Lest We Forget What, Exactly?

An Essay on the Misappropriation of ANZAC Day in Contemporary Australia

I guess at this point in my life I have made a bit of reputation for myself for being critical of the public holidays everyone else seems to love. I don’t celebrate Christmas because I don’t enjoy it. I despise Australia Day because it is blatantly offensive to both non-Anglo Australians specifically and a basic understanding of history generally. I think Easter Eggs are stupid and if the damn holiday was so important they would have at least by now figured out a way to make it happen on the same weekend every year. Perhaps I am just a cynical old man wasting his youth sitting on the front porch waving a stick at local school kids whilst yelling ‘stay off my damn lawn’. Welcome to critical thinking in 21st century Australia.

Funnily enough though, ANZAC Day is one public holiday I firmly support. It might seem like an odd fit, after all, I’m a lefty whose sense of national pride makes George Orwell look like Sarah Palin (for Orwell’s 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism, click here). Yet I think it is eminently reasonable and within the parameters of responsible societal discourse to have a day where we remember and celebrate those who have fallen in sacrifice for this country.

I am Left wing – not a pacifist – and war has its place.

As much as I identify as a progressive and left wing person, I entirely understand the criticism that the Left is too often so absorbed in imagined progressive utopias and sociological bullshit about new normativities that it ignores the inapplicability of its idealism to the world that actually exists. This isn’t an argument in support of realism as a doctrine of international relations, but rather a reflection on the fact that so-called progressive people can be so focused on their idealism that they begin to adopt positions which inherently conflict and contradict with their underlying liberal principles. New Atheists like Sam Harris discuss this ‘regressive left’ phenomenon at length, highlight the hypocrisy of people whose support for multicultural tolerance extends to the extreme of defending objectively barbaric cultural practices (like forced marriages and the subjugation of women generally).

Christopher Hitchens made a similar point when he broke ranks with the Left and came out in support of the War in Iraq in 2003. I don’t agree with his position on Iraq nor that of Islam (as opposed to religion generally) as I believe the war lacked the necessary casus belli (just cause) as well as a clear strategy for occupation and timely exit – a view vindicated by the quagmire of the following decade. Yet his line of reasoning has always resonated with me. Hitchens essentially argued that it was hypocritical for the Left to ignore the human rights atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein, and that it’s myopic attitude towards foreign intervention denied people the rights the Left so stoically defend.

In the same sense, I see a clear rationality for war and foreign intervention. The world is not the sunshine and lollipops some like to imagine it to be, and I am highly sceptical of people using ‘cultural practices’ as a shield to defend social stratification, inequality and tyranny (See, for instance, the 1993 Bangkok Declaration, in which dictators and oligarchs asserted that human rights should coexist with ‘Asian values’ – ‘values’ which, conveniently, entrenched their own power). The apparent inability of the Left to deal with the clash between cultural practices and universal human rights aside, my position is that war is sometimes the only available measure to defend the interests the State. In times of existential threat, it becomes the duty of a country’s citizens to defend it.

Which brings us back to ANZAC Day

The act of citizens fighting and dying in defence of their country is one immutably connected to existence of the nation state. In a sense, it finds it philosophical justification in the social contract – for the most part, the State defends the people, but sometimes the people must defend the State. There should be a national holiday celebrating the people who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

I should be happy. Every year on April 25th we remember those who have fallen – people stand in the freezing cold at dawn to remember the brave men mowed down on the cliffs of Gallipoli. We watch as veterans and their children march proudly. We have even moved to eradicate the last vestiges of difference that marked our nation’s atrocious treatment of its Vietnam veterans.

Yet I can’t help but feel that ANZAC Day has been changed into something that it is not; misappropriated by generations of people who have never experienced the horrors of war at an industrial scale. Somehow the day seems to have become more about jingoistic nationalism and getting shitfaced with your mates than actually reflecting on sacrifice and the abject horror of war.

But more people are going to the dawn service than ever!

Well done. Perhaps it is my family’s Protestant heritage coming to the fore, but there is nothing inherent in taking part in a respectful ritual that excuses subsequent disrespectful or sacrilegious behaviour. Taking part in the dawn service is in itself an honourable and respectful deed, but it does not give a carte blanche pass to act like a fuckhead for the rest of the day. What is it about ANZAC Day that makes people think that the most appropriate way to celebrate and remember the fallen is to get shit faced drunk and act like an idiot? How did playing Two-Up whilst sinking bulk schooners of liquid gold become the acceptable practice of commemoration?

Well, that’s what the ANZACs did.

Well, not really.

