Why ANZAC Day is not history

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley.

Every ANZAC Day, students around the country are sardined into dusty school halls for assemblies mourning Australia’s fallen heroes. They stand respectfully for a minute of silence, contemplating the importance of our military history and the men who died so that we could be free. It’s a cultural ceremony that heralds back to an older romanticisation of war as a glorious endeavour, whilst also despairing in the human tragedy that shadows every conflict. For many citizens, it is a personal matter – they have lost loved ones overseas – and the collective act of mourning honours their memory. It also creates a discourse by which their sacrifice is validated. It is comforting to think that someone’s death was meaningful. It is an emotionally intensive routine that aligns “honour” with “country”. It was not murder – it was sacrifice. It was not senseless violence – it was patriotism. It is for this reason that ANZAC Day is such a profoundly difficult celebration to deconstruct.

But it needs deconstruction. History is not the past – it is a reproduction of it. And we relive it every April in a multiplicity of ways. Every story is framed in a certain light. Every bugle-call, every flag, every reading of a list of names known to a school or suburb, paints the past in a different light. In some cases, the ceremony legitimizes the military institution. In others, it is a mourning of the dead. In almost any ANZAC ceremony, however, the nation-state of Australia is glorified as if honouring the dead axiomatically honours the country. It is hard to extricate the narrative of war from the persisting reality of the state. These men and women went to fight for their country – a country we all (tacitly or explicitly) belong to civically. So to that end, their sacrifice was worthy.

But history can serve many purposes. The historical purpose of ANZAC Day is to construct a narrative around war that glorifies the meaning of a soldier’s death but acknowledges the tragedy of it – two seemingly dissonant concepts. We can never deride a soldier for dying on the battlefield, nor would we seek to. As L. P. Hartley’s principle suggests, condemning a soldier for fighting a century ago is a fruitless endeavour. They lived in a foreign country. It was still called Australia, but as Paul Keating suggested in his 1993 Eulogy to the Unknown Soldier, “this Australia and the Australia he knew are like foreign countries. The tide of events since he died has been so dramatic, so vast and all-consuming, a world has been created beyond the reach of his imagination.” Their discourses were different – patriotism had meaning for most people. They would not recognise their own country today, but we can do a better job at imagining theirs. A problem emerges when we glorify their deaths as having served some greater purpose. And if we can never deride an explanation of their death that labels them ‘noble’ and ‘honourable’, then such an assertion must necessarily be true. In other words, because these men died honourably according to their own standards, the reproduction of that sacrifice through ANZAC Day does not explicitly consider their endemic contemporaneity separate from our own. When we honour their deaths by their traditions – the bugle-call, the military parades, the dawn-services, the memorials – we must take their perspective uncritically. We attempt to adopt their worldview.

This aspect of our country’s tradition often excludes arguments against the nation, like those raised by Benedict Anderson in 1983. Anderson labels the nation-state an “imagined community,” because its members do not meet on a day-to-day basis – we simply imagine there to be a transcendent communal bond holding us all together. Because of a culture of nationalism – where we are raised to believe that other Australians share common values and traditions – we are naturally predisposed to discount the possibility that we might share more with a person from a foreign country than anyone within our own. In this sense, it is an utterly dehumanising construct. The identifier of “Australian” means we will behave believing that we are part of a community, thus making it so. This is why history’s most tragic episodes of nationalistic fervour showcased so many national symbols – the Nazis with their rallies and swastikas, the Soviets with their military parades, etc. This reinforces a belief that everyone belongs to this community, and it is only this idea that we are part of a community that makes it so. What proponents of ANZAC Day argue is that this is a national celebration, and that by criticizing the celebration we must be criticizing the soldiers who held nationalistic sentiments. ANZAC Day is the perfect example of an imagined community in the act of re-imagining itself. For this reason it is politically conservative – it retains traditions that we inevitably have and will continue to move beyond. The past is a foreign country, but we can delude ourselves into thinking it less foreign by replicating it every year.

