Remembering Anzac Day: stark lessons squandered and myths reinforced

I have little to add to these quoted comments below from Paul Norton’s Anzac Day post at LP, which focuses on the militaristic myth side of Anzac Day. As usual, there are some illiterates objecting to the use of the word “myth” as if the word means “untrue in its entirety”. The usage of “myth” when discussing recent history always, of course, nearly always refers to the meanings 2b and 2c below:

OED: myth (n.)
1. a. A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.
Myth is strictly distinguished from allegory and legend by some scholars, but in general use it is often used interchangeably with these terms.
b. As a mass noun: such stories collectively or as a genre.
In later use coloured by sense 2a.
2. a. A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth. Also: something existing only in myth; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing.
b. A person or thing held in awe or generally referred to with near reverential admiration on the basis of popularly repeated stories (whether real or fictitious). Cf. LEGEND n. 8.
c. A popular conception of a person or thing which exaggerates or idealizes the truth.

Anyway, the quotes (my emphasis added):

I think the best lefty take would be not that the bravery of the soldiers shouldn’t be remembered, but that the stark lessons the calamity had for:
– our miserable one-sided relationship with ‘empire’
– the foolishness of following distant allies into conflicts with people we have no rational truck with
– the abject horror of war and need to use it only as a last, possible resort in situations of real, uncontested existential threat

etc etc do not appear to have been learned. Not one iota. And this in my view dishonours those awful deaths.

Tosca quotes from Paul Keating’s speech at the launch of a book about Churchill and Gallipolli:

Freudenberg had written of Gallipoli that “in an almost theological sense Australian Britons had been born again into the baptism of fire at Anzac Cove”. Keating’s response was that:

“Without seeking to simplify the then bonds of empire and the implicit sense of obligation, or to diminish the bravery of our own men, we still go on as though the nation was born again or even, was redeemed there. An utter and complete nonsense. For these reasons I have never been to Gallipoli and I never will.”


The charachteristics displayd by the ANZACs at Gallipoli continue to define Australian Service Personel who are a reflection of Australian society – Mateship, humour in the face of adversity, courage, loyalty, dedication, a disdain for pomposity and fools, kicking the traces against authority, a fair go and a fair crack, professionalism, etc etc. This is worth remembering.

See I don’t think these things are:
a) necessarily demonstrated at ANZAC cove any more than anywhere else, and
b) particularly Australian traits at all.

This I think is the ‘myth’ that people are talking about, and at the risk of pissing you off more than I may have already (and I truly don’t intend to), the idea that these traits are especially Australian, and indeed that idea that Australians are special for anything strikes me as the other side of the racism coin.


My view is that ANZAC Day is about honouring the courage, spirit and mateship of our armed forces and that Remembrance Day is about reminding us that such stuff should never ever be squandered.

And never mind ANZAC Day, one of the most charged moments I’ve ever experienced has been in the Melbourne CBD as the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month ticks over.

Everything stops. Trams, cars, cyclists, pedestrians. (Baffled visitors twitch and wonder if it is some flash mob thing). For one minute we think about time stopping for our ancestors who fought the two most terrible wars ever. No cheering or parades. Just an eerie and thought-provoking halt. When it happens, shivers go up my spine and no one can think of any songs to sing.

One of best things I can say about Australia is that we have no popular martial songs and that all our well-known military heros tend to be healers, not killers. Simpson and his bloody donkey, Weary Dunlop, etc.

This is in no way a reflection on the professional Australian military – but let’s face it, Australians can be good soldiers, are often great warriors but basically the whole military caste and tradition thing just doesn’t click with this country.

But risking your own arse to pull your mate out of a swamp of shell-stirred shit, blood and mud and then bullshitting to your cynical commanding officers about what happened is what this nation was really founded on.

(do go read the prize-winning high-schooler essay reproduced in the LP post)

Categories: history, language, Life, Politics

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9 replies

  1. I think the best lefty take would be not that the bravery of the soldiers shouldn’t be remembered, but that the stark lessons the calamity had for:
    – our miserable one-sided relationship with ‘empire’
    – the foolishness of following distant allies into conflicts with people we have no rational truck with
    – the abject horror of war and need to use it only as a last, possible resort in situations of real, uncontested existential threat

    This is pretty much how it was taught when I was in primary school, in the 1980s. ANZAC day was all about remembering the unnecessary waste of life, not about the honour and glory of war, as it seems to be today.

  2. @ Beppie:
    Two things at least I can think of that have contributed to the change: firstly years of Howard’s overt jingoism regarding Anzac Day and secondly a largely subconscious response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, where somehow the ANZACs battling against Johnny Turk stand in for the Coalition of the Willing’s endeavours in Afghanistan and Iran.

  3. Hexy reminds us of the role of the forgotten soldiers: ANZAC Day and Indigenous Australians…. – soldiers who were not legally allowed to enlist, who said that they were Indian or Maori or “half-caste” or who passed, who were illegally underpaid, who were not allowed to have a drink in the pubs with their mates after the war, who until very recently were completely erased from the historical record and the official ANZAC memories.
    We will remember them.

