Updated: May 17, 2022
The human response to war is a tricky thing. Depending on who you speak to, it can be as contentious as it can be bonding. When living in a country like Australia, the mythical tapestry of our ancestor's actions in conflict informs much of our national identity, but such reverence is inborn for many of us. It's also largely unquantifiable, and very hard to define with any concrete tangibility, but imagine we could unpack it all. What would we find, and how would it impact our perspective?
When writing my novel Banksia Close character Damon Hemingford, I was forced to do some very consuming research on the motives behind his decisions, and his mind. He was not an easy character to write, but he was fun. Through him, I had cause to research subject matter I had long been interested in. A complex and very flawed character, Damon is layered and imperfect, owing to childhood torments and a family legacy of war. It was quite by surprise that I found myself immersed in dialogue that was truly connected to the core of his actions, but before perfecting the prose, I had to ensure that I truly understood how his position on warfare was formed and held, especially as he shuns the family legacy by refusing to join the army.
Through Damon, I have come to appreciate the common Australian man’s connection to the values of The Anzac Spirit, and, by extension, war itself.
What We See When We Close Our Eyes
It’s a heroic image. Men heaving themselves from boats and into shallow surf, surging from the breakers with guns appraised, fully aware that they are going to die but running into the muddy hellfire anyway. There are few men who could imagine such a sacrifice today, and even fewer youth. ANZAC has become the stuff of legend, of myth. It’s hard not to be awed by the notion that men not only fought and died for their country but did so on mass, in an environment where they knew they likely wouldn’t make it out alive. Australia is certainly not the only nation that upholds such events as cornerstones for national pride, but we are the only nation that spent 562 million commemorating the centenary (between 2014 and 2018). That’s a lot of money for a nation that was, in the end, a minor player in what the silent generation called The Great War.
Contentious When Not Revered.
ANZAC, for many Australians, could be considered a religion – but it’s not without its critics. Acclaimed playwright Alan Seymour’s notorious play The One Day of The Year was ruthless in its commentary, calling into question our nation's devotion to an event that essentially celebrates mass slaughter. It is no secret that our Anzac’s, on that fateful day in 1915, never stood a chance. Cannon fodder is a term often used for what many believe was the mass waste of fertile young men, and Gallipoli itself was indeed a meat grinder which one could easily believe to be a massive, tragic error. Seymour even went so far as to attack Anzac loyalists as drunken bigots.
Feminist resistance to war also occurs on a cyclical basis, often citing rape as a by-product of conflict, implying that war in any form, should never be celebrated. Historically, perspectives on war as a national point of pride also vary depending on military actions at the time. The Vietnam War was wildly unpopular, as was the war in Iraq. The public can be fickle when political tensions are high.
In addition to this, other aspects of our dark colonial past and treatment of our Indigenous population often appear to be overshadowed by the Anzac legend as a sacred point of national history, which is a sore bone of contention for many on the left. It also doesn’t help that Indigenous contributions to Australia’s war efforts are often sidelined in favor of other notable contributions which happen to be white.
For the record, more than 1000 indigenous people fought in WWI , and 4000 in WWII. That’s a pretty impressive contribution to encounter from a group of people who certainly owed little to their white counterparts, and could have been forgiven for declining involvement. After all, they’d been here long before us and had managed to ‘protect’ the country just fine without such a sacrifice. Alas, they walked side by side with their persecutors for a common goal. This is something we should all consider a beautiful and profound occurrence, perhaps more emulative of the Anzac legend than any of the constructs appreciated today.
Anzac and Culture
The term Anzac has meant different things throughout time. In the beginning, it was simply an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Then, with the implication of a public holiday, it became a sacred day of sober respect. As time has marched forward, the very term has become synonymous with what many recognise as quintessential Australian values. The Anzac Spirit encompasses mateship, loyalty, sacrifice, discipline, persistence, good humour, and bravery. By extension, the very actions of our Anzacs and those who follow, have segued into utmost respect for the tenants of various freedoms. Freedom of Speech, worship, rights to democracy, fair justice, and brotherly respect. That’s an impressive legacy to leave behind. New Zealand’s Culture also upholds such values as prized traits that underpin their national identity, bringing both countries together as sisters united in grief and pride forever remembered.
