Last year, on April 25, I blasphemed and, in doing so, offended quite a few people and now it’s time to make amends.
It is so easy to offend religious sensibilities and one thing I’ve learned to accept is how the ANZAC tradition is at the very core of our nation’s metaphysical belief system. April 25 has become our nation’s dedicated holy day. The ‘ANZAC Spirit’ has become the white person’s veritable Dreamtime story.
To put this thought in perspective, we do have Christmas and we do have Easter. Both stem from the Christian tradition. For dwindling numbers of hard-line Christian believers these are profound events that circumscribe the life and death of Christ. But for the vast majority of Australians what are they really?
For most fellow citizens, Christmas is a bloody good break at the end of the school year, a time when the retail industry measures its success and a time when family stresses tend to get played out. Most of all, Christmas has become the major vehicle by which we induct our children into the culture of consumer living.
At times church leaders do lament the rampant commercialisation of Christmas but they also wear it with a sense of pride. How big has this celebration of Christ’s birth become that it is now the litmus test of the success or otherwise of our national economy! Christianity has been described as the most materialistic of the world’s major religions and it doesn’t mind that label too much.
Now when it comes to Easter, go into any Australian classroom and ask what this event means and only one word comes back. Chocolate. Chocolate factories love it. Believe it or not, Easter eggs went on sale in Coles this year before Christmas. How’s that for advanced planning?
But now let’s contrast these two iconic, highly commercialised, historic religious events with that of ANZAC.
I watched the ABC news bulletin this Easter and was interested to observe that it contained one story about Easter itself. A group of Christians had undertaken a little street act and this was dutifully filmed by the ABC and shown as a brief snippet at the tail end of the news bulletin – after the sport and after the finance report and after the weather. And that was Easter all wrapped up, almost in the time it takes to blink an eye.
Now, I’m not stressed at all about that because I am an atheist, but let’s contrast this miniscule focus with our nation’s gargantuan focus on the meaning of ANZAC Day.
This year my son has been chosen to give the ANZAC address at his high school assembly. He will do it well and I’m proud of it. Every public school in Australia dedicates class time to understanding the sombre stories behind ANZAC day and this day’s profound significance in remembering the heroes and heroines who participated in the great wars. This is all part of our national curriculum.
Media focus is even more stark. At least a fortnight before April 25, stories connecting us with the war years are inserted into news bulletins. Long lost bodies discovered, remembrances in Turkey and France. TV stations bring on their war films to entertain. For two weeks and more radio and TV are saturated with ANZAC stories.
And notice… there’s no commercialisation. ANZAC Day is seen to be far too profound to be commercialised (yet).
To repeat, ANZAC Day has become our Dreamtime.
It is for sociologists to explain why the quirk of a military failure nearly a century ago has become our national Dreamtime Story, the core of our national psyche. That’s a mystery to me but I must respect the fact, all the same.
Let’s not be flippant about this. For families who endured the war and sent their sons and husbands off, and for all those families who lost family members or who received back wrecks of human beings, ANZAC Day was indeed a profound event. And so a national holiday was created around the slogan ‘Lest We Forget’.
Where I come unstuck (and I know many share this heresy with me) is witnessing how this slogan is applied with selective compassion.
My blasphemy last year was to suggest that the Australian Aboriginal movement take up the ‘Lest We Forget’ slogan too and share the remembrances of April 25 with their ANZAC fellow travellers – recognising that Australia experienced another great war, on our own soil, and that war was so much bigger and traumatic. The victims and descendents should be able to identify with each other’s losses and grief and share their stories and bring their mutual experiences to public attention as one.
Well, I know that was very insensitive of me – a bit like ramming a boot into a bullant nest. And I was not being really serious, because I know that such an alliance is not really on, but I sort of wished to stove a boot into the bullant nest to provoke a reaction, because I feel irked. A bit like some cartoonists have deliberately provoked a reaction from Islamic Jihadists through their cartoonery.
What has irked me through the years is that our ANZAC culture is generally intolerant of, or forgetful of, the Aboriginal war experience. I know a young woman, M, who every year religiously goes down to the dawn service and talking of the War will easily bring a tear to her eye and she identifies really closely with the pride it brings to her that so many young men died for their country. Being an immigrant, she has no family connection with ANZAC.
And when I talk with M about all the atrocities that Aboriginal people suffered and lived through, and how that event was every bit as traumatic and even more so because a whole culture of people was irreparably damaged, she is unimpressed and displays no emotion. She won’t connect with it. She can’t connect with it. It’s not her story. It’s not part of our white fella’s Dreamtime.
Should I blame M for this selective amnesia? No, because she is merely one component of our collective amnesia. M’s attitude is rife in the Australian community. That other great war trauma should be buried. ‘Let us forget.’ Our collective national story – in fact all stories – include both what we earnestly must never forget and that which we wish to put behind us.
I know that many others, like me, find these contrasting attitudes so irksome and… well… let’s admit it… so un-Christian. But then again, that stands to reason because I don’t believe we are a Christian country. As to what we are, it seems nationalism is our quintessential belief system. But I’m not a sociologist.
What I do know is that schools in Australia can not focus a lot of attention on any religious event like Christmas, recognising that many school children are not of the Christian faith and to celebrate one faith means to celebrate them all… and that starts to get very messy.
