Yesterday was Anzac Day: for non-Australians reading the blog, it is our national day of commemoration for those who died serving Australia in the wars of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
First, a personal disclaimer: for many years I co-ordinated the service for Anzac Day at my Synagogue, and I aimed to make it a dignified and respectful service. That particular Synagogue (Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney, formerly Temple Emanuel) had a history inextricably bound to the events of the Second World War. As far as I know, it was one of the only Synagogues to be built during the war years (at the same time that so many were being deliberately razed to the ground by the Nazis and their collaborators). The women’s guild of Temple Emanuel raised funds for activities through active contribution to the war effort, making camouflage netting and other important materials. A great many congregants of Temple served in the armed forces, and the most senior Jewish member of the Australian armed forces, Major General Paul Cullen AC was the founding treasurer of the congregation. For all these reasons and more, I was happy to co-ordinate a dignified memorial service for those ex-servicewomen and men who had seen military service. I saw this as an intrinsic part of the Synagogue’s history, and an important moment for the elderly women and men who would come especially for this one day in April.
However, there is another side to Anzac Day that has risen in recent years. Growing up, I used to like the ambivalent position of Anzac Day in Australia, exemplified in Alan Seymour’s play “The One Day of the Year”. When I was young, Anzac Day was the day for ex-servicemen to get drunk with their mates at the pub, and a quiet day off for the rest of us. Those who attended the dawn service or other events did so because they were connected to it directly through family who had served, or those who were still serving. It functioned a lot more like the American Memorial Day. I feel nostalgic for this past way of commemorating our war dead. Back then, there was little of the ridiculous public chest-beating and almost no connection to the sort of nationalism that occurs these days. No-one went to Gallipoli on a ‘pilgrimage’. The transmogrification of Anzac Day happened during the Howard years, when national identity was firmly planted in the soil of the blood-stained Anatolian cliffs, where thousands of young Australians AND New Zealanders were pointlessly and callously slaughtered in 1915 because of the laziness and stupidity of the British commanding forces. The question we asked during those days of ambivalence was: did Australia need to experience this catastrophic generational loss in order to formulate a national identity, to enshrine the notion of ‘mateship’ in our consciousness?
Regarding mateship, my gut says that ‘mateship’ has a far older origin than the place of Anzac Cove. I’m sure mateship existed in the chain gangs of those convicts, transported to the other side of the world for the most trivial of crimes, supporting each other through their misery. I’m sure mateship existed in the phenomenally corrupt Rum Corps and the way in which they ran New South Wales. Plus ça change, plus ça la même chose? Wasn’t mateship a part of the Kelly gang, and all the other bushrangers, skirting the law? I’m pretty sure mateship existed in the various tragic explorations into the interior of the continent. I also think that a far darker and less pleasant mateship existed in the organised eradication and dispossession of land, culture and life from the first people who had existed in Australia for tens of thousands of years prior to us Johhny-come-latelies. In short, although I think that mateship is an intrinsic part of how we construct our identity, I don’t believe it was codified at Anzac Cove, nor do I think it holds a definitively ‘beneficial’ or positive aspect. It is the way we socialise in our culture, and I suspect has its true heritage in British forms of social village behaviour, in rural and disadvantaged parts; and also perhaps a transference of such behaviours to the emerging working-class areas of expanding city life during industrialisation. There is a certain tribal nature to ‘mateship’.
When I was growing up, some historical commentary treated the events of Anzac differently. This perspective saw the awakening of the Australian identity at Anzac through the act of British abandonment. The wholesale slaughter of these young men spoke to later generations as a conscious revelation that we, the colonies, were not inextricably linked to the Mother Country as we had perceived up to that point. This unease was reinforced in World War II, when tens of thousands of our best trained Australian and New Zealand troops were caught in the European conflict ‘on loan’ to the Mother Country, whilst our borders sat exposed to the threat of attack and possible invasion. Again, I am simplifying complex issues and intercontinental relations, but this contributed to the severing of the imperial umbilical cord in the minds of many Australians.
While I admire and pay respect to those who served in various conflicts for Australia, I despair at the growing sense of jingoistic nationalism that surrounds this history. I wonder, was it a coincidence that the rise of Anzac Day consciousness during the Howard years also occurred during the diminution (and in some cases, revisionism) of the more shameful aspects of our colonial past, that is, the dispossession and oppression of indigenous cultures? If we are going to be full and frank about this, then the way in which we treated our indigenous soldiers left much to be desired.
A point in case: if you go into detail regarding our policies for Torres Strait Islander men, the following facts can be stated. First, they were paid at less than half the rate of the non-Indigenous soldiers; second, as heads of their villages, they were understandably concerned when their women and children were left exposed to Japanese bombing and attack, with absolutely no plan of evacuation or protection implemented by the Australian government. If you want to read in more detail about this largely forgotten history, here’s a good link to the history of the war in TSI:
Despite the very subjective nature of those who recount, History should not be a pick-and-choose game. If we are to continue towards a more mature understanding of our national identity, we must consider all different aspects of our history with a keen and critical eye, and not resort to nostalgia for some sections, and amnesia for others. Methinks we still have a very long way to go.