  4. Anna has a saddening post up at The Hand Mirror.
    Some thirty years ago, my dad got chatting to a very old man. In the course of the conversation, the old man remarked that he’d been his mother’s favourite son. He then added, ‘But the other four were killed in the war’. Four bleak telegrams, each telling a mother that the child she’d raised and loved was gone.

    War is not a simple tale of noble men serving high principles. It’s a far more complex story of wealth and territory; kids who grow up without dads; women who raise families alone, unsure whether their partners will return; conscientious objectors; torture; deprivation and cruelty against civilians; a number of men who return home, physically and psychologically broken, to families that don’t know them; and some men who don’t make it home at all.
    The theme of ANZAC day is ‘Lest we forget’. If we treat war as some romantic, nationalistic boys’ own adventure, then we’ve already forgotten.

  5. @ Deborah:
    Your own post about ensuring that Australians don’t forget the NZ part of ANZAC was also sobering, Deborah. I think the Australian mythos (not the servicemembers themselves, who still do lots of joint operations with NZ forces) does tend to forget the Kiwi brethren at Gallipoli.

  6. From Mia Dyson’s This Country:
    This country isn’t mine,
    it was stolen ‘fore my time
    by folks that look like me
    I was born of their legacy
    and my heart does surely freeze
    from the stories that I read
    of the children and their mothers
    kicked to death , buried to their shoulders
    Mend baby mend, heal child heal
    Mend baby mend, heal child heal
    every year that comes around
    we line the streets standing proud
    and we honour fallen men
    hands on heart ‘lest we forget’
    but in the papers we demand
    that the folks who lost their land
    children stolen history banned
    should forget and move on now
    Mend baby mend, heal child heal
    Mend baby mend, heal child heal

  7. That’s very pointed, and sad, Bernice. I’ve heard a bit about mateship today, but I’ve long been of the view that mateship doesn’t extend to Aboriginal people.
    @Tigtog, regarding my own Anzac Day post, I haven’t been looking at the coverage much today (I’m a bit laid up with slapped cheek fever which one of my girls kindly brought home from school a couple of weeks ago), but it does seem to me this year to be a bit less “Australia 4eva” patriotism and more along the lines of sobering remembrance of all the lives lost. John Howard’s influence fading, perhaps?

  8. I’ve never really felt like ANZAC day was one of “my” holidays. Part of this is because on Mum’s side of the family there was a history of conscientious objection (my maternal grandfather spent most of WW2 in a “conshie” camp – it makes it hard to feel patriotic as a result) and my paternal grandfather was a gold miner who’d lost an eye (and was thus exempt from service). So I don’t have the familial military history to rely on as an anchor. Instead, I was able to do things like look at the level of jingoism which got spouted at ANZAC assemblies, and listen critically to the story of why we’d landed at what’s now called ANZAC Cover in the first place (put simply: it was cock-up by the British admiralty). Doing further research into World War One killed any sense of “glory” from military service for me, because that entire war was a long and frightening example of pure pig-headed, bloody-minded stupidity and utter blindness to circumstances on the part of the British military establishment. It was a stupid war from the start – started for stupid reasons, in response to stupid policies, in defence of insane alliances; continued because the British generals weren’t able to learn from experience; and finally ended through sheer inertia, with conditions which resulted in the general humiliation of an entire culture (and the creation of another massive European conflict within a single generation, which then spread to encompass the entire globe).
    What this means in practical terms is my ANZAC day song list consists primarily of “Scorn of the Women” by Weddings Parties Anything (about a man who was refused for service in WW2, and the social consequences of same); “I Was Only 19 (A Walk in the Light Green)” by Redgum (the story of an Australian soldier in Vietnam and what they had to learn the hard way); and then “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” by Eric Bogle. I also have space for “Khe Sahn” by Cold Chisel (after-effects of Vietnam).
    “It takes more than bullets to murder, to maim
    Whether worn down or beaten, a death’s still a death
    And you know sometimes when I think back to the forties,
    I pray for my very last breath.
    You know, I have nothing against those who fought
    I mean, for Christ’s sake, we do what we can
    But there’s more than one way that you can skin a cat
    And there’s more than one way you can cripple a man.”
    “I can still see Frankie sinking tinnies in the grand hotel
    On a thirty-six hour rec leave in Vung Tau
    And I can still hear Frankie lying screaming in the jungle
    Till the morphine came and stopped the bloody row.
    And the ANZAC legends never mentioned mud and blood and tears
    And the stories that my father told me never seemed quite real”
    “Carparks made me jumpy, and I couldn’t stop the dreams
    Or the growing need for speed and novocaine.”
    “Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over ted
    And when I awoke in my hospital bed
    And saw what it had left me, I wished I was dead
    Never knew there were worse things than dying.”
    That’s what we’re celebrating. What I don’t know is why. I also don’t know why the hells we’re still being good little colonial lapdogs, sending our young men overseas to die on someone else’s decree; but then, I doubt I’ll ever figure that one out. I’ll be interested in seeing what sort of songs come out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

  9. I remember a simple story of a man and a woman on a train. The woman is counting to five on her fingers, over and over again. Amused onlookers ask the man (her husband) why she doesn’t stop counting. She’s counting her sons lost in the war he replies, all of their children. He is taking her to an asylum because he can’t look after her anymore. I think this is a British story, and sadly I suspect it’s true.

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