The one day of pure form

In 25 April, a commemorative wreath was laid at the Special Operations Executive memorial on London’s South Bank, and later in the afternoon I went down to see it. Established by Churchill and Labour minister Hugh Dalton in 1940, the SOE was designed to encourage and facilitate espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in Nazi-controlled Europe and to aid local resistance movements. The South Bank memorial, dedicated to those agents who died in SOE operations, is made up of a small plinth and a bust of Violette Szabo, an agent dropped into occupied France and later captured and executed. Szabo was not alone: many of the SOE operatives were women, and most of them perished in concentration camps.

This year’s commemoration was for another famous mission: the 1943 sabotage of the heavy-water plant in Telemark, Norway – the one place in occupied Europe where the Nazis could acquire the isotope-rich water essential to producing an A-bomb. The SOE provided training for a team of Norwegian resistance fighters and coordinated several attempts – actions that were openly termed ‘suicide missions’ – to destroy the facility. Having succeeded in their plan, the commandos escaped across 500 kilometres of tundra. The leader of the expedition, Joachim Rønneberg, was at this year’s event, which commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the operation.

Few monuments memorialise as unambiguously moral enterprises as the SOE missions. The Telemark episodes double down on the point – there may be something on which greater consensus can be found than an operation to stop Nazis acquiring nuclear weapons, but nothing comes to mind.

The SOE memorial is one of the few places that produces in me what I can only describe as atheist prayer. And it’s not hard to figure out why. Many (but not all) of the SOE agents were leftists, and all had a high consciousness of what they were fighting against and the risks involved. They had few illusions about the British Empire, nor the other ambiguities of the conflict. Moreover, what their actions meant to them corresponded with what their actions actually meant. Theirs was a bravery not only of means but also of ends. They faced death with an exact knowledge of what their mission was achieving. When one looks Szabo in the eye, as it were, one is challenged to consider what one would do in similar circumstances.

By contrast, at most cenotaphs I wonder whether I, too, would have been fooled.

The Telemark commemoration can’t help but throw ANZAC Day into sharp relief. In previous decades, protests have been staged annually for ANZAC’s trumpeting of a white imperialism, for its militarism, for its idolisation of masculinity. Some of that remains, but in recent years ANZAC Day has been changed quite consciously to reflect – and construct – new sensibilities.

Consider the Veterans’ Affairs website on organising an ANZAC Day service as a neat sketch of governmentality in action. (If the site did not exist, some Foucault 101 teacher would have to invent it.) Of particular interest is the section on public addresses (adorned with a photo of what must be the most Aryan member of the Australian army). The site offers a dozen or so short speeches for different audiences: service people, the general public, primary schools, etc. It is a grimly hilarious selection, ranging from a sort of ecumenical pessimism in the address for service people:

Today is a special day when we remember all those, whether service personnel or civilians, of every nation, who suffered or continue to suffer through war … Some say this day glorifies war, but every veteran will be the first to say that their greatest wish and most fervent prayer is that their children and this nation may never have to witness the horrors of war again.

to the mildly fascistic speech for primary school students:

The ANZAC spirit represents a sense of purpose and direction. The original ANZAC’s [sic] knew what they had to do, they knew of the dangers and the difficulties but they got down and did not let those difficulties stop them from obeying their orders. It is true that the whole campaign did not achieve what was hoped for. But the soldiers on the ground stayed until their leaders decided it was time to withdraw. You can apply this to your everyday life. You know what work you have to do at school and what tasks your parents may have set you to do about the house. No matter what difficulties you think are in the way, think of the ANZAC’s [sic] and others who have followed them and push the difficulties to one side and accomplish your task.

The speeches are noxious in their desire to use the latest war as a recruiting sergeant for the next. But ANZAC presents a problem, because no-one can any longer seriously defend the aims of the original campaign at any level, even for a second. Even the more militaristic of the service addresses talk of the Gallipoli mission as a strategy to ‘shorten the war’ and thus save lives all round. Well, that’s one way to describe the vast expansion of a conflict hitherto confined largely to the European heartland. But the rhetoric is a measure of the challenge facing those who want to sell ANZAC in an era when race-loyalty is neither respectable nor widely supported.