Alan Seymour wrote a play in 1958 called The One Day of the Year, which explored the cultural practice of ex-servicemen drinking on ANZAC Day. In essence, the protagonist, Hughie Cook, comes to realise that the drunken antics of his father and his ex-servicemen friends on ANZAC Day is a reflection of the fact that their service in the War ultimately meant that they were left behind by society. They came home to lost careers, and suffered health problems and terrors for the rest of their lives. ANZAC Day became the one day of the year in which they felt like their contribution to the protection of society was actually valued, the one day of the year where they felt like they were actually worth something. Getting together with the other veterans made them forget for a day that society, for 364 days of the year, had moved on.

To be fair, it’s a fairly accurate depiction of what those early ANZAC Days must have been like. Our experience of war as a society is one of limited scale, yet the two World Wars destroyed whole generations of young men. In the first World War, 38.7% of the male population of Australia enlisted for service. Of those who embarked to Europe, 64.8% were either wounded or killed, one of the highest casualty rates of the entire war. Take a moment to think about the social ramifications of such a monumental loss of life; not just the grief of the families whose loved ones never returned home, but the sheer number of physically infirmed veterans, and the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (‘shellshock’) which terrorised veterans long after the mortars stopped firing. They came home to find their skills in the army had little application in the workforce, and the men who stayed behind had filled their positions. Those who had jobs quickly found their careers stalled by the onset of the Great Depression, and suddenly there was another World War to attend to. Whole generations of men lost their lives and their livelihoods in the trenches of Europe.

So, I can understand why veterans got (and get) completely hammered on ANZAC Day – they have been to Dante’s Inferno and back; it is their day to be celebrated. But what about the rest of us? To be fair, the closest most of us ever come to serving in uniform these days is playing a team sport in a local ℵ-grade comp and getting on it at the sponsor pub after every game. Hardly comparable.

Well, ANZAC Day is about mateship.

If that is the message you are taking out of the ANZAC experience, then you either don’t know enough about the ANZAC campaign or you are taking a pretty shallow view of it. Try a little harder.

Let’s start with a history lesson.

On June 28, 1914, the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Although the incident did not occur in Serbia, Austro-Hungary blamed the Serbian government and put forth an ultimatum which essentially required the Serbians to cede sovereignty to the Hapsburgs. An intolerable scenario for its interests in the region, Romanov Russia threatened to intervene, so Austro-Hungary sought assurances from Germany that it would honour its military alliance in the event of such an intervention. Not receiving a satisfactory answer to its July Ultimatum, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. In turn, Russia declared war on Austro-Hungary.

It should have stopped there, but the complex balance of power which emerged during the latter half of the 19th century meant that a declaration of war by one of the major power had the potential to draw the whole continent into conflict. When Russia declared war on Austro-Hungary, the alliance between Austro-Hungary and Germany meant Germany had to declare war on Russia. The Secret Treaty of 1892 compelled France to declare war on Germany because they had declared war on Russia. Meanwhile the Entente Cordiale, although not formally demanding British intervention, created an impetus to do so. This was solidified into direct action when Germany, following the von Schlieffen Plan, invaded Belgium as a strategic route into France. The 1839 Treaty of London required Britain to protect Belgium’s neutrality, Germany had clearly violated this and Prime Minister Asquith used this as justification to declare war on Germany.

How did the Ottoman Empire get involved? It’s a seriously odd question that deserves to be answered another day.

Wait, I thought we were talking about the ANZACs?

We are, but you cannot understand the ANZACs without first knowing how we ended up in the War in the first place. You see, Australia never actually declared war on the Central Powers. It didn’t have to.

Australia in 1914 was not an independent nation. The Federation of Australia in 1901 did not grant independence. Rather, we remained a self-governing dominion of the British Empire until… well, we aren’t quite sure – we had the right to become independent with the passing of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 (Cth), but we never actually exercised it. We removed the last vestiges of British Parliamentary control with the Australia Act 1986 (Cth). Until that point, technically the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1965 (UK) meant that Australian laws were only valid to the extent that they did not contradict the laws of the British Parliament. So, when British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, our colonial overlord, decided Britain needed troops in 1914, Australia and its fellow dominions fell into line.

Which was how the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp was formed. I mean, did you ever consider why they weren’t separate regiments? It was because, technically, they were under the control of the British; they were an Imperial Force. They didn’t give a fuck where the soldiers were from, what they needed were live bodies to throw at very live artillery, live artillery that they would very much prefer to be directed at those dastardly upstarts from the colonies than good old fashioned, home-grown British boys.

Which brings us to the ANZAC Day

Towards dawn on April 25th 1915, the troops of the Australian New Zealand Army Corp approached the shoreline of modern-day Turkey. Why Turkey?

Well, after three centuries of doing absolutely fuck-all for the Russian people, Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov dynasty were somewhat on the nose in Russia. They had been left behind by Western Europe’s rapid industrialisation and the concentration of wealth and power amongst such a select few highlighted the enormous disparities between the opulent haves and the starving have-nots. Coupled with the comprehensive disaster of the Sino-Russian War of 1905, there were rumblings of a serious populist (and potentially socialist) revolution in Russia.

