from learning about social and political structures in the Pacific Islands to watching Peter Weir’s Gallipoli on repeat — this drunk guy, well-meaning as he may have been, sums up a lot about our current discourse. I see him screaming at those choosing to reflect on ongoing violence inflicted on others or those other Australian wars that rarely get a mention.
Each year I, like him, remember. I think about my granddad, the nature of his suffering, and the suffering of all those thrown into the often futile violence of war. And then some new dickhead bustles in to yell at me about a superhero movie.
Helen Razer, writer and broadcaster
If Anzac Day has any enduring quality, it is its capacity to impose silence. But, the nature of that silence has changed.
I remember the silence in the 1970s when school kids gathered at early assembly to reflect. We first heard about the glory of war from a local RSL bloke and then, we recited The Ode — actually, an appalling verse which advertises death as an anti-ageing product. The day’s propagandist intentions aside, the silence in which we stood — an unnatural state for a group of children — informed the day.
In that silent minute, which may have been pared down to a child-friendly 30 seconds, we could do little but think privately about the fallen. We — some of us kids born in war, others born to parents who had fled its effects — stayed relatively silent through recess, and even big lunch.
Anzac Day seems louder, now. The silence of the Dawn Service remains, but private thoughts formed then cannot survive the noise of nationalism, or that made by the pokies of the RSL. And, if you do have a thought like, “we should stop trying to kill people in the Middle East on behalf of a degraded empire” you’d better keep it silent. You’ll be silenced anyhow by the pretence of respect for the fallen, and the party that searches for a national identity which will only be recovered if we learn to reflect on history, in silence, once more.
Charlie Lewis, journalist
Firstly, there is no question for me that there ought to be a day (not necessarily April 25) commemorating our armed forces; for the same reason there should be a Sorry Day. Commemoration is important. And I believe this can be done without romaticising war or imperialism, or imposing uncritical heroism on ordinary men and women, subjects of historical circumstances they neither chose nor always wanted. Even if you feel it’s hijacked for those purposes by conservatives, you don’t have to interact with it that way. That’s kind of the point.
It’s also important to remember what the uncritical narrative around Anzac day excludes. By way of an example — to say nothing of those, say, taken in the Frontier Wars — Hugo Throssell. He was present at this founding myth; he was awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery at Gallipoli. He returned from war a devout socialist and anti war campaigner. And for his trouble, this twice wounded war hero was tracked by intelligence services, shunned by polite society and eventually pushed to resign from the RSL. He did not stick to the script, and therefore was not worthy of the reverence usually afforded to returned soldiers (at least in abstract). He would eventually take his own life at the age of 49. It wasn’t until 2015 that a statue of him was erected in Northam, his home town.
If we are to return, again and again, to the tired and half true refrain that our soldiers died for freedom, it would do us to good to interrogate what that freedom actually allows us, and why we hector people who don’t stick to the script out of their jobs, out of the country, out of the conversation.