Anzac Day
Poppies at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne (Image: AAP/Tracey Nearmy)

War is human history’s hardest labour and to every worker ever drawn or forced to do it, my sincere and sober respects. I offer these because, goodness me, Anzac Day just keeps on ballsing up its one job of the year.

The day is set aside not to honour brutal human sacrifice, even if it says so on the box. It is, I suggest, both the tool and the effect of control. Of course, that’s not news — even if reported that way anew each year. 

Yes, Woolworths’ Anzac marketing of 2015 was not to the taste of anyone who ever shopped for food. The diggers won’t keep “fresh in our memories” if the Fresh Food People compare them to perishable goods.

Yes, those party-hearty Aussie pilgrims drain the dead of a little more dignity with every alcopop they spew into Anzac Cove. But the Contiki sex-boat tourists are not so vulgar as the powerful. Politicians find new and clumsy ways to freeze the memory of the dead. Did Gallipoli occur as it is “remembered” by the Prime Minister we have this month? I doubt this so profoundly, I have avoided news of it. Let the war dead rest undisturbed by such an empty account.

I did catch Bill Shorten’s memory, though. Perhaps he did not press the day to the service of his own campaign and his concern for veterans was sincere. But Bill’s incapacity to seem sincere is as dependable as the abuse of Anzac Day, so you’d never know.

All I know is that private reflection on the work of war cannot be a public display. If I could tell you, or anyone, what I encounter in the silence of reflection, I would. But I cannot express silence any more than I could talk through it. Let the great poets give it a go.

And, let the worst newspapers in the world attempt to govern what we can only know in silence.

To govern private mourning is a matter for insanity — also one for News Corp to endlessly discuss. Let them run Yassmin Abdel-Magied out of a proud Anzac nation for attempting to share her private reflection on her Facebook profile. Let them claim that an Anzac-themed strip-show is an inappropriate display of Australia’s military grief — and good luck telling that one down the RSL, cobber.

Let none of us think for a minute that the dignity of private reflection has ever been the case for us on Anzac Day. The silence and the reflection I would like to afford a nation’s workers dead to war was shattered from the start.

We might have the odd minute of gratitude for the fallen or we might have a moment of rage at the imperial war machine. I have had both simultaneously. I also have the memory of Anzac Day being much more dignified once upon a time.

It probably wasn’t, though. This may be an invented memory of myself as a noble little pacifist; I cried each year at primary school for the loss of men. I remember that those were the dignified days of remembrance. I remember sobbing for the dead and swearing that this defeat was the defeat of humanity etc. I try to remember what set me off, and it was almost certainly The Ode.

To call The Ode sentimentalist is not to call our private sentiment for the fallen insincere. It’s not even to propose that the strength of our sentiment is diminished if we recognise it most in a soundbite of mediocre verse.   

It does bear some remark, though, that For the Fallen is not much chop as a poem and that its creator, Laurence Binyon, did not write it from the trenches in 1914, but from his home in Cornwall a month into the Great War. It was a war much greater than any other than the world had ever seen — not that Binyon had much in the way of comparison, never having seen any sort of war.

I’m hardly one to talk. The closest I’ve come to war is on an Xbox, so the only sort of war I could claim to understand is that fought by US military operators of armed aerial devices. But the point of all this silence, surely, is to understand a little more than Binyon or a six-year-old girl.

They will not grow old? Well, no. They’re dead, and bad poetry is life’s shoddiest consolation prize. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. Instead we will remember them not even as ghosts, let alone those whose living bodies smelled of death before it eventually arrived. We will remember them as a false promise of eternal glory and nationhood.

Power loves an instrument that cannot talk back; it loves a pretext buried in the ground. But before Alec Campbell fell, the very last Anzac made the point that he and other diggers had made before: “For God’s sake, don’t glorify Gallipoli — it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten”.

We forget everything, amid all the noise. We cannot express what we find in the silence, if we can ever get a minute of it. It is a terrible fiasco: our leaders’ glorious effort to remember nothing at all.

Perhaps the fallen have always been “remembered” only as an instrument of coercion. Perhaps I just forgot. Either way. This isn’t a day We Remember Them. It’s not even a permission slip for us to forget. It is a printed command to never diagnose an illness whose most eloquent symptom is this undignified day.

Peter Fray

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