Don’t mention the war

For some time, ANZAC Day celebrations have kept the realities of war at arm’s length. Indeed, aside from during the Dawn Service, war barely gets a look in at all. Instead, on ANZAC Day we are encouraged to celebrate the ANZAC spirit.

The Australian War Memorial tells us ‘there is general consensus on what is regarded as the ANZAC spirit.’ It ‘came to stand for the qualities which Australians have seen their forces show in war.’ A complex bundle of qualities, then, you might think, but also much the same as the qualities shown by other forces in war. Bravery might be part of the package and maybe anger, frustration, terror, disabling boredom, loneliness, discomfort, hatred, love, selfishness, selflessness, initiative, blind obedience, wit and stupidity. But actually, no; the War Memorial goes on to tell us that the qualities which make up the ANZAC spirit are ‘courage, ingenuity, good humour and mateship’ and not any of that other stuff. More recently, sacrifice seems to have become part of the mantra: a recent update to the War Memorial’s site about this year’s commemorations says the ANZAC spirit is made up of ‘human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice.’

Courage, ingenuity, good humour, mateship and even sacrifice are qualities which have no inherent relationship with war. Sure, they occur during war; they also occur in primary schools and at stitch and bitch sessions in inner-city bars. I bet that if you could get into the internment camps at Manus and Nauru, you’d even see them there. So it seems odd that the day we choose to celebrate these qualities is one on which we remember a vicious battle during which more than 130,000 people (including 8700 Australians) were killed. Perhaps battle-specific qualities such as lack of squeamishness, keen aim, superhuman endurance and disassociation would be better ones to celebrate on ANZAC Day.

But as our commemoration has moved ever-further from being actually about war, that becomes increasingly unlikely. Instead, this year we have the spectacle of Camp Gallipoli and its associated range of products sold through Target; products that include a scented commemorative candle, a range of hoodies and – until the government decided recently it was ‘inappropriate’ – a stubby holder.

Camp Gallipoli invites Australians and New Zealanders to buy a ticket ($50) to events around Australia (the NZ event was cancelled a few weeks ago due to lack of interest). They promise you can ‘sleep out under the same stars as the original Anzacs did 100 years ago’ (never mind you’ll be in a different hemisphere with different constellations) and ‘join in a special night of remembrance, entertainment, mateship and the birth of the ANZAC spirit.’ The emotional climax of the Camp will be settling down in ‘spaces set aside for camping using swags, just like the diggers did’ (commemorative swags start at $249 and can be purchased through Target).

Just like the diggers did, except, of course, from the notable differences. You won’t have endured a long voyage to get there, your friends and family will be nearby, you’ll probably have recently eaten a decent meal and used some indoor plumbing to get rid of the results, you’re unlikely to be surrounded by the rotting corpses of your mates, you won’t be struggling with the feelings brought up by having killed other human beings and – perhaps most glaringly – no one will be shooting at you.

Why don’t we commemorate Gallipoli by taking a clear, cold-eyed look at what war is and what war does? Instead of featuring members of the Australian cricket team, why doesn’t every Camp Gallipoli event include speakers who have lived through recent wars and can talk about their experiences?

Ziba, who survived the war in Bosnia, could talk about what happened to her:

They [the Serbian soldiers] called us ‘bitches’ and one of them pointed at me. My two children were clinging to me and I was forced to leave them. They thought I was going to be killed. Then one of the two Chetniks told me to undress. He said if I didn’t do what they wanted, they would cut my throat. I believed them. So they both raped me, one after the other. It took half an hour. Then they took me out and put me with the other women who had been brought back from the rooms. From that day it never stopped. The rapes went on day and night for a month.

Arturo Franco could talk about his experiences fighting for the US Army in Iraq:

What will haunt me for the rest of my life is when we took POW’s. I had so much hatred for them. I didn’t care if they lived or died. I will not go into details on what was done for fear of the law, but things still haunt me. I remember pulling guard on an insurgent that was about to be turned over to the local war lords. He was flex cuffed and shaking so bad, I gave him a smoke and started small talk. At one point I did a little hand gesture to tell him that he was about to get his head cut off, then I took the smoke from him and said something hateful. Things like that still bother me. I did not like fighting in Iraq, I did not believe in why we were there. I went because I felt like I owed my friends that were killed over there. They had everything to live for; family, wife, kids. I had none of that, so why didn’t God take me?

Ouandja Magloire from the Central African Republic could talk about the civil war in his country and how, last year, he took revenge on a Muslim man for attacks on his family:

I kicked his legs out from under him. He fell down. I stabbed his eyes. Muslim! Muslim! Muslim! I stabbed him in the head. I poured petrol on him. I burned him. Then I ate his leg, the whole thing right down to the white bone.

Basil Holmes, who fought at Gallipoli, has died now, but it might be instructive to watch a video of him talking about his experiences:

We didn’t have a lot of self-inflicted wounds but… it did occur there, I know. Fellows… anything to get away from Gallipoli. Lot of them fell so… There were cases of that: fellows saying they wanted to get away, tried, do anything to get away.

Stories like these would be a sobering reminder of what war is really like for so many who participate, either voluntarily or against their will. It would give us a context for thinking about Australians who have fought in or been caught up in wars and about how that experience might have affected them. A night in a swag at the Showgrounds followed by the Dawn Service and the Essendon v Collingwood game may make us nostalgic, proud and misty-eyed, but how will it help us understand the terrible trauma that so many war-affected refugees live with? How will it make us sympathetic to the cause of Australian service people as they fight the government to get better treatment for PTSD? Mateship, courage, ingenuity, good humour: it sounds like a really great buck’s party and not at all like something you’d need ongoing, expensive mental health treatment to deal with.

Courage, ingenuity, good humour and mateship are awesome qualities. I absolutely feel they should be encouraged and celebrated wherever they are found. If they are tied up with sacrificing yourself for a cause greater than yourself, what could be more laudable? On ANZAC Day, let’s focus on the realities of war and try to understand what it’s like for those who have been through it. The rest of the year, let’s embrace that nebulous ANZAC spirit – maybe we could rebadge it as ‘being a good person’ – and applaud those who demonstrate it. Perhaps we could start by giving some kind of medal to those involved in the Leard Blockade, who are sacrificing their income, time and social standing to defend a future Australia with clean air and water and a liveable climate, and doing so with good humour, mateship and some ingenious new ways of locking on to bulldozers.

Jane Rawson

Jane Rawson is the author of two novels – A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists and From the Wreck – as well as a novella, Formaldehyde, which won the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize. She is the co-author of The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change. Her short fiction and essays have been published by Sleepers, Slink Chunk Press, Overland, Tincture, Seizure, Griffith Review, Funny Ha-Ha, Review of Australian Fiction and Meanjin.

More by Jane Rawson ›

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  1. Are you serious, or is this some cheap attempt to get someone, anyone to notice you?
    You obviously have never spent time with any diggers. If that is the case then I’ll excuse your ignorance.
    If however you know of anyone who has fought in any war that Australia has been involved in….well shame on you! These brave men & women hold the real ANZAC spirit dear to them. The mateship they carry into a battle is nothing like bitching with your mates over a martini after a strenuous 8 hour day in an air conditioned office! These people are ready to lay down their lives for their buddies and so many have! I however do agree with one point you have made & that is the commercialisation of this special day has gone way overboard. My last piece of advice to you is this….Please do some research like maybe actually speaking to people who are in the forces & are living the ANZAC spirit & if you still don’t understand it, then respectively don’t comment.

    1. Fiona, I think Jane’s concerns and sympathies are closer to yours than you give credit for. As I read it her fundamental position is totally respectful to those who fought while also pointing out that Anzac Day has over the years lost much of that original message.
      Yes of course mateship in battle is different from an after-work drink, and that’s exactly the point: the word is now so trivialised that it is inadequate for bond among those who would die for their fellow Australians (or “buddies” if you will).

    2. Hi Fiona, thanks for your comment. Aside from wanting attention (fair call) I wrote the piece because when I saw Camp Gallipoli’s publicity material, suggesting that a night under the stars was comparable to experiencing the attack on Gallipoli, I was shocked. It seemed hugely disrespectful, to me, to suggest that the sentimentalised version of war that we get on Anzac Day has anything to do with the real life experiences of those who have lived through war as combatants or civilians. I have no doubt that mateship and sacrifice are important to soldiers, but there is so much more to war than that: a lot of it is horrible and painful and anxiety-inducing and creates mental illnesses that destroy people’s lives. And I worried that ignoring this side of war would make it impossible for Australia as a society to understand the pain of those people, take steps to help alleviate it, and work to avoid it happening to more people in future.
      Last night I went to a really interesting lecture about Anzac Day, which included discussion from veterans of recent wars. They said current soldiers and recent veterans feel excluded from the version of service that we’re presented on Anzac Day – there’s nothing in it that represents their experiences (particularly for women soldiers). James Brown (who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq) has a great essay on this in the current Griffith Review if you’re interested – I’ll quote a bit of it here:
      “The emotional outpouring that Anzac and the Anzac Centenary evinces is genuine, but there is much that this sentiment occludes. Among all this calorific commemoration, the retelling of retreaded Gallipoli stories, there is an uncanny void. The voice of the modern military is missing. In some ways this unsurprising. So much of Anzac has been and is for civilians … [I] concluded that Australia’s national obsession with Anzac teeters on the superficial, that the Centenary commemorations have become a four-year lugubrious festival for the dead, that our modern military are being occluded, and that as a nation we have neither the head nor the heart to think about the possibility of future war.”
      He says it much better than I do.

  2. Know some ANZACs do you? Personally I appreciated the research undertaken that offered a number of perspectives from soldiers and others who have experienced war. Sobering stuff.