No example better illustrates this phenomenon than American Civil War re-enactors. Undoubtedly for Americans this is a powerful tradition. Battles will be fought between ‘countrymen’, who at the end of the re-enactment will shake hands and realise, ultimately, that the conflict was a tragedy because they share a common fraternity. The Australian equivalent is the honouring of both Australian and Turkish dead, at Gallipoli for example, or by introducing veterans from both sides of the Vietnam War to one another. These practices are probably more historically profound as they transcend the national frameworks that restrict the customary ANZAC memorial service. When we come to fully realise that men and women killed one another without knowing one another, then that is a lesson in understanding that is more important than any nation state. Subsequently ANZAC Day is not entirely nationalistic, but it can shamelessly be played off as such. It is a redeemable celebration, but only to the extent that we delve deeper into the tragedy of it.

Whenever we hear generalizations like “they died so that we could be free,” or “they sacrificed themselves for us,” the only appropriate answer is that they shouldn’t ever have had to. By pushing the patriotic narrative about soldiers’ sacrifices, we are perpetuating the system of imagined communities by which such sacrifice became necessary. The difference lies in how we reproduce the history. When we raise the national flag and honour what fallen soldiers died for, it goes against fully understanding the nature and cause of war. This is why, when we collectively remember ANZACs, or any victims of war, we should never raise their flags, or sing their anthems, or glorify their deaths. Bizarrely, ANZAC Day does this. Since these celebrations take place as a form of public communion, where the proceedings are organised by a government, or the military, or the school leaders, it is not an exercise in historical thinking. It is memorialization – it is the active participation in creating a collective memory. You do not see the same process in the history classroom, where students are encouraged to ask questions, to make arguments, and to deconstruct ideas. These opportunities don’t exist in school or public ANZAC Day ceremonies. Students will not even study the conflicts of the 20th century until Year 9, and so their understanding of war – from Prep until Year 8 – comes predominantly from these nationalistic traditions. We might justify these ceremonies on any argument, but the fact remains that war in the context of ANZAC – for most young people – is not critically engaged. Consequently as adults we are less likely to question its continuation. In the forthcoming hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli Landings, Australia is gearing up to spend twice as much as the United Kingdom. So to suggest that this is not a nationally demarcated ceremony neglects the fact that this tradition is facilitated almost exclusively by the government, the RSL, the military and Australian schools.

In many ways, the purpose of ANZAC is not to remember but to rather perversely forget. Consider McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields: “We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.” It is a powerful testament to the commonality of human experience, and it is therefore so perplexing that McCrae’s next verse suggests quite the opposite: “Take up our quarrel with the foe: to you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow, in Flanders fields.” This encapsulates the cult of ANZAC: that the tragedy is acknowledged, and then in plain view turned on its head. What McCrae did was expose the utter pointlessness of war, and then immediately suggest that its causes were valid. When we celebrate the same ideas that lead to war when we practice remembrance – like nationalism – we are not addressing the historical lesson at play. It is a disingenuous and manipulative abuse of the historical record, and yet the conservative right of the country, like John Howard, will praise the ANZAC tradition in its current form since it contributes to “a lasting sense of national identity”. It was national identity and European tribalism that made war necessary in the first place.

The ideal principle to extract from ANZAC is that there is a universality to humanity that should transcend the ability of any nation, of any person, to send someone to their deaths for an idea. Ernest Hemingway, who experienced the First World War and Spanish Civil War first hand, titled and premised his book For Whom the Bell Tolls on the famous John Donne poem: “no man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Instead we have a cult of nation – the macabre celebration of fallen brothers we can never know and never knew our world. If they were to look at the expanse of human history, would they have been proud of how they died? By paying reverence to their deaths, do we legitimate something which they themselves had no voice in? This is the dilemma post-modernists like Michel Foucault posed – that our own realities are so ingrained within our time and place, that we would never truly guess that what we worship today will be worshipped tomorrow. Our beliefs will be swept away by the change in language and become relics. Will our ANZAC ceremonies become evidence of the same nationalism we readily condemn in the early 20th century?

Captain James Brown of the Australian Army has recently dissented from the public discourse, arguing that we pay far too much homage to the ANZAC legend of the first and second world wars when we should be considering those Australian troops who are still fighting and recovering today. He suggests that instead of learning lessons from the wars of the past, we are neglecting our own servicemen. Brown argues that ANZAC is being used for political purposes – surprise, surprise – to actively perpetuate the myth of nationhood. Instead of learning that we should not set others against machine-gun nests and mined beaches, we are separating the military failures of yesterday from the potential military failures of tomorrow.

