They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Lest We Forget
Every nation, whether they be young or old, big or small, has a foundation myth: the people, places, and events that influenced the very character of the nation. Usually, these foundation myths share a few of the same characteristics: the national hero, an enemy or oppressor to fight against, specific, unique national characteristics, and the triumph of the national spirit over adversity.
When it comes to Australia, national myths (particuarly foundational myths) are complex, contentious, and often met with strong emotions from either side. The same can be said about Australian history in general. History is never simply history. It is connected to our sense of identity, not only as individuals but as part of a nation. It is, in a way, continuous, always being reshaped and re-examined, and always influencing who we are and how we feel about ourselves. As a result, when people question, correct, or reject the history of our nation, or the history we feel should be associated with our nation, it can be a direct threat on our very sense of identity.
In Australia, Anzac Day is only one such case. Anzac Day originated in 1916 as a celebration of the bravery shown by the Australian and New Zealand soldiers (the ANZACs) who landed at Gallipoli, and fought there against the Turks in 1915. It was Australia’s first official involvement in World War I, and it was a disaster, a botched landing orchestrated by the British that devolved into a long, hopeless trench war. Eventually, the Australia, New Zealand, and British soldiers fled Gallipoli, retreating under cover of darkness.
The story of the Australian and Kiwi soldiers at Gallipoli, of their bravery, their larrikinism, their mateship, and their resilience against hardship, has been appropriated throughout the twentieth century as a foundational myth for Australia. It’s a story that codifies the values we as a nation hold dear: perseverance, supporting the underdog, having a laugh, and, above all else, mateship. It’s also a story that makes a lot of people angry. The Anzac legend is not Australia’s only foundation myth, but it’s one of the main ones, and one met with outspoken controversy.
I only really noticed that Anzac Day was controversial when I arrived at university. I’d attended Anzac services most years since I was about 11. I used to go with school, dressed in my uniform, or with my family, dressed in what I would have worn to church if we were religious. Alex’s family has a long history in serving in the military, and we have attend the Dawn Service most years since we moved in together. To me, they were a time of remembrance and a time to be thankful, not only to the soldiers who fought and died at Gallipoli, but to all Australian servicemen and women. I may not agree with armed conflicts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the men and women who chose to enter them, hoping to make a difference, protect their values, or protect their home.
Now, however, Anzac Day is a day to argue over what makes Australians Australian, and whether the Anzac legend has any role to play in this.
To some people, the celebration of Anzac Day is “testament to our national fondness for slaughter”. They see no reason to celebrate a war that is now over 100 years old, or the people who fought in it, or war in general. Some people use Anzac Day as evidence for the whitewashing of Australian history, stating that we as a nation refuse to memorialise our own Aboriginal people, or acknowledge the Frontier Wars that took place during the early years of colonisation. Others adopt it for their own political motivations, either to push for greater rights for refugees (yay), or to emphasise the need to adopt specific, Westernised values in order to be truly considered “Australian”. Then, of course, there are the group of Australians who view Anzac Day as a day for remembrance, for respecting those servicemen and women (of all backgrounds) who died and fought in wars on the other side of the world and closer to home.
All of these different interpretations of Anzac Day, all the anger, all the hatred, all the passion, comes down to the battle over what Anzac Day should mean to Australians, and to the Australian identity.
I have many friends who believe we shouldn’t even have Anzac Day, let alone use the ANZAC legend as a foundation myth for modern Australia. They view it as the glorification of war, or the whitewashing of Australian history, or the acceptance of the idea that colonialism and its legacy, not Aboriginal culture and heritage, or a multicultural Australia, is the most important factor in shaping Australian national identity. At the same time, I have many friends who attend Anzac Services every year, and believe its a national duty to pay respect to those soldiers who have, and continue to, fall in conflicts around the world. I have friends who embrace the legend of the ANZACs as an integral part of their identity, a national justification for their humour, their loyalty, their mateship, the qualities that they see as defining them as inherently Australian.
Here’s the thing though, a nation doesn’t have to have one foundation myth. There doesn’t have to be only one interpretation of what makes Australians Australian, and not all Australians have to subscribe to the same foundation myth. We don’t need to have one or the other, we can have both. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
To me, Anzac Day is important, but not because it created the bonds that tie the nation together. It’s important because there are still Australians fighting, being wounded, and dying, in conflicts all around the world. Whether you agree with this or not, these people don’t deserved to be isolated from society, or ignored, or dismissed as blood-loving barbarians. Approximately 4,150 returned Australian veterans suffer from PTSD. And, to be perfectly blunt, on the whole we as Australians don’t do a very good job of trying to help them get better. Instead, we’d rather argue over whether or not they, and their predecessors, deserve a national day of remembrance, and whether or not that national day should be viewed as integral to the Australian spirit. As a nation, we apologised for the way we treated Vietnam veterans, recognising that you can disagree with the war but still respect those who fought. Why do we struggle so much now to do just that?
By all means, make Anzac Day more inclusive. It’s vital. Australian history should not belong only to a few white men. It should belong to all Australians. Allow those who have been historically left voiceless in the celebrations their opportunity to speak, to remember, and to mourn. Speak of the atrocities committed in wars at home and overseas. Accept the negativity of war, its horror, its thoroughly unromantic tragedy, and that Australians were both the victims and the perpetrators of such horrors. Oppose Australian involvement in modern conflicts. Oppose Australian policies that isolate, imprison, or neglect the people we, as a nation, are supposed to share our boundless plains with. Just don’t use it as an excuse to ignore the service of the men and women, and the suffering of them many still endure, or to cut out part of Australian history that should be remembered.
No matter what foundation myth you subscribe to, they all emphasise Australian mateship, the value of friendship, kindness, and loyalty. Let’s not lose sight of that.
If you’re interested in reading more about Anzac Day, and what it means to different people, here’s a series of articles you can read. I agree with parts of all of them, and disagree with parts of all of them. Engage with them all, and don’t let anyone convince you your view of things needs to be black and white. The world isn’t black and white. I’d also be interested to hear from any Kiwis about how the ANZAC legend has influenced NZ national identity, and if its met with the same contention it gets over here.
We’ve Said Thanks Enough, It’s Time to Move On, Chris Graham
‘No-One Cares, Mate’: Being A War Veteran at 27, Jane Cowan
How Anzac Day Came To Occupy A Sacred Place in Australians’ Hearts, Carolyn Holbrook
If you, or someone you know, needs help with any mental health issues (not just PTSD), here are some links for your to click on to access help and learn more. I recommend everyone clicking on them just to learn more about PTSD in general.