The nationalistic vigour seems to increase in width and girth every ANZAC day. Like a steroid addict the media can’t get enough of lavishly promoting the ageing diggers and the teary eyed young folks brimming with pride from being draped in the union jack and southern cross. We are told that the spirit of the ANZAC’s defines us as Australians. To question this absolute truth is akin to treason.
Much of the fault is former Prime Minister John Howard who saw in ANZAC day an opportunity to promote his vision for Australia; conservative, white, fond believers in Queen and country.
In 2005 he said:
Those who fought here in places like Quinn’s Post, Pope’s Hill and the Nek changed forever the way we saw our world and ourselves. They bequeathed Australia a lasting sense of national identity. They sharpened our democratic temper and our questioning eye towards authority. We used to say that the ranks of the original Anzacs were thinning with each passing year. They are all gone now. Now what swells with each Anzac season is a hunger for their stories. Now we remember them not as old soldiers but as young Australians, often from the same suburbs, streets, districts and towns that we come from. Just as many of you have come here today with your brothers and your mates, so it was 90 years ago that the young of Australia surged forward to enlist along with their brothers and their mates.
The myth of mateship and bravery in the face of stupid odds or stupidity has framed much of the debate. The myth goes that the Australian identity was forged in the harsh battlefield of war, that as the Turkish bullets rained down upon the poorly prepared Australian soldiers, the colonials stood proud and strong and brave as they died in their thousands. This is the fabled Australian spirit, that notion that we amongst all nations are determined to prove ourselves in an uncertain and frightening world a national identity. This is a ridiculous concept. In fact the ANZAC’s saw the battle for Gallipoli as unwinnable and wanted to retreat by the second day and were convinced to stay by the British generals intent on continuing a flawed strategy to secure Istanbul.
The battle of Gallipoli was a tragedy for all involved, particularly New Zealand and Turkey, who had the most deaths per capita. In this context the 8,900 Australian deaths were fairly modest given the 60,000 who died in the “Great War”. That the war shattered an entire generation of families for little gain has been erased from the official telling of ANZAC day. Compare the original intent of ANZAC to commemorate the dreadful loss of lives to John Howard’s fiery language.
“It is a story of great valour under fire, unity of purpose and a willingness to fight against the odds that has helped to define what it means to be an Australian.”
The Australian character if there is one, has been defined by our remoteness, the White Australia policy, our geography, federation, immigration in the late twentieth century, and a fear of being alone in an uncertain world. Like any nationalist celebraton, ANZAC Day is more about the ties that bind us to a xenophobic past than a gaze towards a glorious present. The day Australia should celebrate to truly commemorate looking forward to an inclusive and pluralist future is 10 August, the day the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal People) 1967 which removed the racist provisions in th Australian constitution became law.
Or if the people really want to drape a flag around them and paradoxically raise their fists in defiance of the authorities in a national celebration then the Eureka Rebellion fought on 3 December 1854 is a perfect choice.