And that is the really strange thing about ANZAC: the meaning ascribed to it is so cut off from any concrete content that it falls back on pure form. When the empire narrative could no longer be told, ANZAC became a story of bravery under any circumstances, free of context. Then it was mateship. Most recently, it appears to have become even more abstract, a generalised spirit of cooperation and teamwork. The recruiting sergeant has become a workplace consultant.

The more abstract and formal ANZAC grows, the greater the numbers who turn out for the day. Quite possibly, this has a contradictory effect: on the one hand, legitimising past and current military engagements as a fight for ‘freedom’; on the other, detaching people from any actual commitment to taking up such a burden themselves. Recruiting rates for the armed forces remain below target by 25 per cent; support for the Afghan engagement is tepid at best.

More generally, the commemoration of a bravery of means (as opposed to a bravery of ends) puts a nothingness at the heart of the celebratory culture. There is a Seinfeld-ish quality to ANZAC that mirrors Australian culture more broadly, a culture for whom a stable and coherent meaning – a foundational base – has become an ever-larger problem. The ANZAC Day ceremony has become a sort of black hole around which the constellation of Australian life circulates.

ANZAC represents perhaps the ultimate lethal simulation: our active involvement in the war was dodged up by Billy Hughes, precisely on the grounds that it would consecrate national identity. Even in 1914, the ‘Little Digger’ was talking like a brand manager. The Ottoman Empire was persuaded into the war by competing cliques of nationalists, German financiers, British spies, Marxists and zionists, all with their own donkey to lead. The Ottoman army was carved up in the first few months – precisely the outcome longed for by most of those urging it to war.

The more you try and put content into ANZAC, the more it spits it out. This year’s effort was an attempt to highlight the involvement of Indigenous troops. In that context, it’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of ‘Turkish’ troops at Gallipoli/Gelibolu were Arab conscripts. So somewhere on the beaches, an Indigenous Australian and an Arab shot each other … in the names of the British and Ottoman empires.

If ANZAC Day has become something onto which almost anything can be projected but which nothing will fill, that is not without its advantages. In the 1990s, Keating attempted to supplant the ANZAC myth with the Kokoda one. The Asian sphere of the Second World War was an imperialist struggle with strong racialist overtones. But by 1942, the war was arguably one of national survival against a brutal enemy. So, on the face of it, Kokoda’s claim to primacy should have seemed stronger than ANZAC’s.

But maybe, in a neoliberal era of vast global trading, content is precisely what the culture can’t handle. The debate about European imperialism, race, propaganda and economic blockades would have proved too much. In any case, Japan has now become a nation of Hello Kitty memorabilia and crazy soft drinks, thus making the threat of lethal conflict unimaginable.

Equally inconceivable is defending a Pacific nation like Australia against Turkey – but there is no requirement to imagine that. The whole idea is so absurd, so lost to history, as to keep us firmly in the present. ANZAC Day has a curious depthlessness to it, less remembrance than memory trick. Hence the emphasis on a bravery of means, an emphasis that makes critical thinking about what one is doing look, well, cowardly.

That is not the sort of bravery I want to celebrate. I want to celebrate a courage that affirms the full humanity of the brave, that recognises that they have taken on a potentially lethal challenge because, and not despite, of what it is. In those occasions, life overcomes death, not by enrolling the dying in the service of this or that nation or cause, but because those who come after cannot fail to recognise the humanity of those who struggled.

But where that leaves ANZAC Day, I don’t know.

You don’t get to choose what your collective celebrations become. You either get a Bastille Day, a Mabo Day or even a St Patrick’s Day – or you don’t. Some such celebrations have content and some don’t. The former do not become the strange and portentous event that ANZAC Day has evolved into, as shadowy as a de Chirico painting, as hybrid as Melbourne’s deeply creepy Shrine of Remembrance.

There is no point trying to formulate a Left nationalist response to ANZAC. It will take everything you can tip into it. Nothing its most vociferous opponents could dream up would be as denigrating as the beer ads that trade off its aura. ANZAC Day remains an irreducibly paradoxical event that does not produce the easy results its boosters would like.

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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