When will we ever learn?

Watching a doco about Gallipoli yesterday – was there anything else on? – several exerps from the famous diaries of CEW Bean were read extolling the virtues of the ANZACS. The producers failed to mention Bean “admitted that while the Australians at Gallipoli were a tough and brave lot, they weren’t nearly as heroic as the Austalian people believed. But he added, sadly, that if he reported”the true side of war” …”the tender Australian public, which only tolerates flattery and that in it’s cheapest form, would howl me out of existence”. So it turns out that the patriotic attitudes which predateed the disillusionment and disgust with the Great War and encouraged so many to enlist, were carried forward by the chronicler of the ANZAC adventure, Bean, and turned into a national legend – the idea of the noble warrior nation, whose sons are eternally willing to sacrifice themselves in search of heroism.”

Why has the legend made such a big comeback ? David Tiley puts it so well.

When I was a kid in the fifties, the whole of our primary school would gather on the lawn in the middle of Parap Primary School in Darwin while a bugle played off a scratchy record and the Head read the obligatory poem.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old..”

Of course those adults herding the kids together were the ones left, who had grown on into their own families and barbecues at the RSL and the faint fear of middle age. The wreck of the Neptunia lay beside the wharf, while the rubble littered the ruined Post Office, and we Akelah-ed our cub pack in the ruins of the Naval Prison. So the aftermath thing was natural to us. The tropical grass made criss-crosses on our legs as we sat, and we felt vaguely uncomfortable, since the grown-ups were emotional, and we would rather be off playing chasey in the dust on the new oval.

As we grew up, and our parents grew old and felt swamped by our energy, Anzac Day became a bunch of old farts walking down the street wearing rows of medals which probably didn’t mean very much. And the history of Anzac was used to dignify a war we despised and a conscription that violated our belief that the world was a good place full of toys and the soft ecstacy of adult love. For the longest time, Anzac Day was a dwindling thing, even though many of us did in fact know those vivid images of trench photographs and poems to shiver our hearts and make us cry. The memory and the knowledge was sustained like the Holocaust, while the ceremony grew sillier and sillier.

In an excellent piece called “History of Forgetting”, (the Weekend AFR), Dennis Glover suggests some answers.

This year between 20,000 and 30,000 people many of them young backpackers are expected to attend the Dawn Service at Anzac Cove. The number of people making the painless pilgrimage to Gallipoli has been rising steadily over the past decade and a half. Is this a good thing? Are these officially sanctioned grieving campaigns about commemorating or celebrating? Are the thousands of young people at Gallipoli wrapped in Australian and New Zealand flags a sign of remembering or forgetting? Have they forgotten the real message of the Great War, passed down to us through its rich literature: that death in modem war may be pro patria but always non dulce non et decor?

Why do the young identify with the Anzac legend? Some repeat tired cliches about discovering our foundational story. Others will have had a relative who fought there. I suspect for many it’s the latest place to tick off on the backpacker trail been to Gallipoli; next Pamplona. Which is to say that it’s part of the same sort of naive adventure that attracted the young in 1915. Many justify getting drunk and partying at Gallipoli because that’s what the original Anzacs did. What such responses miss is that the fighting at Gallipoli wasn’t a party. The young diggers drank in Cairo, but they died at Gallipoli, many in horrible, excruciating pain, crying out for their mothers and fathers as so many brave men do (and not hoping to be remembered as heroes as Bean tells us). The adventure and the desire to see the world lured many them to their deaths. These backpackers are not remembering the right thing. It reeks of a celebration.

In turning the original Anzacs into heroes like this, are we doing our contemporary service personnel any favours? It seems to me that in an age when young men and women are once again being sent abroad to fight, the more we emphasise their voluntary, heroic spirit, the easier it is for politicians to justify putting them in harm’s way. If our schoolchildren are taught that it is “meet and proper” to die for their country, if patriotism is considered the highest virtue, then sending people to their deaths becomes less objectionable. The growth of the heroism industry in recent years certainly hasn’t made us more deeply reflective or stopped us sending troops to fight in foreign wars.

