“I believe that Anzac Day serves a purpose. It serves as a yearly reminder of war, its pointlessness and other oft-annotated evils. And so long as there are the sad people standing and remembering, we shall also remember. But in another 60 years or so, there will be very few left to recall the sadness and horror and idiocy. Perhaps this will be the time to do away with Anzac Day.”
In edition seven of Honi Soit in 1958, Geoffrey Havers wrote an article that ended with the above statement. His piece was a searing indictment of the culture of alcoholism and nationalism that pervaded Anzac Day, a critique which still rings true today. It has now been just over 60 years since this piece was written. Indeed, we are in the time in which Havers thought we might have done away with Anzac Day altogether, yet the tradition remains as robust and as booze-soaked as ever. Given that things did not eventuate the way that Havers suggested they might have, it seems pertinent to question how well his arguments have held up from 1958 until now.
At the time of publishing, it had been 43 years since Australian soldiers landed on the shores of Gallipoli and only 13 years since the end of World War Two. In this light, one might understand the extreme backlash the article received. In 1958, there was little room for criticism of any military ventures. The article circulated through the Australian media landscape, causing severe uproar. RSLs threatened to withdraw their funding from USyd scholarships and there were even calls for the editor to be stood down.
Havers wrote in a time where critique of Anzac Day was near blasphemous, yet it seems that such sentiments are still widely unpopular 60 years on. Rather than doing away with Anzac Day, we have become aggressively, almost terrifyingly protective of April 25. Why is white Australia still so defensive of Anzac Day? Is there, perhaps, some salient collective shame that we feel about the way that our national day of mourning is steeped in alcoholism?
“Out of this rather speculative and routine beach landing has developed a festival of hero-adulation unequalled anywhere in the world.”
Isn’t it interesting that two of our national days of celebration are premised on the event of a beach landing? Indeed, when we are assessing the validity of Anzac Day we cannot forget that we live in a country that throws a nation-wide yearly party on January 26 to celebrate the beginning of Australia’s settler-colonial project and the continued genocide of Indigenous peoples. This misplaced celebratory venture forces us to call into question why we might hold festivities on any day deemed a national holiday. Alongside Anzac Day, Australia Day is a glaring example of the way in which an illusion of commemoration masks our national culture of excessive inebriation.
Anzac Day strikes me as opportunistic. Those of us who feel little affiliation with the emotional matters of the day are still handed a public holiday and are rewarded for our respectfulness in the morning with permission to drink in the afternoon. A militarist, masculinised national identity is kept safe inside this one sacred day of the year, and we quite literally drink it up. We are labelled un-Australian if we reject the festivities.
Havers contends that we are remembering the wrong way, and I agree with him. What he ignores, however, is that we are not remembering the right thing. We must call into question what it is we are commemorating in relation to all that we don’t commemorate. As we glorify the soldiers who have lost their lives in war, we continue to ignore the lasting impacts of Australia’s involvement in other types of conflicts: the intergenerational trauma of the frontier wars, subsequent policies of mistreatment and Australia’s inhumane policies of holding asylum seekers in offshore detention. Havers was right when he said that Anzac Day is an embodiment of Australia’s selective empathy: we “stand solemnly in silent prayer at the cenotaphs at dawn”; we “head with as much reverence towards the racecourses as [we] did towards the memorials in the morning”, and we remain as apathetic and detached as ever to the atrocities that are right in front of our eyes.
Havers depicted Anzac Day as “a gigantic day of enjoyment and mourning”: a description that I would argue is still sufficient today. There is some semblance of genuine mourning seen as swarms of people gather to pay their respects. I don’t want to suggest that we don’t commemorate Australian citizens who have fought in war. Who am I, someone who has enjoyed a life of immense privilege, to claim that Anzac Day shouldn’t exist? If I were born a century ago, I would be watching my friends go to war. My personal disconnect to those who have served the military isn’t enough for me to rationalise the claim that Anzac Day should be abandoned. But there still is something increasingly uncomfortable about our treatment of April 25.
Australia has spent more than any other country on commemorating the first World War. Between 2014 and 2028, there will be a projected minimum of $1.1billion spent on new war commemoration projects in Australia. The government is adding fuel to the fire that is the culture of Anzac Day. Contrary to Havers’ suggestions, we haven’t done away with Anzac Day. Quite the opposite: the state continues to legitimise the day as a key facet of our national identity in a way that further militarises our collective consciousness.
In this light, it seems that we won’t do away with Anzac Day for some time. It feels too bold for me to follow in Havers’ footsteps and suggest that in another 60 years it might be time to finally abandon the day altogether, but I am sure that he was both right and brave to critique the day. Two weeks after Havers’ piece was published in 1958, Honi published an editorial to defend the article, stating that “criticism is one of the many foundations of democracy.” The importance of such criticism hasn’t waned, and thus we must keep asking ourselves: is Anzac Day still alive and well because of intergenerational impacts of war that have been passed down, or has the display of institutionalised alcoholism totally overridden the day’s original intention? I am left wondering what Honi reporters will write about this in another 60 years.