A Silly Sort of Patriotism: Meditations on ANZAC Day

Anzac Day is a volatile dynamic phenomenon (that) will keep changing as we do

— David Malouf

Another ceremony, another round of marches for the veterans and current members of the Australian, New Zealand Army Corps to commemorate the landings that took place at Gallipoli in 1915.  War forges the badges, the medals, the honours, an economy of means for the state.  To die, often for no other reason than the state has compelled a person to do so, requires its imaginary justifications, its murderous rationales.  One invades a foreign country, and the hunt for the excuse begins.  A boy fights in Afghanistan in a multi-lingual environment he barely understands, against people he barely knows, a world that might as well be seen from a console.

The ANZAC tradition is Kosovo without the blood relish.  It is Mohacs without the nobility and the sense of penultimate doom.  Countries such as Serbia and Hungary reflect on those defeats that make the dead noble, but they were fighting on home soil against invaders – on both occasions the Turks. The Australian reaction is one of music hall sentimentality, perversely felt in the context of invading a country in the name of great power politics.  The Gallipoli campaign was adventurism, a Churchillian farce.  It was a lethal blunder that was subsequently rinsed and trimmed of its ghastliness.

Since the early 1920s, when the first two volumes of the official history of ANZAC appeared, penned by the mythically generating hand of CEW Bean, the tale of the Australians and New Zealanders in the First World War became a Homeric pretence.  To be fair to Bean, his ambition was less dramatic, even if his product was not.  ‘The only memorial which could be worthy of [the soldiers] was the bare and uncoloured story of their part in the war.’

In searching for his theme, Bean showed little desire to make it bare or colourless.

May it be stated to a question: How did [Australia], bred in complete peace, largely undisciplined except for a strongly British tradition and the self-discipline necessary for men who grabble with nature… react to what still has to be recognised as the supreme test of fitness to exist?

To listen to the hagiographic tones of the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, to consume, with ill taste, the extraordinarily inarticulate statements of the soldiers and the awkward commentary on radio and television, was to realise how little the fighting forces of the distant country had come.  In the end, the only conviction of any soldier is the will to live rather than the desire to disseminate an ideology.  Attempts to do so in any case end in farce.

Each ANZAC celebration needs a twist, an executed turn, a tale to tell that was supposedly never told.  Precisely because Australian patriotism is a vague and hollow thing, it can be filled, padded out, and altered.  The stuffing can be rather curious.  On this occasion, the media cohorts were excited by the tributes made to Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander veterans.  The march in Sydney’s Redfern was termed the ‘Coloured Diggers March’.

Skepticism also abounds, if you look hard enough.  Graeme Wilson, historian of Australia’s Department of Veteran Affairs, has little time for the Gallipoli heroics of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, claiming that Simpson was something of a fraud, undeserving of the Victoria Cross.  As for his famed donkey, the only soldiers being ferried by the beast were those who had been ‘lightly wounded’ (Courier Mail, April 20).  The only thing authentic, it seems, was Simpson’s death.  New Zealand radio commentators have also made an effort to spoil the party with their trans-Tasman cousins, accusing them of a good deal of sloth and thieving.  (They are perhaps entitled to feel some rage – the role of New Zealand is all too often minimised in the hyperbolic commemorations.)

In the end, the ANZAC celebrations seem rather silly, though the individuals who did the fighting were often far from silly, being authentic expressions of human sentiment.  Death with his all too effective scythe demands to be taken seriously, but not like this.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.