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I’ve got the Anzac Day blues

| Pearls & Irritations

BRISBANE - Australia has never been the maker of its own history. So said the legendary Manning Clark, who spent a life mapping the heart of our nation.

From the utterly worthless Sudan campaign of 1885 to the most recent atrocity-ridden Afghanistan War, our people have been made to wade through blood in foreign lands to satisfy feckless sycophantic leadership at home and unfathomable geo-political intrigues festering far away.

Yet this is far from the official narrative that Australians have swallowed hook, line, and sinker. We continue to see this history of war violence through cataract eyes.

War narratives are never innocent. Despite what their protagonists feverishly claim, they are never on the side of the Angels.

We come to know ourselves in the stories we tell about ourselves. If we tell ourselves lies, and the big lie is Anzac, then we know each other falsely.

For example, it is said, and we will hear it said again this Anzac Day, that 25 April 1915 was the day our nation was born.

Not sure how 8,709 Australians cut to ribbons by Mustapha Jemal’s forces on those western slopes of the unforgiving Sari Bair Range was the midwife for the birth of our nation.

That birth occurred 14 years prior, on 1 January 1901, when the six colonies federated into the Commonwealth of Australia. Yes, I know, hardly the thing of myths, but there it is.

The people were after a spicier story of the birth of the nation.

A mere six months after the Gallipoli massacre South Australians voted to rename the traditional celebrations for the 8 Hour Day, ‘Anzac Day’.

The event included a procession through Adelaide, a carnival at Adelaide Oval, and a curious planned headlong smash between two old trams, resulting in a spectacular firestorm.

The Anzac myth was on its way. Anzac Day has been observed every year since 1916.

In 1927, during the prime ministership of Stanley Bruce, every state observed some form of formal public holiday on Anzac Day.

By the mid-1930s all the rituals we now associate with the day were in place dawn vigils, marches, two minutes’ silence, memorial services, wreath laying ceremonies and reunions.

Wartime writers oxygenated the foetal myth and made it grow.

Journalists like CEW Bean, glorified the tragedy of war through gluggy patriotic over-writing. They portrayed armed conflict as an exhilarating adventure. It was cricket with guns.

The soldier became the apotheosis of Australian manhood. So began the biggest lie we as a nation has ever incubated. Bean has a lot to answer for.

So too has the Returned Services League (RSL), that conservative canker still squatting in the public landscape.

In 1922, with a side door entrée to prime minister Billy Hughes’s office, the National Congress of the ultra-conservative Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) demanded Anzac Day should be known as Australia’s National Day and “be observed with a statutory public holiday in order to inculcate into the rising generation the highest national ideals”.

Yes, the RSL blows on the Anzac embers, but Anzac memorialisation is principally curated by the Australian War Memorial Council.

It has never taken us up into the mountains to look down on the grand sweeps of history. Rather, we are kept entertained at ground level, in narrow, claustrophobic cognitive trenches, so to speak.

Little wonder that when we remember war, we miniaturise it as separate acts of ‘valour’, ‘mateship’, ‘duty’ and ‘patriotism’.

This is bad, bad history. It is constructing a view of us that never was.

Since the start of the Anzac Day renaissance in the 1990s our war history has been panel beaten into a shape that we should be ashamed of.

In charge of the instruments of historical reconstruction has been an army of philistines, jingoists, racists and militarists.

You see them in front of wide-eyed primary school classes, moulding young minds through colourful Anzac Day school projects about heroes in pageant wars.

You see them in RSL board meetings, where old voices raise above the clatter of club life and the tinkle of pokies stealing money from the pockets of disconsolate ex-diggers, to make a point or two about our glorious dead.

You see it in the school-girl crushes politicians like John Howard, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Stuart Robert have for our Special Forces, notwithstanding the fact that some men who wore the sword through the boomerang hat badge became rampaging killers in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan.

The panel beaters reshaped the Anzac story in a way that would emphasise the bravado moments of our history while quietly eliding stories that did not match the Anzac myth. Some of these stories did get through into popular culture, such as Alan Seymour’s play, The One Day of the Year. Most don’t.

The historian Phillip Tolliday has argued that this recasting started at roughly the same time that personal memory was fading and the imperial ties with England that had been an essential part of the Anzac story were being slowly eviscerated.

This fading of memory gave room for ideological imagination controlled by the aforementioned panel beaters.

Up to the moment they drew their last breath on far away blood fields, our diggers chronicled the chaos in letters home. The Australian War Memorial holds many of these.

As if having to submit their stories to the blue pencils of the military censors was not enough humiliation, once the letters were gifted to the Australian War Memorial another round of censorship takes place, and it is this one that is an ongoing national disgrace.

Our diggers not only gave up their lives, but they gave up their stories to the war memorial curators.

These people, using what Tolliday called the “ideological imagination”, select for exhibition display letters that reveal and augment the four pillars of the Anzac myth: mateship, duty, courage and patriotism.

