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.