But every school in Australia must participate in solemn ANZAC Day assemblies and classroom activities, because this day is truly our national day. We are all intrinsically part of it and ‘we must never forget’.
• On The Drum: Anzac Day is about their deaths, not our lives
By Jonathan Green
Updated April 25, 2012 12:36:25
Anzac Day should probably divide us, lock us in some sort of conversation, as it did back in the late sixties when Alan Seymour’s play One Day of the Year was written, banned, then performed in protest.
Today, most minds seem made up; the patterns of observance are set, mandatory, ritualised and assumed.
The more dimly distant the day, the clearer it seems to have become in the national mind. The forging of our character, the very root of what it is to be Australian. Or so they say. And say and say.
The further we have moved from 1915, the more Anzac Day has been free to become an idealised and disconnected rite, one that can be invested in meaning remote from its original role as a get together, a pause for solemn reflection and remembrance.
At the MCG today, Essendon and Collingwood will parade before a capacity house in the ‘traditional’ Anzac Day AFL blockbuster.
The players will wear specially machined jumpers, the bayonets of the rising sun badge on their breast; a bugler will play the last post, lulling the crowd to a massive, weighty silence before the relief of Reveille.
Once there was a better than good chance some goose would shout “go Pies!” midway. Not so much in recent years, the day having been invested with that now-common zeal for anything that speaks of The Nation.
The Anzac Day clash was the brainchild of canny marketer Kevin Sheedy in 1995. It wasn’t the first game to be played on April 25, a day once set aside from normal routines; reserved for the veterans of war to meet while the surrounding culture observed a momentary hush.
Football was in fact illegal on April 25 until 1960, but now, with our attitude to the observance simultaneously more feverish and relaxed, Anzac Day has been captured for the exclusive use of the Collingwood and Essendon football clubs, part of an elaborately detailed celebration of bravery and nationhood.
But why does it feel strange and a little uncomfortable? When did we become so skilled at presenting this shiny, well-packaged jingoism? Is any of this true to the sort of country those young men so famously left in 1915, so many travelling one way? Or have we co-opted them, and their memory, to something they’d struggle to recognise as their own?
My grandfather had left Gallipoli and journeyed to France by April 1916. In two months time he and the other men of the 27th Battalion AIF and many, many others would be locked in a deadly arm wrestle for what high ground might be found in the wide flats round Pozieres in the Somme Valley.
Tens of thousands of them would die. Not so Corporal Henry Thomson Green: ‘shell wound right arm, right knee, severe’ is the notation on his Army Form B.103, Casualty Form – Active Service.
Lucky fella. He’d lose the arm, but otherwise get home in one still functioning piece.
On April 25, 1916 he noted the first passing of what would be Anzac Day: “Anniversary of the landing. Quiet day in the trenches. Relieved tonight and marched back to our billets in Chappelle- d’Armentieres.”
I visited Pozieres 18 months back, a bitter winter. Looking out on the ground, that century old battle is unimaginable, its objectives just mounds and hillocks; the distances that claimed thousands just stone’s throws.
Our guide on this little minibus tour of the Somme took time out between shepherding us from one pocket handkerchief cemetery to the next to marvel at what was then being done to recover Australian bodies in Fromelles.
Did we not realise that this whole valley was a grave to goodness knows how many? So many mass graves. So many bodies that will never be identified. There was a sense of the sepulchral over every inch of ground. What purpose did we serve now, nearly a hundred years on, with all this digging, and these ‘full military honours’?
It was a levelling perspective. The exercise seemed to make sense in the glorified dialogue back home.
Both my granddads fought in World War 1. Corporal Green would die when my own father was just a toddler, but I remember – perhaps the memory is only of photographs – the other old chap, an RSL badge permanently stationed in his lapel.
War and what it left behind meant a lot back then, but somehow it was personal. And quiet. These were back in the very many years when mateship was just a shorthand for loyal friendliness, when a ‘fair go’ was just common decency. When loud, flag-waving displays of nation love were things we rather wished Americans wouldn’t do. We certainly had no time for it ourselves; back in our age of insouciance.
And now strangely, with the country infinitely more diverse and spiritually complex, we fix on war more closely than ever as a key to our national personality.
No-one so much as blinks when the Australian cricket captain likens the tough competitive companionship of international cricket to the sort of unthinking selflessness that leads a man to drag a wounded, screaming, dismembered mate into cover under deadly fire.
The deeds of our veterans are at once honoured and dragged down to the humdrum of ordinary life through constant acts of easy equivalence.
The further we travel from those great wars that saw the mass involvement of ordinary men and women, the more we see their sacrifice, their often terrible sacrifice, as analogous to the recognisable struggles of our modern lives: the valor of footballers, something as universal and banal as ‘mateship’.
Complete rot of course, and as sure a symptom as any of the narcissistic individualism of our time. As we motor to the centenary of Gallipoli we can only expect the effect to be exaggerated. The Federal Government will spend $83 million over four years to mark the anniversary. As one observer remarked yesterday, spending on ADF mental health care will be $93 million over the same period. As he says: “Priorities?”
Confusing. Not simple, but disturbing in the way that the past can be used to smooth a path for one particular view of the present. And here’s the thing: it was them, not us. Their war, not ours. Their deaths, not this life of ours. Lest we forget.
Jonathan Green hosts Sunday Extra on Radio National and is the former editor of The Drum.