Thursday 25 April 2002

Lest we forget

Today is Anzac Day, the national holiday that commemorates the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles on April 25, 1915. Earlier in the week the Sydney Morning Herald published an article by two historians (Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson) in which they offered a “corrective to 10 myths about the Anzac campaign.” As an introduction, they wrote:

Anzac Day is our national day. It has quite eclipsed Australia Day, which has become an embarrassment for some, a day at the cricket for others, and a long weekend for most. No orgy of fuzzy sentimentality or outpouring of national pride takes place in January. Such emotions are the exclusive preserve of April 25. This phenomenon is unstoppable. For better or worse, it is on Anzac Day that we celebrate being a nation and becoming a nation.

Yet this devotion to Anzac Day is puzzling. The choice of a military action almost a century ago as a founding event excludes more than half the population: women, indigenous people and most ethnic groups. And if we insist on equating nationhood with death in battle, why choose a defeat by an adversary then regarded as the sick man of Europe instead of our role in the war’s culminating battles in 1918 against Germany?

Anzac Day does seem to be unstoppable. For increasing numbers of young Australians, a visit to the Gallipoli battlegrounds is now seen as an essential stop on their first overseas trip. They, along with millions of other Australians, clearly understand—as Prior and Wilson do not—that no-one is excluded when (to use the words of the official historian, C.W. Bean) “enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance” are remembered and acknowledged.

Why choose to celebrate a defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) rather than one of the victories against the Germans on the Western Front? The Australian War Memorial suggests one reason:

Australians recognise 25 April as an occasion of national commemoration. Commemorative services are held at dawn, the time of the original landing, across the nation. Later in the day ex-servicemen and women meet and join in marches through the major cities and many smaller centres. Commemorative ceremonies are held at war memorials around the country. It is a day when Australians reflect on the many different meanings of war.

A defeat affords us the opportunity to discover meanings for war that the celebration of a victory would not.

For me, Anzac Day offers an antidote to the relentless obsession with success that exerts such a corrosive influence on our current values and behavior. Anzac Day draws our attention to what Ivan Morris calls The Nobility of Failure, enabling us to:

identify… emotionally with these individuals who waged their forlorn struggle against overwhelming odds; and the fact that all their efforts are crowned with failure lends them a pathos which characterizes the general vanity of human endeavor and makes them the most loved and evocative of heroes.

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Another interesting and changing part of Anzac Day is the public attitude towards those who served in Vietnam and the private and personal attitude of those who served in Vietnam to the Anzac Day celebrations. Having missed out on conscription , I remember Vietnam as the days of R&R in Sydney. The music in the clubs fuelled by American dollars and young hip white and black Americans loaded with exotic drugs was wild. Music that wasn't then played on radio and TV in Sydney was introduced by the American service men. All the great Soul music of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Wilson Picket : The blues of early BB King and Muddy Waters and Lighnin Hopkins : The country of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzel played by the young Emmanuel brothers in Nev Nicholls band at the Texas Tavern. But I digress from the connection with Anzac Day. Twenty to thirty years later I saw the effect on old friends and neighbours who served in Vietnam. Most I hadn't spoken to since their Vietnam tour of duty. Labelled murderers on their return by protest groups and strangely not accepted as members by many RSL's they were isolated and deeply disturbed. Some travelled down the Lost Highway of booze and pills, some retreated and have never acknowledged or attended a single Anzac Day celebration, some sought counseling, some stuck tight with their service mates and fought to be accepted by the RSL's and as part of Anzac Day. Over the years public opinion has moved to accepting them as suitable Anzac Day participants and there is no problems with being accepted by the RSL clubs today. The economic reality of dwindling RSL membership and the ever decreasing Anzac Day marchers are obvious reasons why we need more ANZACs. Yes it is our national day and the phenomenon is unstoppable. Vietnam serviceman qualify for full Anzac Day membership especially given the fact that the origin of Anzac Day is the rememberance of defeat in War.

Posted by Bob Burns on 1 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by erae on 13 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by ized on 15 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour