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.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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