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.