Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Guest post by AJ: On ANZAC Day

(Cross posted at AJ's site.)

One of the biggest problems of having no car, is the walk home the morning after. Having been to a cocktail party last night, I did the 25 minute trek back from the ferry this morning, adorned in some $1300 worth of suit, shoes, belt and watch. This being Australia in Autumn, it was of course some 20 something degrees, and I sweated as I trecked in my inappropriate attire. However it was a lovely walk, as it is a beautiful, clear day in Brisbane, and for the reasons I am about to explain, it gave me some things to thing about.

Today is ANZAC day in Australia. It the day that we commerate the sacrifice of all those servicemen and women who have fallen in the name of this country, and recognize the contribution of all those who came home. The day honours the first landing of Australian and New Zealand troops on the beaches of Gallipoli during World War 1. As you would (hopefully) know, the invasion was not successful, and over 8,000 Australians alone died in the attempt. During World War 1, Australia suffered the largest per capita military casualty rate (with 10% of our population overseas fighting on foreign shores), and New Zealand suffered the greates per capita casualty rate.

Thus as I walked home, looking very swish and every bit the modern Australian male, who is both Metro and a SNAG, I had an identy crisis. I walked past dozens of young families with children waving the Australia flag, I walked past a number of aging servicemen with medals proudly displayed. Today is a day where we celebrate and recognize. However I realized on my way home that I wasn't sure what we were celebrating, nor what we are recognizing.

Is it War? Sometimes I worry that ANZAC day has (or maybe always was) about having a pride in militancy. Having a pride in Australia's ability to go to war and commit violence against other people. I am not an idealist. Wars happen, and sometimes they are necessary. However I shudder when I see people proud or even excited about the concept of warfare and enthusiastic about a nations capacity to ruin and destroy. There are Just Wars, but as first highlighted by St. Augustine, that "just" quality is one based upon intentions and how people think. So, a celebration of militancy would be bad.

Sometimes I worry that ANZAC day is nationalism of a particular type. A type that can be manipulated by certain people or groups to their own ends. I worry that there is a concept of "us and them" on ANZAC day, a concept that we died fighting people who weren't like us, and by God that's because we like our country the way it is. It is a concept that is trumpted out in times of xenophobia - "our fathers died to keep this country Australian" - meaning that they died to keep Australia of a particular type. One with certain characterstics that are simply inappropriate and outdated in our current society.

Similarly, I worry that ANZAC day harkens back to a time when the average Australian was different. It is this worry that sparked my identity crisis on the way home. I consider myself a good Australian. I work hard, I try to be a good person and mate, and I love this country. But I realized that I probably have very little in common with those that died on Turkish shores 90 years ago. I am progressive, I love multicultural Australia, I wear expensive clothes and probably will never serve in a war. How much is ANZAC day my day? How much right do I have to celebrate? Would the ANZAC's really want me to give them respect? I feel like I want to celebrate, but is the Australia they died for the Australia I believe in and want to see created?

Ultimately, the answer is yes. I think the reasons for this answer lie in a deeper inspection of what ANZAC day recognizes. The Australian troops that served at Gallipoli, and the vast majority who have served since, would be the first to tell you that war is horrible. The diggers at Gallipoli endured hellish conditions during their 8-month farce on those beaches. Australian troops have been in the crappest areas of the world fighting wars ever since, under the shittiest conditions. War isn't glorious, and only fools on ANZAC day believe Australian troops have ever thought differently.

So ANZAC day isn't about war being glorious, is it about nationalism then? Hmmm, tougher to answer. I think there should be a distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is bad - it promotes the concept of the nation-state and that states sovereignty above other concerns, and creates boundaries between people. Patriotism is about recognizing those attributes present in a culture that are worthy of praise. Patriotism doesn't require an "us and them" concept - think of it like your birthday. On your birthday, you don't hate other people, nor do you think yourself better than your friends. Indeed you can love your friends more on your birthday as they come together to celebrate your admirable qualities. The same is for a celebration of patriotism - patriotism doesn't require a distrust or subjegation of other people, or the creation of boundaries between them, it is simply an expression of pride (and even hope) in what you think is great about your home.

Therefore, given all of this analysis, what do I think ANZAC day is about? ANZAC day is a day we remember those who did what they thought was right, because it was the right thing to do. It isn't about war being good, nor is it about Australia belonging to certain people and not others. It's a recognition of spirit. Ultimately, Gallipoli was a shitty campaign in a stupid and largely pointless war. I'm sure many of the diggers realized this. I'm sure more recognize it now. However, the whole point is that they did what they thought they should do, because their mates were going to do it, and you'll be buggered if you let your mates stand alone. That spirit was forged on the beaches of Gallipoli, and has now grown into a cultural concept. It's a concept of loyalty and mateship. Courage is in there too, but it's a courage that comes from doing what is expected of you, a courage that comes from believing in your mates and not wanting to do wrong by them. It's a courage that comes from seeing what has to be done, and doing it because that's your job and that's just the way it works. There is no glorly in the ANZAC spirit, because to glorify it would ruin that spirit. What the ANZACs did then and have since done was not for recognition, it was because such actions were considered regular, the assumed behaviour, they were what should come naturally. You stand up for your mates when you should, and you don't stand down.

Thus, I think ANZAC day celebrates a spirit, one that was created at Gallipoli and is timeless. Do I feel entitled to celebrate this spirit, given I have nothing in common with its founders? Sure. The point is that under similar conditions, it is hoped that I would act the same way. Although the country has changed and will continue to rightly do so, the spirit is something that can be forever embraced by everyone within our borders, and indeed beyond them.

You don't leave your mates. You do what is right, even if it isn't easy. At the end of the day when all else goes to shit, bugger 'em, and keep your chin up.

This is what ANZAC day means to me. Celebrating a particular spirit that Australian's believe in. I hope people found this little blog food for thought, and I would really like some discussion if anyone has comments. Particularly if you disagree - this whole concept is about 4 hours old so I'd love to reshape it if someone has a good point to make!! But basically, I like ANZAC day, because it celebrates a type of bravery and righteousness that appeals to me - an everyday version. A version that everyone has, and appears in the right conditions. A version that goes without praise, as people just do what they think they should. So I'd love to hear back!

Much love and respect, especially to those who created the spirit 91 years ago today.


Elsewhere: There's a lot of good writing on ANZAC day in the Oz blogosphere at the moment. Check out this post at LP for a bunch of links.