Of course it was never Australia that invaded Poland and began WWII. It is fortunate that – at the time – Australia as a nation state existed alongside the United States and England. But in saying that, it was also fortunate – from our perspective – that the Soviet Union existed. Ten years later that was not the case. If, however, none of these rampant nationalisms existed, then there would have been no war in the first place. The system is at error – not necessarily Australia. And we have been involved in numerous unnecessary wars in our history. But with the benefit of hindsight and retrospect, the assimilation of our own identities with such a tragic history is a confounding discourse. Any historical argument for or against the nation-state of Australia existing is a judgment on those who lived in the past. Given what they knew, and the values they held dear, it is not deterministic to say that the events and people that lived at the time acted within their cultural framework – the way they understood the world affected their actions. It would be deterministic, however, to suggest that we should replicate those same values and experiences – patriotism, empire, adversity, etc. When we have the benefit of hindsight, we can delve deeper into history and separate our memory (our recreated identities) from the history. It is only by being unassuming when we approach the nationalism of the past that we can understand it. Simply because our grandparents or great-grandparents fought for a cause does not necessitate our tacit acceptance of those values. To do history “justice”, we must look at what caused wars, at why they were tragic. This will become easier if we let time do its work and engage in real history – but we can retard this process through ANZAC Day.

Gerard Prunier on the Rwandan Genocide writes that “man is largely a social construct, and to deny a man the social meaning of his death is to kill him twice, first in the flesh, then in the spirit.” If we do not ask the social meaning of war victims’ deaths, then we kill them in spirit. So seriously consider whether ANZAC Day as it’s played out this weekend gives a social meaning to death. I would suggest that it rather gives a social meaning to the living – of creating an unhealthy, uncritical nationalism. Existentially, meaning is always constructed. If we do not take the historical message from the ordeal – that certain ideas like nationalism dehumanise ‘the other’, and that imperial power structures make human life expedient – then we are not giving the deceased a social meaning. We are simply reliving their worldview and not deconstructing it. For many Australians, this reproduction is important – it ties them to their kin. However, it should never be passed off as history. It is instead memory, and an uncritical memory at that.

So ask yourself: what is the better meaning? That striving for universal understanding and acknowledging that we live a shared human experience can transcend petty political ideas, constructed identities and corrupt governments? Or is it that Australia is a ripper country? We cannot have it both ways. War is a tragedy. Any tragedy cannot be justified – it is tragic for the reason that it cannot be rectified. So why do we try to?

David Owen is a secondary school history teacher who has a BA (Hons) in History and a major in Political Science from the University of Melbourne.

One comment

  1. As far as i’m concerned ANZAC Day exposes a significant tension in right wing Australian politics. I mean I don’t necessarily have a problem with the myth of the ANZAC in terms of the idea that Australia as a nation was created on the shores of Gallipoli. I mean obviously that is more or less bullshit, nonetheless Gallipoli was perhaps the first real example of Australians seeing themselves as different to British people. Sure we were fighting a British war but there are numerous recorded examples of Australian soldiers acting differently from British soldiers and those examples can be considered culturally significant. I’m talking about raising their eyebrows at British Victorian era manners, British unwavering respect for hierarchical class structures. Australians (in real life and not just in the Mel Gibson film) did appear to be different – more egalitarian, more down to earth, more rough around the edges; to have a different culture. And really it doesn’t matter if Australian soldiers really did behave that way or if it just happened in the movie, what matters is that if you believe that ANZAC myth – that we were created as a unique cultural identity on the shores of Gallipoli – then you are committed to saying that what is at the core of Australian culture is egalitarianism, larrakinism, a lack of respect for tradition and class.

    Of course these traits can be critiqued – especially the hyper masculinity that often accompanied larrakinism – yet in general they are left wing traits (larrakins are associated with the working class not the rich). And certainly they are traits that sit very much at odds with the cultural conservatism, monarchism, and respect for tradition and class hierarchies that the tory Liberal party lead by Tony Abbott tends to represent. So I don’t see how the Australian right can have it both ways. You cannot embrace the myth of the ANZAC and shout patriotism from the rooftops and at the same time be bringing back Imperial Honours systems and fawning over celebrity baby Prince George. As much as I might feel uncomfortable using the term, the royals are most definitely un-Australian and in a sense so is Tony Abbott.

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