Letters that show leadership idiocy, friendship betrayals, rapes, murder, stealing and cowardice remain boxed up in the war memorial’s offsite storage facility in the Canberra suburb of Mitchell. The diggers who wrote these critical letters home have been buried twice.

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Then check it out for yourself. I suggest you write to Tony Abbott, who will soon assume the chair of the Australian War Memorial Council and ask him when will the memorial mount public exhibitions with titles such as ‘The ten worst leaders in Australia’s military history’ or ‘The persecution of pacifists in Australia’s military history’, or ‘Cowardice on the battlefield’, or “Women’s accounts of rape by Australian soldiers”. Nope, never going to happen.

Manning Clark had something to say about this: “I hope that the story of [Australia’s] past…would increase wisdom and understanding. It should turn the mind of the reader towards the things that matter." Dream on Manning.

If he were alive today, Manning would be appalled at the Anzac Day chutzpah that has now taken hold. This once-a-year military version of the Melbourne Cup is now a flag waving carnival of deceit and smugness. A Mardi Gras with guns.

Politicians, so grateful that they have never seen war, give shallow speeches as they squint into the rising sun with a languidness that comes with the assurance that a sniper is not going to blast their heads off.

Then they give over the podiums across the land to desk-dwelling generals and admirals wearing their best military jewellery, who say the same things they, or their predecessors, said last year.

The rising sun picks up the wrought iron on their chests. It’s a big day out for the toffs in starched uniforms.

As the years go by, Anzac Day will get bigger and bigger. It has to.

A cultural hole has been discovered in the heart of Australian with the retreat into quite ignominy of the other day, Australia Day.

Once the nationalist day of the year, it is now mocked as Invasion Day. It is getting messy.

On that same day, black protests are growing in numbers and credibility. It is getting to the stage when it will be avoided by reasonable people.

Australia Day’s future belongs to flagged draped hoons, pissed and loud. It will soon be the property of extreme right groups such as the Australian Defence League and the Lads Society.

The hole left by the subsidence of Australia Day will be filled by Anzac Day. But it too, in time, will vanish from the social landscape.

Bob Hawke, the first prime minister to lead the dawn service at Gallipoli, splendidly caught the tension between Australia Day and Anzac Day when he said:

“Here at last, was a day that could be shaped into a true source of national communion.

“The blood spilt in the frontier wars, the taking of Aboriginal land without consent or compensation, the physical and cultural decline of Aboriginal communities, and the political demands of Aboriginal activists, none of these need haunt or spoil the commemoration of Anzac Day.

“For Anzac Cove, not Sydney Cove, was where the right kind of Australian blood had been shed.”

Hawke was right. Australia Day is built on a false truth.

Dr William De Maria is a Brisbane based writer and political commentator


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Bernard Corden

'Dulce et Decorum Est' by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

NB: The Latin phrase, Dulce et Decorum Est, is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Wilfred Owen was an old boy from my grammar school, Birkenhead Institute:

Bernard Corden

Worth a read:

Douglas Vavar

The first Australians to die in the Great War were Captain Brian Pockley and Able Seaman William Williams, who were killed in September 1914 in the Battle of Rabaul, when an expeditionary force was sent to silence the wireless station in German New Guinea.

The first Royal Australian Navy submarine lost in the great war sank in the Duke of York Islands off the coast of Rabaul. HMAS AE1 was finally found in December 2017.

Its sister ship HMAS AE2 also patrolled the Pacific but was eventually sent to the Dardanelles campaign in 1915. When it was hit, it was scuttled by its crew who were captured and eventually released after the war.

Paul Oates

Seeking balance in the discussion.

In every argument and discussion there needs to be a degree of balance in order that the outcome is determined on logic and not mere emotion, be it from any part of the presently coloured political spectrum.

The article presented here is clearly dripping with malice and strongly held frustration over past actions and contentious decisions. As Chris Overland has suggested, there is however a need to learn from past mistakes or, as George Santayana maintained, we are doomed to repeat them.

In many ways, a discussion about Anzac Day is indeed an appropriate occasion to reflect on what has happened in history and to learn from past mistakes. Yet there is also an equal but entirely necessary additional necessity to learn from what decisions were appropriate and therefore not to forget them as well.

It is true that many people in past generations went to war over political jingoism and false claims. Be it politicians or lowly clan chiefs, leaders are only people after all and therefore subject to the same influences and fears as the next person. No one should claim to be above reproach.

If we concentrate and not forget the lessons of the past, we stand a better chance of making logically better decisions in the future.

Can anyone argue that one of the lessons that still has to be learnt is about the way Australian State Premiers are using their positions to promote parochial interests? In times of national emergencies or war, is this desirable and in the national interests of all this nations citizens?

The united national spirit that evolved from the combined operations during the first World War was important for our young nation at the time. Many people who were both born here and who had emigrated here still joined together in the name of presenting a united front in defence of the nation.

