Anzac Day: Poignant Remembrance or Mythologisation?

Posted on April 24, 2012 by


BY BEN HABIB.

I attended my first ANZAC Day dawn service in Mount Gambier in the early 1990s, with a friend and his Vietnam veteran father.  It was a cold, drizzling morning, a poignant backdrop for sombre remembrance.  I remember being deeply moved by a couple of hundred people standing in complete silence, completely enveloped by the sound of the bugler and the melody of raindrops falling on umbrellas.  The prevailing sentiment was that war was hell and such pointless sacrifice of human life should never happen again.

Indeed, who could not be moved by the sacrifice of those young men, from many nations, on both sides of the trenches, who lost their lives on the Gallipoli Peninsula during that hellish eight months in 1915?  Who could not appreciate how the cultural distinctivness of the Australians and New Zealanders became apparent in relation to their British cousins in the British imperial force?  Who could not fathom the deep bonds of friendship that would develop between troops fighting in the trenches and the tradition of mateship that would linger in Australian society?  These are all worthy of sombre remembrance as key developments in the Australian national story.

However, I have a hard time stomaching the jingoistic claim that the ANZAC diggers fought for the freedoms we enjoy today.  No-one can adequately explain to me how the Aussie diggers, fighting as part of a British imperial country, invading a sovereign country on the other side of the world in a war with a competing empire has anything to do with fighting for freedom in Australia.  As former Prime Minister Paul Keating has argued, the idea that Gallipoli was fought to defend freedom and democracy is a nationalist myth.

I find it hard to embrace the ANZAC tradition on the grounds that the Australia the diggers were fighting for was an exclusionary, racist country that persectued the Lebanese members of my family lineage through the White Australia Policy.  When I consider the other side of my family, hailing from Ukraine after World War Two, the ANZAC tradition has little personal resonance at all.  Despite the fact that I deeply empathise with the courage and sacrifice of the ANZAC diggers, I find it difficult to identify with the ‘freedom and democracy’ ANZAC myth.

Monash University political philosopher and occassional ABC TV pundit Tim Soutphommasane shares a similar story:

As a first-generation Australian who was born overseas, bearing Chinese and Lao heritage, I once struggled to see how Anzac Day could have meaning for me. During my teenage years I found myself at a loss when others at school spoke about the sacrifice made by ”our forebears” in defending ”an Australian way of life”.  This wasn’t something to which I could relate. I didn’t have a grandfather or great-grandfather who served at Gallipoli or on the Western Front. I knew enough to know that the Australia that Diggers fought to defend was one that would have excluded my forebears under the White Australia policy.

Australia has a complicated national story.  We do no justice to any of the protagonists in this epic tale by leaving out portions of the story or inventing myths to obfuscate its darker moments.  I feel sorry for the people who cannot ponder the Gallipoli story in all of its complexity.  On April 25th, I choose to remember the humanity of those who lost their lives at Gallipoli, rather than the excesses of the politicised mythology that has become their unfortunate legacy.

How does ANZAC Day resonate with you?  Please share your thoughts in the comments thread below.

References

Anzac Day,’ Australian Government, 8 January 2009.

Anzac Day Media Style Guide,’ University of South Australia and Monash University.

David Day, ‘The myth that binds,’ The Age, 24 April 2012.

Editorial: The meaning of Anzac Day,’ The Age, 25 April 2011.

Paul Keating, ‘In conversation with Robert Manne,’ The Wheeler Centre, 11 November 2011.

Mapping our Anzacs,’ National Archives of Australia.

Sharon Mascall-Dare, ‘Need new words to tell an old tale,’ The Age, 24 April 2012.

Guy Rundle, ‘Anzac Day and why we need to question ‘myths’ of war,’ Crikey, 24 April 2012.

Tim Soutphommasane, ‘Where does Anzac Day fit in a culturally diverse Australia?‘, The Age, 23 April 2012.

Rebecca Wheatley, ‘Give young the freedom to engage with Anzac tradition,’ The Age, 23 April 2012.

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Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben is an internationally published researcher with interests including North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

 The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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