How is that relevant? Well, it is easy in 2016 to underestimate Germany’s military might in early World War One, but the effectiveness of the von Schlieffen Plan meant that even though they failed to completely defeat France before Russia could mobilise, they had secured formidable defensive ground by 1915. For Britain and France, the scariest element about the Western Front was that Germany was occupied with fighting the Russians to the East, and a Russian withdrawal from the War (due to a successful revolution) would free troops and resources to defend the gains in the West. The key question became how to keep Russia in the War.

To keep her in the war, what Russia needed was finance and supplies. Man power was something it had in abundance, yet its entire arsenal was not enough to equip each soldier with a gun. Facing crippling arms shortages on the Eastern Front and a ruminating rebellion at home, Russia needed serious help to keep it in the War. But how to do it? The problem with Russia, and indeed a consistent issue throughout its expansion, was that it lacked access to ‘warm sea ports’ (ports that don’t freeze over in winter). The only warm sea ports it had in Europe were in the Black Sea, which is separated from the Mediterranean by a narrow channel known as the Dardanelles, which were controlled by the Ottoman Empire. To resupply Russia, the British needed to gain control of the Dardanelles so it could safely transport its ships through this passage.

Which is sort of where the ANZACs came in. See, it wasn’t our job to capture the Dardanelles. Rather, by invading Gallipoli, the ANZACs would draw Ottoman resources further North, whilst the British would land at Cape Helles and move to ultimately capture the forts and defensive positions on the Western shore of the Dadanelles. The entire ANZAC Gallipoli campaign, accidental landing at ANZAC Cove aside, was a diversionary tactic to allow the safe(r) advancement of British troops. Better to sacrifice the insubordinate colonials than risk prime British soldiers.

The entire ANZAC campaign was an unmitigated disaster. For all the talk of bravery (which is absolutely undeniable), our troops were sent to slaughter and kept there in a brutalist stalemate for nothing more than imperialist arrogance and deliberate ignorance by the British. All in all, that little diversion and subsequent quagmire resulted in 35,000 casualties, not including those who died of diseases like typhoid in what was literally hell on earth. And for what, exactly? The fact is that the only real success of the ANZAC campaign in Gallipoli was the retreat, which was a work of intuitive and innovative battlefield brilliance.

Yet their return to Egypt was not a debriefing. Instead, they were being prepared to be sent into the ‘big game’; the European Western Front, one of the most horrific and pointless exercises of total war in human history. If Gallipoli was hell on Earth, what followed in the European slaughterhouse was nothing short of an apocalypse.

Pop quiz: where did more Australians die – Gallipoli or the Western Front?

Not remotely close to a competition, whilst 8200 Australians died at Gallipoli, with 16,000 additional wounded, a mammoth 46,000 died on the Western Front, with 132,000 wounded. Imagine being an ANZAC that saw the entire war – there was every chance that, had you survived Gallipoli, you would have then been sent to fight in either the Battle of Verdun or the Somme. There’s a reason why poetry from the trenches of the Western Front was so vividly incredible, and it was because the world you existed in challenged the very essence of human experience.

My point here is not to detract from the ANZACs themselves – they were brave, selfless and twice the men I could ever aspire to be. My question is what do you take out of the ANZAC experience?

What do I take out of the ANZAC experience?

What I take from the ANZAC experience in World War can be summed up succinctly in the final stanza of a famous Wilfred Owen poem:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

 

What is the old lie Owen refers to? Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a Latin maxim which translates to ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for your country’. This, I would suggest, is the meaning of ANZAC Day.

There is nothing ‘sweet and fitting’ about dying for your country.

Before a lynch mob forms because I have committed the sacrilege of blaspheming the most holy of days on the Australian calendar, allow me to explain. I don’t for a second mean that we shouldn’t commemorate those who have lost their lives at war – this the day the brave sacrifice of each and every soldier should be remembered. Soldiers perform an absolutely essential social function. But did the ANZACs really die for their country?

To die for your country implies that there exists some possible cause which justifies your country’s involvement in the conflict in the first place. I have searched and searched; in my heart of hearts I genuinely want to find one, but I honestly cannot find a justification for why we were part of that ridiculous fucking war.

Why? Because World War One was a continental dispute about territory amongst imperial powers caught up in the grandeur of their 19th century Asian and African expansions, complicated by outdated ‘balance of power’ treaties which were predicated on the fear of the next Napoleon. All it was ever going to take was a match, and once the fuel was ignited Germany, Britain, Russia, France and Austro-Hungary were far too caught up in the fervour of nationalism to take a step back and negotiate a peaceful resolution. Bloated were they on the successes of their intercontinental colonial expeditions, they convinced themselves of their own exceptional military superiority, and so the old men in power sent the young men off to die in a man-made apocalypse the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since the hordes of Genghis Khan.