Invoking heroism has one other big danger: it can be used as a shield to protect politicians from criticism. Think of our commitment of troops to Iraq in 2003. Many opposed the deployment if a majority if the polls are to be believed but once they boarded the troopships, criticism subsided; Australians got behind their mission, thinking that opposition would be interpreted as criticism.

Perhaps Kelly Russell and Margaret Pardoel have learned in the hardest way of all the big lesson about war that the poets, novelists and film makers of the Great War have told us and too many today have forgotten: calling their husbands and sons heroes won’t bring them back to life. After the memorials have been erected, the historians have unpicked the reasons for the war, the election winners have retired and the young have forgotten, the people sacrificed by politicians will still be dead, no matter how glorious the words on their headstones.

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8 Responses to When will we ever learn?

  1. Tiny Tyrant says:

    A moment ago, the drunk kids (alright, they’re a day or two over 18) in the house down the road are listening to somebody play ‘The Last Post’ on a trumpet (quite well, too) and are ‘woo-ing’ and ‘yeah-ing’.

    They must love the stories of blood in the water and swollen corpses teeming with maggots. As I do. Woo-hoo.

  2. Geoff Honnor says:

    “So it turns out that the patriotic attitudes which predateed the disillusionment and disgust with the Great War and encouraged so many to enlist, were carried forward by the chronicler of the ANZAC adventure, Bean, and turned into a national legend – the idea of the noble warrior nation, whose sons are eternally willing to sacrifice themselves in search of heroism.”

    That’s absolutely not the way I see Anzac – nor anyone else I know. And I never have.

  3. Al Bundy says:

    Glover has a few personal issues.

    As an embittered writer of speeches for the losing side for the last four elections, Glover needs something to believe in. That something, of course, is that his fellow Australians are too stupid, flighty and easily led to see the wisdom of the things he says.

    Only the luminati like him know the terrible truth. I was shocked by his revelations – Gosh! Young Australians died calling for their mums? They were scared kids? Shit, you’re kidding! Cock.

    Honestly, what ‘story’ is Gloves trying to sell as his ‘foundation myths’? He clearly doesn’t want us to remember the bewildered teenagers dying in a puddle of their own piss, shit and blood as ten-foot tall bronzed ANZACs? It doesn’t suit his message. It seems the men of W Beach weren’t heroes at all, ’cause you can’t be scared and be a hero at the same time – Presumably Glover would have agreed with General Blamey three decades later admonishing the tattered remnants of Maroubra Force – “no soldier should be afraid to die”.

    Yeah, you remember, the famous “it’s the running rabbit that gets shot, not the man holding the gun!” speech.

    Of course, these scared rabbits were the ‘ragged bloody heroes of the Kokoda Track’. The ‘exotic people’ (as Don would call them) that the diggers were killing were themselves not from around those New Guinea parts, and were working on a little property settlement with the Nazis on some prime real estate in downtown Australia.

    It suits people like Glover, Leunig and a host of other immaculately credentialed left-wing innerletchals to cast ANZAC Day as a celebration of bloodlust. At best, they’ll try and water it down to the notion that, ‘yes, it’s a remembrance thing, but really, we’re not remembering the right people’ – this idea that the real heroes in the making of the Australian identity were the unsung housewives and hippie peace-protestors. They succeed only in showing their complete inability to comprehend the difference between those who make history and those who were merely swept along by it.

    In the end, Glover’s tedious ANZAC bash is just more anti-Howard sour grapes. We all know what he’s implying about Iraq (less so about Afghanistan, and, well, okay East Timor might just have been alright, sort of).

    Then there’s Tiley and his theory: This is all about putting the wogs in their place.

    My, my, but the left do get sensitive about the need to be all embracing – at least when it comes to multiculturalism. When it comes to embracing the sacrifice of Australia’s finest, and the anxious despair of those left behind – well, fuck them, hey.

  4. mark says:

    Al, you’re reading much more into Glover’s words than the text could possibly justify. If you’re privy to some hidden knowledge explaining how your strawman is relevant, this may be the time to reveal it.

  5. Al Bundy says:

    Strawmen?

