Memorial day. Bitter salt is dressed up
as a little girl with flowers.
The streets are cordoned off with ropes,
for the marching together of the living and the dead.
Children with a grief not their own march slowly,
like stepping over broken glass.
– from ‘Memorial Day For The War Dead’, Yehuda Amichai
My memories of ANZAC Day as a child are an odd mingling of sentiment and sensory detail. I remember itchy stockings, the heft of a winter school uniform, and the pungent tange of rosemary crushed between thumb and forefinger as I pinned it to the collar of my pinafore.
Growing up in a rural area, I daresay I had a more intimate relationship with the ANZAC legend and ritual than many of my current peers. A phenomena I’ve observed is that people who have grown up in Sydney and are my contemporaries have a deeply intellectual relationship to this public carnival of overt rhetoric and pomp.
This plays out in conversation; there’s a range of positions on show, but the majority are disaffected or at the most interested end, analytic. Few have an emotional relationship to the day, having largely dismissed it as a needless marking of a myth or an aggrandising of national spirit that they find distasteful.
I live the majority of my life firmly on the political fringe. My views are a slurry of socialism and democratic ideals, with the odd burst of anarchic sentiment. I abhor nationalism; I don’t celebrate ‘Australia’ Day.
But when it comes to ANZAC Day, there’s something in me that trembles and goes quite still in respect – just not of what you may think. It could be good solid training, but I credit myself with enough critical thought to know that it is something else.
I’m critical of so much about today. I think it is used as a vehicle by conservative thinkers (if that’s not an oxymoron) to push the most awful of ideas about nation-making and the use of human beings as a resource. I do think some use it as a platform to glorify war. I think it justifies much of what we’ve done recently overseas that is appalling – supporting US troops in recent engagements in the middle east is just one that comes to mind.
I also find the banal rites of drinking and two-up revolting. ANZAC day seems to draw out some of the worst loutish, racist and galling behaviour we have to offer in this country.
A lot of how we talk about ANZAC Day is mired in deep myth and a glossing over of what soldiers were really like and what our engagements were really like. You only need to read alternative histories before you begin to realise that we were not, at war, noble shining examples of every good characteristic. If you bought into half of the rabble you’d start to think that veterans were angels, not people.
But none of this is what I was raised to remember.
I was raised to reject and hate war by liberal parents who wanted us to know a lot about the history of it in the world and our country’s part in it so we might never be complicit in repeating those mistakes. ANZAC Day, for them, was about mourning the horrors of armed conflict, not celebrating our armed forces.
ANZAC Day for me has become a catch-all ritual when I remember how easily governments manipulate young people using national sentiment, sending them to death, maiming and madness by exploiting their sense of honour and adventure.
ANZAC Day for me is a cautionary tale that warns of the power of racist othering, and how it can lead us to commit atrocities against bodies, minds, families and communities because we set ourselves apart. It warns that we are still able to do it, so easily; the world is still full of young people willing to put on a uniform and to go where their government sends them. And if called on, to end a life on the scent of an order. While I acknowledge that the armed forces do more than just fight and kill (a good friend is a service person in the RAAF, and she is far from a brainless bot with a gun), we should never forget that there is a core utility at the heart of their vocation.
ANZAC Day reminds me of everything that war can cascade into, when human aggression runs unchecked – Hiroshima, the Holocaust, mustard gas, the Death Marches, Prisoner of War camps, Abu Ghraib, napalm, agent orange, Guantanamo Bay, My Lai, Dak Son. The intricate ways we’ve developed to torture and hurt and terrify each other are foul. As a child I often cried myself to sleep thinking about these things, my small brain overwhelmed by information about how deeply horrendous human beings were.
ANZAC Day is a day of protest, as we remember how poorly treated our Indigenous soldiers were treated when they returned from war. Despite their service they were not provided with the same rights and services as their non-Indigenous counterparts. They were allowed to serve, but not to vote or keep their children, many of whom were still “assimilated” into white homes as part of the Stolen Generation. They couldn’t even have a beer at the pub with men they had served with. The unfairness of that is so fucking wrong.
Today, for me, is a day of grief and respect but not for the war effort. Never for the war effort. Today is a day of respect for each child who had their skin flayed off by a US bomb, for each family ruined forever by a drunk and violent father who just can’t deal with the torment of his memories, for each woman raped by a serviceman who could get away with it, because she was ‘just’ a peasant in a village nobody had ever heard of. Today I pay respect for the veterans who were not properly looked after by their governments financially, physically or mentally after they came home.
Today I proudly mark the efforts of Quakers and conscientious objectors. Today I mourn and mark the extreme protest of Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Đức and George Winne, Jr and others who chose to end their lives in protest against something they felt was bigger than themselves. Today I proudly mark and admire the students and citizens who protested during the Vietnam war and organised the Moratoriums in an effort to bring an end to that fiendish action. I am in awe of all they did; every slogan they chanted; every bottle they threw at LBJ’s car.
None of this motivates me to turn my back on ANZAC Day; indeed I believe we should use today as a fitting day of protest, dissent and mourning.
If we’re to use our freedom for anything, our privilege for anything, it should be to agitate for peace and for the promotion of basic human compassion in as many contexts as possible. Let’s use the impetus of our stained past to participate in the political life of our country and community to work for a world without uniforms, without borders, and without a sense of the ‘other’.
Lest we forget is exactly right. But in remembering, let’s remember everything and everyone. Not just the white men with guns.