The Anzac legend, whilst it has its critics, is embedded in our national consciousness, and even those who question its merits can admit to recoiling if they ever hear of shrines being defaced or marches being picketed. The Anzac Spirit, for a large majority of Australians, and indeed New Zealanders, is an indelible dye that irrevocably runs through our blood. Australia’s most popular football match (next to the Grand Final) is played on Anzac day. School children learn about the Spirit of Anzac in primary school and often take excursions to local war memorials. Anzac biscuits are on every mother's bake list, and most of us have a poppy pin lying somewhere in a forgotten drawer, if not a fresh one bought because we can’t walk past the kindly old gentleman positioned at the temporary table outside the local Woolies. When it comes to revered charities, even those of us who abhor door knockers and have no junk mail signs will go to the coin jar for the Anzac tin, with only The Good Friday Appeal demanding the same humble benevolence.
Australia’s culture may be a work in progress, but the Anzac Spirit is now a major artery of that culture, and this is unlikely to change. I’m not sure it should. Kids today could learn a lot from those battlefield legends, even if they did die in a callous blood bath.
Pride is Not Always Consious
Like the language we speak and the air we breathe, pride can be automatic. You don’t necessarily need to get up for the dawn service or thread poppies through your lapels to be proud of the Anzac Spirit, but has Anzac itself dwarfed the act of war in general? As has already been outlined, not all wars are popular, and not every soldier is seen the way the Anzacs were. Does it matter? I’d wager it doesn’t.
Anzac Day is not celebrated just to remember those brave boys from Gallipoli. It is, more holistically, a military day. A day to commemorate all soldiers who have fought for our country, whether we agreed with the conflict or not. Even those who may march against certain wars from a purely political standpoint, or believe in the tenants of peace at all costs, can’t look at a soldier crossing the street and not be humbly awed by their stance, be it because the intentions of soldiers and the wars they fight are not always aligned, or because you simply know that you could never do It yourself, the heroic and often superhuman acts of men in war are difficult to disrespect. In at that moment, crossing paths with this other human who chose a path we would in no way consider, we do feel a sense of appreciation, of pride. There is not really any other word for it.
In the end, it is soldiers who solicit pride, not war. We would all do well to separate the two out. After all, war is easy to despise. Sacrifice, on the other hand, can only be admired, and as much as idealism and hope for eternal peace has a place, in the meantime, someone has to do it.
Would Australia Be The Country it is Without War?
Historical events for all countries are shapers of their narrative; their identity. It seems like a stupid question to ask, whether something as horrific as war could ever leave a culture unchanged, but young countries like Australia and New Zealand are different from many others. Countries with long historical pasts have cultures that are more nuanced and complicated than their young counterparts. When one considers the minor role Australia played in both world wars, and then juxtaposes this involvement against the cultural impact that these conflicts have had on us as a nation, we definitely hold the events as more crucial to our sense of national identity. We lost 60,000 men in WWI. When compared to other countries, there is no contest. Russia lost 1.7 million. The United Kingdom lost nearly a million, and France, 1.3 million. As for WWII, we came out slightly better with 39,000 dead. In the meantime, China buried 15-20 million, but if you really want to pale from the inside out, you need to look to Russia, with 24 million. That’s more than the total population of Australia today.
It’s not that these countries don’t commemorate their dead as we do. On the contrary, they still have their commemorative days, and their tributes, but the tragedy of such wars on countries with histories as long and complex as those mentioned above, are simply accompanying losses on a long, painful list of many. If a country like Russia cataloged
and commemorated its list of national losses, they’d have a public holiday every week. No doubt such tragedies do shape them, but they don’t define them. The Anzac legend, for Australia, is like an adolescent first heartbreak. It’s a watershed moment for a nubile country with a young identity and a fragile culture. When one looks at Gallipoli, at The Anzacs, and at our pride in our involvement in tragic wars which, for much of the rest of the world, were just more of what had come before, the answer to the heading is quite simple. No, Australia wouldn’t be the country it is without war.
Whether one agrees with war in principle or even questions its role in evolved society, an imperfect world, like any human, has imperfect scars. As far as Australia (and I’m sure New Zealand) is concerned, disinclination to uphold The Anzac Spirit is akin to psychological denial of the self, of how the layers of rich cultures begin and continue to be sustained. You don’t get to jettison a legend, a history, for the sake of convenience or even personal belief. This is true of mistakes, and of triumphs, and regardless of which column you chose to designate the origins of The Anzac Spirit, its impact, overall, has been positive for the story of who we are today, and what we value. So long as this is the case, we may as well embrace it wholeheartedly, with pride.
Damon certainly does, and in writing his character, I have come to understand that one can shun even generational pressure to walk with legends, whilst still appreciating the irrefutable impact of the path that they have, and continue to tread, for all of us.