And for what, exactly? This was a continental conflict similar to the Franco-Prussian, Crimean and Napoleonic wars in the century preceding – European powers fighting for nothing more than prestige and territory, just like they have since Charlemagne divided the Carolingian Empire amongst his sons in the 9th century. The involvement of colonial troops like the ANZACs was nothing more than a symptom of the nationalist arrogance that exacerbated the conflict in the first place.

Do not make the mistake of conflating the Germany of 1914 with the Germany of 1938; they were a reasonably moderate and industrialised European power. This was simply a conflict that challenged the centuries-old notion of balance of power, and got out of hand because European leaders lacked the political kahunas to negotiate.

My point in this is that Australian lives died needlessly, and this should be reflected in the way we commemorate ANZAC Day. I cringe every time politicians focus on ‘mateship’ and ‘bravery’ because it ignores the fact that an entire generation of men in this country were wiped out because our politicians were too cowardly to refuse to involve our troops in a foreign war that posed no existential threat to Australia or even Britain. Focusing on ‘mateship’ and ‘bravery’ whitewashes over the barbaric horrors of war, it softens the moral complicity of those who send other people’s children off to die.

Sacrifice is to be celebrated. It should also be remembered, however, that when it comes to a lack of self-preservation in the individual, the only thing which distinguishes stupidity from bravery is a leader telling you to do something. Surely ANZAC Day is incomplete without first considering how young men in 1915 were bullwhipped out of trenches to cross into ‘no man’s land’ only to be inevitably cut down by machine gun fire. It’s a sad reflection of history when Blackadder Goes Forth is such an accurate depiction of the outdated strategies of a supposedly ‘Great’ War you begin to wonder whether it is really satire. How are we learning from the sacrifices of these brave men if we take nothing from their senseless slaughter but the idea that mates are great and war is good?

This ANZAC Day.

I’m not saying don’t go to the Dawn Service. In fact, do it and pay your respects. I’m not saying don’t get pissed with your mates (albeit, please refrain from acting like a fuckwit because I’m sick of our draconian drinking laws). What I am saying is take some time to quietly reflect on what ANZAC Day actually means to you and to the future of this country. When some upstart local politician starts proselytising about duty and sacrifice, place them in 1914 sending someone else’s sons off to fight in someone else’s war.

You don’t have to agree with my position on it. After all, I’m a lunatic lefty with a strong sense of revisionism when it comes to history. All I ask is that, in the names of the ANZACs you claim to be commemorating, take some time to think about war, loss and the futility of their sacrifice – they fought and died in a war not of their making, for a cause remote beyond comprehension. What they were lead to believe, and what they gladly gave their lives for, was not what the reality was. The grand expedition promised by the propaganda posters were mirages; replaced upon arrival by blood, guts, mud and disease, accompanied by the cacophonic symphony of constant artillery bombardment and ever-present machinegun fire.

Too often, these were 18-year-old boys cut down in the prime of their lives, far from home, futilely going ‘over the top’ on the direction of château Generals who hadn’t seen real battle since the Boer Wars. Lying shot to shreds on battlefields from ANZAC Cove to Flanders, dying in no man’s land because some stupid nationalist shot a prince from a country they had probably never heard of.

What did they die for really?

Lest we forget.

 

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Fascinated by philosophy and history, this blog is an outlet for my frustrations of living in a world seemingly dominated by accepted ignorance on one side, and entangled in the intellectual atrophy of post-modernity on the other.

7 thoughts on “Lest We Forget What, Exactly?

  1. I think we will see more of the questioning of the ANZAC ethos in coming years. As an ex-British soldier, and now Aust citizen, I find it hard to get my mind around what ANZAC Day actually stands for.
    The slaughter on the Western Front should be at the front of our minds when we remember what was “sacrificed” by the Colonies. The individuals did not pay the ultimate sacrifice, they were sacrifice, given by venal politicians, rapacious barons of trade and industry, and blind, stupid urging compatriots with little or no idea of who they were ultimately sacrificing in the name of King and Country.
    Unlike Britain (and other European countries) Australia is not a warrior nation, but, as a result, does not really ‘get’ war and sacrificial slaughter. They are a nation of adventurers, tripping off for a bit of a lark.
    I am still trying to get my head around a local church advertising a fun-filled fete following the March on Anzac Day.

    For Fucks Sake
    I won’t forget

    Like

    1. If only I could have expressed such sentiments in so few words. Your comment is absolutely brilliant! Thank you.

      Like

      1. Too kind, thank you, and thank you for the article. It is only through your writing and that of others with a similar mind that we may ultimately see a new reverence for what our forebears went through and maybe a contempt for those that would continue such follies

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