    Oh, that would be a bit like speaking of a bunch of pissed youths heading off for the next stop at Pamplona in search of adventure. Of course, the running of the bulls isn’t for another three odd months. Oh, and has Glover actually seen so much as a single ticket stub in support of his proposition? Otherwise, you could be excused for thinking that maybe Den’s drunken, naive backpackers on their way to Pamplona are just that – a straw man.

    “Many justify getting drunk and partying at Gallipoli because that’s what the original Anzacs did.” Ah, the ubiquitous ‘many’. Name one, Dr Gloves.

    In fact, I challenge you to find anybody gathering for the pilgramage to Gallipoli that wouldn’t know that the joint was a blood soaked, charnal house of death, destruction and chaos, conducted in the stench of rotting corpses and swarms of blowflies.

    This is the guy that wrote ‘Orwell’s Australia’, Mark. I’m not sophisticated enough to understand the nuances, so I haven’t read the book. But reviews suggest this is yet another tome berating the neo-con kidnap of language and media, who, of course, are in the sack with the VRWC. In fact, the conservative villains have created a whole new language called ‘Duckspeak’ so it would appear. The gist is that everything the conservative side of politics does is dishonestly wrapped in spin and given the hard sell by the press, and only the insightful po-mos like Glover and his fans can see through it. ANZAC Day as jingoism is right up this alley, no?

    And what’s with that final paragraph? He’s segued to the memory of a casualty from Afghanistan and a Royal Air Force officer. Huh?

    Afghanistan – ah yes, let’s cast our minds back to that stoush. Hmm, if the picture of women getting the backs of their heads shot out in soccer stadiums doesn’t move Glover beyond the ‘not in our name’ position, then I fear he’ll never understand anything as simple as ANZAC Day.

  6. mark says:

    You seize on Pamplona — “Of course, the running of the bulls isn’t for another three odd months” — as if it means something. Glover obviously didn’t mean it literally; his point was that Gallipoli is (apparently; I’m not agreeing with him, I’m *dis*agreeing with you…) just another backpacker stop to many who flock there, no more significant than [insert random backpacker holiday location here].

    Anzac Day is *not* a right-wing celebration. It’s a day of remembrance for all the Aussie and Kiwi soldiers who’ve fought and died, some fighting for our freedom, some fighting for abstractions like Empire, and some on humanitarian missions, but all people to whom we should be grateful. It is, or at least damn well *should* be, apolitical.

    Glover may well be a rather obnoxious leftie (I have never heard of his book, nor do I wish to read it), but that does not mean that everything he writes about Anzac Day is intended to infuriate the right or defile its favourite causes.

  7. David Tiley says:

    As Al has suggested, I do think the idea of Gallipoli promotes a very white bread version of our history. It is strangely excluding, leaving out not only the Turks but also the British and even the New Zealanders, as other people have noted in the Troppo discussion.

    However, Al knows he was fixing on only one part of my Barista post, and taking it to represent the whole. I took some trouble to frame the enquiry with a story about women in WW2, to help suggest the diversity of stories and experiences which get planed over when we use Gallipoli as our primary tool to encapsulate War.

    I did also say that I think the interest in the story has grown beyond its Anglo origins, and speculated on the reasons.

    Al’s response was a charmless paragraph which did him no honour, or the men whose reputations he tries to defend, many of whom were proud to identify with the Australian Labor movement of the time.

    “My, my, but the left do get sensitive about the need to be all embracing – at least when it comes to multiculturalism. When it comes to embracing the sacrifice of Australia’s finest, and the anxious despair of those left behind – well, fuck them, hey.”

  8. mark says:

    FWIW, I happened across the front page of the Terrorgraph while picking up my /Times/ this arvo. It’s all about those dastardly youngsters, no respect for the dead, treating it all like one “rock concert”, just another party stop on the backpacker circuit.

    Because my sympathies lie mostly with the left side of politics, I am more aware than most righties or centreists about just how unreliable the Tele is; that is to say, the Tele cannot possibly be correct no matter whose argument it is supporting. Thus it is plain to see that Al is quite clearly correct.

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