  3. You are very brave Jane to approach this subject, considering the potential backlash.
    The current ‘commemorative’ activities that will form part of this year’s ANZAC memorials make me uncomfortable too. While no one is denying the human beings who formed the original ANZAC forces should be remembered respectfully, the way that we are doing so as a nation, with a disturbing amount of merchandise upsets me.
    It is easier to see these men as mythic super humans, when what they were and still are which is human beings many of whom were and are damaged horribly by what they are asked to do for our nation. Ben Quilty’s official war memorial paintings speak of this cost. The fact that current veterans are being rendered homeless due to the lack of mental health resources should be borne in mind when thinking about the money spent on the commemoration on Saturday.
    I would be far happier if the reported $125000 which is being spent on behalf of every man woman and child in the country to pay for this went into providing adequate mental health facilities for contemporary veterans. That would be a far more fitting tribute to the men who fought, died and were wounded 100 years ago.

    1. Couldn’t agree with you more about the money. If we’re going to glorify war as part of being Australian, and send people off to fight in more wars, the least we can do is support them when they come back.

  4. I will be going to Dawn Service and the March, same as every year.

    Everyone would go on about the Gallipoli landing, 2015 is also the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II.

    It is a real shame that World War II would not remembered as I consider World War II to be more important as Australia was under attack from Japanese forces (Darwin, Coral Sea, Newcastle and Sydney) and it was a war to stop Fascism. World War I was a war caused by a bunch of cousins who happened to rule different countries and wanting to expand and/or hold on to their empires.

  5. A lot of the curriculum in primary school seems devoted to Gallipoli at the moment. Does anyone have any suggestions for peace-oriented commemorations (particularly ones appropriate for children)?

    In previous years we’ve gone to the Peace Walk on Mt Ainslie, in Canberra, but we’re now in Melbourne.

  6. Was in an institution once (who wasn’t) and come Anzac Day time the usual dignitaries could not be found to deliver the usual cotton wool address, so Besty, the odd job guy, who saw active service in WW2, was called upon at the last moment. There was Besty, still in his work clothes, coming down off the rostrum to our kid level, and instead of focusing his talk on the important adults in the room, addresses us kids directly, making sure we got his more than direct and blunt message about the horrors and exploitation of cannon fodder that occurred on his watch. Best talk I ever heard. Was never heard of again. After that it was back to the old Dulce est decorum pro patria mori line, and considerable brainwashing from the more formal elders and betters. Too late for some – Besty’s lesson had hit home base, like a mortar shell.

        1. A Besty update – rather than turn him into the folk anti-hero he wasn’t – I ran into him some years later and reminded him of his talk. ‘Someone ‘ad to do it son,’ he said in his East London brogue, ‘an them codgers weren’t game.’ I asked him if the job loss had affected him badly. ‘Best thing that ever ‘appended, son. Started me own cleanin’ round. Got in on the groun’ floor. Made me fortune. Got houses ‘ere, in Bali ‘an in East London.’ Summat ta be said then for seeking the bubble reputation – even in the cannon’s mouth.

  7. The whole event is a sick joke. It’s not about remembering the horrors of war so we don’t repeat them, it’s about “remembering” the good bits that make us feel good, mateship and patriotism.

    Have another beer, watch the footie, and develop a healthy dislike of anyone different so you’ll be ready for the next war.

  8. Thanks for your additional comments Jane. I suspect a lot of military people have mixed feelings baout the way the day has been hijacked by politicians, business and the media (among others), all looking to subvert it for their own ends in the name of patriotism.
    Unfortunately it also breeds jingoism and encourages dickheads to run round with flags over their shoulders.
    Then again, maybe there is a lesson in that too. In 1915 many enlisted for adventure and the glory of the empire, because all their mates were going, because everyone at home expected them to. Enlisting was no act of bravery; that would only come later when the cheering and the streamers had been left far behind.

    1. it’s interesting that the real diggers wanted nothing to do with this commemoration after WW1. the hype and the BS is of more recent self indulgent populist glorification of this humanitarian disaster

  9. As a follow-up, the NT News, not normally noted for its sober reporting, today published a story on the role of Australian Peacekeepers in saving lives during Rwanda’s Kibeho massacre, which happened 20 years ago today –
    The story is notable just for its horrifying descriptions of what modern war is like and what those Australian soldiers experienced and the continuing pain they’ve suffered, but also because these soldiers have felt excluded (often pointedly) from Anzac Day commemorations because their experiences don’t fit the Anzac brief.

  10. war is not just insane it is perpetrated by the insane. what is so scary is that the mad are so normal prior their madness in the conflict of sanctioned murder.

  11. Thanks Jane. I have known three people who were in the trenches in WWI and all of them loathed war and thought that WWI was nothing more than pointless slaughter. I really detest the way the ANZAC tradition is used as a beatup for Australian nationalism.What happened there did not lay the foundations for our national spirit, as is often said. It reflected the everyday heroism of ordinary people obeying orders under a completely false impression that those giving the orders knew what they were doing. The story of so many wars.

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