There are plenty of good reasons to loathe the cultural dominance of Anzac Day and these start but hardly end with the peculiar fact of our national refusal to learn that Middle Eastern war is generally a pretty shit idea. I mean, what’s the point of shedding tears for our boys brutally slain in the service of a cruel expansionist power when we just do it all over again?
Then, of course, there’s the control of the triumphalist event afforded to the RSL, an organisation that by no means represents all of those who have suffered in war. That this group has the power to legitimise participation in what is, purportedly, an inclusive national day of mourning when they have previously delegitimised participation by Australian women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is total pants. The cold, masculinist embrace by the RSL of those who have fallen has left, and still leaves, many unsupported.
And then there’s the curious hypocrisy that allows a nation to countenance claims that commemoration of the many massacres of indigenous Australians is a “black arm-band” view of history when it appears to be perfectly happy to build fantasies of a Disneyfied past. We are not prepared to grieve for one set of bloody mistakes because, apparently, the descendants of the victims should just “get over it”. Yet, we seem to experience no trouble at all in being informed by false history when it suits the maintenance of our mythology. We’re not “getting over” this fiction of heroism in a hurry.
All of these critiques, which I consider entirely valid, have been amply made today and in previous years. It’s quite possible that many Australians feel as Alec Campbell, our last Anzac, did, who reportedly said at his death bed, “’For god’s sake, don’t glorify Gallipoli—it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten”.
The words of the Tasmanian soldier and unionist, which were themselves an act of great courage, are more stirring to me today than the Ode of Remembrance. And, yes, I know that I have never fought for my nation etc., but, heck, we’re not exactly a military super power and so, the likelihood that you have either is really very slim. Don’t go on with “you don’t know hardship and masculine friendship forged in war” when (a) you probably haven’t and (b) intimate knowledge of terror is not a prerequisite to a critique of how we perform history in this psychologically fragile nation.
This is not, for a minute, to discredit the extraordinary sacrifice that Australian men and women have chosen to make, or—let’s be honest—been forced to make in war. I am quite capable of fairly high emotion when thinking of expendable bodies left to rot in trenches for Britain, in the jungles of Vietnam for the US or in the plains of Iraq for goodness-only-knows what.
This is not to take a dump on the Ode or the war dead. It is, however, to say that Anzac Day has acquired, in addition to its function of exclusion of many harmed in battles for land, the function of making us forget.
And, it’s the wrong kind of forgetting and not at all the sort of thing that Campbell recommended in his last moments of life. To see war, whose study has the potential to be such a great university, as a simple matter of honour and dishonour is only to dishonour its dead.
Gallipoli was a farce. It was a needless, poorly strategised surrender of young life. Vietnam was a conscripted embarrassment to which 60,000 Australian bodies were offered for no reason nobler than “we don’t like communism”. Iraq remains, even to the best minds in foreign policy, a riddle wrapped in an enigma swathed in the flag of nationalism and hunger for trade with the US. If We Will Remember Them, let us remember them. Let us remember why their lives were taken, transformed or cruelly pressed into the service of domestic politicians seeking re-election.
There is so much to be gained from a true engagement with our past and so much to be lost from a cursory reading of history. There is so much we owe the men and women who died and fought in wars outside, and inside, our borders and we have managed to forget this debt in a nativist carnival of easy self-love.
If we’re going to do this remembrance thing, let’s do it. Let’s not say there is a right way or a right people to remember when considering the cost of war. Let’s look, as we annually pretend that we are, back into the history of sacrifice and really see what it can teach us.
Among those lessons is not that Gallipoli was a moment we must relive with a series of cheesy simulations—if you want to see history first as tragedy, then as farce, look no further than the historically irrational Camp Gallipoli. Among these lessons is not, however much the honourable Campbell pleaded for it, that we must forget. It is that we must truly remember.