To suggest that it would have been better not to fight in both the First and Second World Wars presents a view that it would therefore have been better to allow the opposing forces to win. Much the same could be applied to the Korean War, a UN action, and the Malayan Emergency.

Of the Vietnam War and more recently, the Afghan and Middle East conflicts there are clearly some serious lessons to be learnt, not the least being how not to get involved with allies who apparently have very little idea of what might constitute a victory and how to achieve it in the best possible manner.

There are those who point to the Second World War and say there were no actual enemy plans to invade Australia, so why were we fighting? Certainly, there were many at the time who thought by surrendering the top half of the country, under the so-called ‘Brisbane Line’, this would effectively satisfy the enemy. In the annals of human history, the lack of effective resistance never preserved a nation’s integrity.

If there is at least one serious lesson that should be learnt from the 20th Century, its that appeasement never works with dictators and authoritative regimes. To put our proverbial head in the sand over what we know are factual reports and not propaganda, only invites those who wish to muddy the waters, a clear opportunity to present their propaganda in an uncontested forum of world and national opinion.

If we as Australians, are not prepared to stand up for what we know is right and to draw a line on what we know is wrong, then the obvious conclusion by any real or potential enemy is that we don’t care. Not to resist an authoritative regime that does not obey previously agreed on rules-based international relations will clearly send a message of an opportunity for further success, no matter what they claim now or say tomorrow.

A real problem arises when a nation, that is not traditionally made up of warriors, then finds itself confronted and threatened. In the past, this has allowed those who are natural pacifists to convince others not to resist. Yet history can only be learnt from the records of those who survive.

It’s been said many times that ‘War does not determine who is right but only who is left’.

William Dunlop

A hard-hitting well-written article William De Maria. It cuts to the bone laying bare the waffling on of CEW Bean and his ilk. "Between Bean and Murdoch pissing in Billy Hughes pockets, not much room for anyone else."

We no longer have a City RSL in Darwin. It burned down and they have had the insurance settled but there is much toing and froing, mostly about the one-armed bandits and the size of the new building.

The bigger it is the more bandits they can cram in.

Several years ago they were having a mural painted on the wall opposite the lift doors. You guessed it, Gallipoli. I suggested Kokoda was a more appropriate mural.

It happened that this was where Australian men and boys faced up to the then invincible Imperial Japanese Army who were duly forced back to the beaches of Killerton, Buna, Gona and Oro Bay.

It was the start of the beginning of the end of Imperial Japan. This is what Australia Day should be about.

Chris Overland

Dr De Maria has certainly unleashed some caustic criticism of the Anzac tradition, much of it well deserved.

For example, I would argue that Paul Keating was right to say that the Kokoda campaign of 1942 was much more deserving of recognition as a seminal military event in our history than a poorly led, poorly organised and ultimately unsuccessful imperial adventure in a far away land of which most Australians knew nothing.

I think that in 1901, when Australia first came into existence, the people and politicians of the day felt vaguely discomforted, perhaps even cheated, that the country was brought into being by protracted negotiations and a national plebiscite.

The drama and spectacle of something like the American or French revolutions was missing, so there was nothing seemingly notable upon which to construct a unifying national mythology.

The fact that Australia's birth was a profoundly democratic act was not, of itself, deemed worthy of much note.

Australia's search for a unifying mythology has for a long time been satisfied by the Anzac Day tradition but I think that its ability to fulfil this need is diminishing, both with time and the changing nature of the country itself.

If you were born in India or China or the Philippines or Europe, the Anzac Day mythology seems unlikely to resonate especially strongly.

Australia Day is increasingly seen as being held on the wrong date for the wrong reasons. I think there is a good deal of sympathy for Aboriginal people who regard that day as symbolising the start of a near genocidal disaster for their people.

I continue to participate in Anzac Day ceremonies because members of my family have fought, been wounded, suffered imprisonment and starvation, and died during Australia's wars.

My daughter continues to serve in the RAAF and is a veteran of our most recent war in Afghanistan.

As is the case for many Australians, war looms over the family history like a malignant shadow, always there but mostly seen out of the corner of the eye, except on Anzac Day, when it stands out before us in stark relief.

I do not give a damn about national mythology but I do give a damn about those who have suffered in our many wars, irrespective of whether they were justified or not.

What is certain is that there will be more wars and more of our people will go forth to see, hear and do things that most of us very definitely do not wish to be part of.

This is history's ghastly lesson and one from which we studiously avert our gaze, hoping against hope that it will not happen again.

The Anzacs knew all too well what war was and if there is anything useful to be derived from understanding their experience it is that, as General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, "War is all hell".

That is something to remember on Anzac Day.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Spot on commentary.

The Australians, New Zealanders and British troops at Gallipoli were the expendable fodder that was fed into the plan by European nations to carve up the Ottoman Empire.

And Australian troops have been expendable fodder in almost every imperialistic overseas military venture ever since.

It's a shameful record.

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