Monday, April 27, 2009

We Had a Holiday Here in Australia

Just this last weekend, 25 April, in Australia and New Zealand (and, according to Wikipedia, Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tonga) was ANZAC Day. It marks the landing of the ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) at Gallipoli Turkey on that date in 1915, part of the ill-fated Dardenelles campaign. I can't speak for the other countries that observe it, ANZAC Day is part military commemoration day and national day. It reflects a national military mythology of empire that has somehow managed to survive the empire that gave it birth. Under the terms of that mythology, Australia proved its worthiness to be an independent dominion of the British Empire through the shedding of the blood of all those men killed in the Dardenelles. It was a baptism in blood for the new nation to take its place in the constellation of the Greater Britain, that then ruled the world.

When I was growing up in the 60s that Empire was finally coming to its undignified end. By then Australia had a new great and powerful friend, the United States. And, of course, we were again involved in a foreign imperialist war now on Washington's behalf, over there in Indo-China. I can rememebr the dominos discourse and the Red Peril (superseding an older Yellow Peril). And I can remember how the ANZAC mythology was used to try and mould us young males into cannon fodder for the imperial ruling classes. It was potent, deadly and noxious but luckily for many of us there were different anthems in the air and, ironically, as in the days of ANZAC's birth there was a growing and vigorous anti-conscription movement in this country. And just as in WW1 the anti-conscription forces would be victorious, and, more, we got this country out of Indo-China several years before the US defeat there.

In those days I was part of a Christian anti-war group. We used to go out and pamphlet churches against the war and against conscription. On a number of occasions I would meet WW1 veterans coming to of those churches. Pretty much all of them expressed their support for us being there and campaigning against the war and conscription. I still one old veteran who shook my hand and sayng he wished there'd been more like us back when he was young, back in WW1. The WW2 diggers were different, more hostile, much more imbued in the ANZAC mythology and probably more confident that their's was a just war. I also met Vietnam veterans in those days. The Brisbane anti-conscription movement had a number of Vietnam veterans very much involved and active against both the war and conscription. I heard all sorts of stories from them about the horrors unfolding in Vietnam and Indo-China.

But ANZAC continues. I personally depsise the day and try to ignore it as much as possible. It does not honour the dead but continues to conscript them in a national military cult that blasphemously parodies the Christian mythos of Good Friday. But then the mythology of the old Empire was very much one of muscular Christianity, homophobic and homo-erotic all in one.

I am a gay man who loves and apfreciates young men. The thought of putting them through the mincing machine of war revolts and appals me. But it's not only soldiers who die in war and the wars of the 20th century have been marked by the mass slaughter of civilians. It was probably THE century of mass slaughter in the history of humanity. Disturbingly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show that war in the 21st century will most likely continue the bloodletting tradition of the last century.

So ANZAC Day is one holiday I would do without. I could accept Armistice Day provided it is de-militarised and turned into a day to remember all those killed, raped and brutalised in war - lest we forget - and vow never again, never again. Lets trample those swords into ploughshares.

And so finally I want to mark the national ANZAC Day death cult with a marvellous piece of anti-war poetry that is also biblically based. Indeed it is a most profound reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac. I am of course referring to the 'Parable of the Old Man and the Young' by Wilfred Owen, who sadly did not survive WW1. Today we would call him gay; he was definitely a lover of men.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him, thy son.

Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,

A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

You can find more of Wilfred Owen's poems here.

UPDATE I nearly forgot to link to a marvellous piece by Marilyn Lake, professor of history at Latrobe University on the exclsuive and exclduing nature of the ANZAC myth and why Australia must move on from it: We Must Fight Free of Anzac, lest we forget our other stories.


  1. I personally depsise the day and try to ignore it as much as possible. It does not honour the dead but continues to conscript them in a national military cult that blasphemously parodies the Christian mythos of Good Friday.That really gets to the guts of it. There was a counter-reading which I always liked, of Anzac day being quite different from other military holidays around the world in that it marked a battle that was lost, not won. It had a 'never again' feel to it. But that was all done away with in the Howard years. Now it seems like it's a step removed from the Cronulla riots. It's a nationalist party these days. They were playing - no joke - the BeeGee's Stayin' Alive at the Anzac Cove dawn service a few years back.

  2. I was fascinated to discover that early on, back in the 20s ANZAC Day was far more contested than it is now. For many on the Left, including many unions ANZAC Day was something to be opposed most strongly. Given the horror of the First World War and the political divisions it generated in Australia I'm not really surprised that these divisons and debates would continue. I think WW2 changed the dynamic. It was a 'just war' and Australia felt it had been defintetly at risk. So left-wing opposition to the day seems to have faded

    Post-Vietnam and with the cultural transformations unfolding in the 70s and 80s the day seemed to change, partially to fade but also to be re-invented in a new nationalist spirit. It was the only official national narrative and it was also deliberately secualr despite all the quasi-religous overtones. Labor played a big part in all of that becasue they were the party of Australian nationalism. Howard built on that but gave it his retro spin as well and with his involving us in the new wars of empire on behalf of the US was able to dust down the old imperial military overtones of the day as well. Nowadays you;ve got kids and grandkids of the dead marching in their place often carrying or wearing their medals. And given todays eqaul opportunity military (in theory anyway) it becomes an even more effective way of conscripting the young into the miltary myth via the ghosts of the dead.

    Staying Alive at ANZAC Cove. I'd really like to think it was deliberate irony, but alas probably not

  3. I should add that the fact that it was a defeat was actually not a problem from the perspective of the old ideology. After all, the war was won by "us" in the end. No, the importance was the first blood shed for the nation's coming of age. In those old miltary-nationalist ideologies, war is almost a sacrament of the nation. Victory ultimately is the goal, but death and spilling of blood, and prety much always of the young males, 'the nation's finest', 'the flower of manhood', these were all crucial to the myth and why I regard it as a blasphemous parody of the Christian myth. It was not for nothing that Owen chose the Abraham Isaac story for his poem.

    Of course like all myths, this one had sufficient ambiguities such that it could be appropriated for new forms of nationalism. Thus the Dardenelles could be represented as due to the corrupt and effete and unscrupulous British ruling political and military elites - 'we could have won it if it wasn't for Churchill and the British Admiralty' and as I said in the end 'we won' not once but repeatedly up until Indo-China.