Some Thoughts on ANZAC Day

For those of you who aren’t born and bred in Australia or New Zealand, or who aren’t familiar with the ANZAC history, this might be a confusing blog entry. Perhaps I should start with a very brief, and possibly too shallow, treatment.

Australia became a nation in 1901, and while the various states had already their own identity to some extent in the Nineteenth Century, we were a very young nation, and not born from struggle. New Zealand had a longer, cohesive history and became a dominion in 1907 – NZ too was a young nation. Ties to Britain and the Empire were profound. With the advent of WWI, just like the rest of the nations comprising Empires and confederacies, Australia and New Zealand joined in, and formed the ANZACs (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) and contributed valiantly to the war effort and suffered disproportionately high losses of life, in terms of population. This savage loss, and the continuing formation of nationhood, lifted the ANZACs into legend status, and it was further consolidated with the soldiers’ efforts in WWII. To respect those who paid the ‘ultimate price’, and to honour those who served and survived, ANZAC Day was conceived. On the 25th April 1915 a large expeditionary force landed in Gallipoli in Turkey as part of the war effort, which turned into an Allied Forces disaster of epic proportions. Nevertheless, the efforts by the ANZAC troops was truly heroic and sacrificial and in 1916 the 25th April was celebrated in remembrance of their efforts. Eventually, this turned into a public holiday, celebrated in Australia and New Zealand, as well as some other island nations, and a number of traditional practices, including a dawn ceremony, marches in the city and town streets, and the playing of a (normally banned) gambling game called Two Up.

The diggers (another name for troops, and often referring to the original ANZACs) are disappearing, and the marches are not as populated as they used to be, although not to a point where they are trending to nothing. New wars are fought and returned soldiers will often march on the 25th April, and with regard to the two Great conflicts, children and grandchildren (now adults) will march instead of their ancestors.

Hmm. I made this intro longer than I planned – but I realised on the fly that this isn’t a simple thing to describe. ANZAC Day is part of Australia and New Zealand’s psyche, although there are some rumblings of discontent – and in fact the taboo of questioning the sanctity of ANZAC Day can be traced back to the 1960s. I was reading a blog yesterday where a friend of mine, Sophie, was somewhat incensed by several strong comments that were anti-war, anti-ANZAC, etc. Without trying to oversimplify her point, but in essence she was saying that the young men who died in the theatres of war were not instruments of cynicism – they simply were lives snuffed out early, and many had noble intent.

This leads to my views. I find it fascinating that it is a human predilection to generalise, to simplify, in order to convey and clarify a point. Done well, it is a powerful tool; if done badly, it either is foolish or  turns into a malevolent form of propaganda. The irony is that some who feel there is no compromise on anti-war sentiment, will resort to distorted language and logic to try to make their points. Having said this, those who respect, and partake in the celebrations, can and will distort the history. For example, I cringe when I hear people talk about our ANZACs who sacrificed their lives for "your freedom" in both World Wars – not. At risk of being branded an oversimplifier myself, I see WWII as a war for one’s freedom, but WWI definitely was not – that was a positioning of cynical juggernaughts, and the Allies won.

Yes, war is cynical and often fraught with moral dilemmas, but back in the first half of the last century the typical Joe Bloggs from Adelaide, South Australia, didn’t understand all that stuff. They loved their Mother Country (England) and were strongly nationalistic. The propaganda machine had already been churning out stuff for years and it was easy to accuse the other party as being rapacious. These young men were vital and fit, and also felt there was glory in the battlefield, just as it was reinforced in the stories they read in "Boys Own Adventure" or any number of novels from the past. The glory was as much socialised into them as was their nationalism. The majority of them, if they survived the war at all, had very different views within weeks of their service in the battlefield.

I suppose what I am trying to lead to is that it is not wrong to view war as evil and cynical, but is it right to use that sledgehammer logic to slam the ANZAC tradition in its entirety? For me, when I watch those marches and hear the odd interview with a digger, I think about THEM, not the war itself. God knows that the old diggers – the original ANZACs, most long dead now, knew how wasteful WWI was – but that wasn’t the point. How could two sovereign nations institute a celebration of a military defeat? It was about sacrifice.

I’m not a rabid nationalist – but I am a proud Australian and I recognise how important ANZAC Day is – it is an important thread in the fabric of my nation’s psyche, and consequently, my own identity. I hate war and I intellectually know that WWI was one of the most wasteful losses of human life in history – with no cause other than power and positioning, and yet I shed a tear for those countless lives lost, all with the best of intent.

I intensely respect those who sacrificed their lives.

"Lest We Forget."

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