What do we remember on Anzac Day, and what do we forget?

Rather than being gripped by the selective memory of Anzac, Australia must engage in a comprehensive process of truth-telling and remediation of historical injustices.

In the last forty or so years, Anzac Day has grown to such an extent that it now sits alongside Invasion Day as Australia’s national day. Australian identity has come to be defined in terms of “the spirit of Anzac” and other equally virile, militaristic, and racially exclusionary terms. This is certainly not inevitable. It is the result of a concerted conservative effort, often with the assent of the Australian Labor Party, to redefine the way we remember Australia’s past and our role in overseas conflict. It is through this reconstruction of our memory, of what we remember and celebrate, that conservatives have attempted to fortify the white masculine identity of the 19th and 20th centuries against threats to that hegemony. 

The critiques of what we celebrate on Anzac Day are well-run. We could begin with the way that Anzac prescribes masculine qualities. The Anzac spirit is typically defined in “mateship”, “courage”, and “heroism.” The ideal Anzac is an athletic man in the most virile of all places: the battlefield. These attributes are all cast to the exclusion of women, or anyone who doesn’t identify with such an overt form of masculinity. 

This conception of an ideal Anzac — and by extension, an ideal Australian — is also racially exclusionary. The Anzac myth, borne of the immediate post World War One period, was centred on whiteness, defending the British empire, and white Australia’s position within it. While Anzac Day has slightly moved away from this conception in recent years — focus has partially shifted away from Gallipoli to other wars and the contributions of Indigenous soldiers are beginning to be remembered — it remains a relic of white Australia. There is no way Anzac Day can extricate itself from its origins as a valorisation of the British empire. Even attempts to diminish the racially homogenous way Anzac Day views Australian history can never be entirely successful. As sociologist Ghassan Hage argues about Australia in his book White Nation, “the visible and public side of power remains essentially-Anglo white.”  Anzac Day is part, and an influential one at that, of the way white Australia has retained its cultural power and position in the national story. It ensures that any other vision of Australia’s history — and in turn its present — remains at the periphery of this Anglocentric core of power.

Beyond this, Anzac Day, as Australia’s primary means of remembering our history of conflict, shapes our understanding of war and its consequences using simplistic, and ultimately harmful, narratives. 

War is hell. Anzac Day when first celebrated was an attempt to further an imperial vision of Australian identity, but was tempered by the fact that so many of the Australian population had lost someone in war. Over time the meaning of Anzac Day shifted. By the Second World War, the focus of Anzac Day shifted to one of contemplation and mourning. Until the 1990s and especially the 2000s, Anzac Day was a significantly lower-key affair than the one we know today, with its chest-beating politicians and obsession with mateship. Whilst renewed interest in Anzac Day began to build in the 1980s following then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s visit to Gallipoli, much of this final change was due to John Howard’s fervent championing of his version of Anzac Day. 

Howard claimed in his 2003 Anzac Day speech, “Anzac Day [is] not about glorification of war. It is about a celebration of some wonderful values of courage, and valour, of mateship, of decency, of a willingness as a nation to do the right thing, whatever the cost.” But therein lies the problem: rhetoric promoting Anzac “values” ties Australia’s history and social identity to its participation in armed conflict, thereby making it more politically palatable and war more likely. 

Howard’s justification for sending Australian soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan for a “war on terror” demonstrates this process in action. His justification for the war included framing 9/11 as an attack on Australian values, heightening the perceived need to go to war over the attack.  From this starting point, Howard claimed, using rhetoric of Anzac, that the “Australian way” is to go to war, even if it is difficult. This positioned Howard’s decision to go to war as an inevitable extension of the national story. In 2002, Howard said the quiet part out loud: “we are fighting now for the same values the Anzacs fought for in 1915: courage, valour, mateship, decency [and] a willingness as a nation to do the right thing, whatever the cost.” After arriving at the decision to go to war, Howard tried to downplay the significance of the toll this would take on Australia’s military personnel using the language of sacrifice and heroism derived, again, from the Anzac legend. 

Anzac Day doesn’t just make war more likely, it also fails to account for the actual cost of war. This is seen in how the day is celebrated — when solemn Dawn Services make way for afternoon piss-ups — and in how it is not celebrated. Anzac rarely, at least since the 1980s, questions why, in war after war, Australian soldiers have been sacrificed for no discernible benefit, on the whims of our supposed allies and of Australian politicians.

Justifications for a vigorous celebration of Anzac Day focus on its benefit in recognising the suffering of veterans in armed conflict. But it is possible to recognise this without having a quasi-national day that attempts to construct a damaging national identity. We could look, without much difficulty, to how New Zealand celebrates Anzac Day to establish that basic idea. Remembering and respecting those who have been to, and died at, war is critical, but there are better ways to do it than the current iteration of Anzac Day. 

Further, to better improve the quality of life for veterans in the community, funding spent on Anzac Day and the state apparatus which supports it, should be spent on Veterans Affairs. The National War Memorial, while it receives money from weapons manufacturers, received more than $600 million in the last two years of the Morrison government, more than all of Australia’s cultural institutions combined. The rhetoric of Anzac provides a cover for politicians to pretend they care about veterans. Without this pretext, they would actually have to face the human cost of war and properly fund veterans affairs services, particularly to reduce the barriers to mental health care veterans often face. If we are to accept that Anzac Day increases the likelihood of war, then it is even less plausible that Anzac Day benefits military veterans, as it condemns more young people to experience the hell of war. 

Just like any form of nationalism, Anzac Day is socially constructed. It is constructed by both the politicians and artists — ostensibly to protect their vision of a virile Anglocentric national identity in the face of demographic and social change — and the willingness of the Australian public to accept the narratives they create. As such, it is worth asking, if not for veterans, who is Anzac Day for? Why do we maintain it? Should we maintain it? As Anzac Day is so symbolically powerful, we must ask these questions, even though those who do so are frequently targeted with frenzied criticism.

Rather than celebrating Anzac Day as if it were a national day, Australia should drastically reconsider the way it celebrates the suffering of those sent to war. Remembering this suffering, and the evil of war, without unnecessary valorisation and association of conflict with divine qualities. 

Beyond this, celebrating Anzac Day as a national day means it is placed front-and-centre in the national memory. This necessarily entails privileging remembrance of Gallipoli and foreign conflict above all other elements of Australia’s history. Settler-colonial societies like Australia are built on the way that they forget (or remember, then disregard) their colonial past and the atrocities on which they are built. Anzac Day is part of that conscious process of remembering and forgetting. Rather than furthering the harmful Anzac myth, Australia should reckon with its violent colonial history: that Australia is built upon disposession and the genocide of First Nations people and that it was not “born” at Gallipoli. Rather than being gripped by the selective memory of Anzac, Australia must engage in a comprehensive process of truth-telling and remediation of historical injustices. Only then can we end the ongoing grip of whiteness over Australian life.

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