|Bill Shorten and Paul Keating at Australian War Memorial Remembrance Day Ceremonies, 2013 Source: SMH|
"...within Australia we were moving through the processes of our federation to new ideas of ourselves. Notions of equality and fairness – suffrage for women, a universal living wage, support in old age, a sense of inclusive patriotism … Australia was never in need of any redemption at Gallipoli, any more than it was in need of one 30 years later at Kokoda. There was nothing missing in our young nation or our idea of it that required the martial baptism of a European cataclysm to legitimise us."
Paul Keating, Remembrance Day 2013ANZAC Day has become a day irrevocably bound up in uncritical myth and legend. Like a religious holiday, the same stories are told and re-told, changing subtly from year to year, altering in our imagination until all that's left is some vague notion of what we think may have happened.
Take that unimpeachable symbol of Aussie "spirit" and "mateship", Simpson and his Donkey. The average Australian can probably tell you a few things about him: he was serving at Gallipoli and ferried wounded soldiers from danger back to safety; he probably should have been awarded the Victoria Cross, but didn't - probably because of the British in charge at Gallipoli or something. I don't know, I haven't seen the movie in a while.
A commissioned officer in John Howard's Culture Wars, education minister Brendan Nelson told Australian schools to teach the "Australian values" such as those espoused by Simpson and the Donkey or else: "if people don't want to be Australians and they don't want to live by Australian values and understand them, well then they can basically clear off."
This, of course was aimed at schools who dared to teach Islamic tradition or anything else culturally unsavoury to that band of old, privileged white men in government from 1996–2007. Howard had said he was prepared to "get inside" mosques and schools to make sure they weren't creating the next band of extremism.
With a little bit of intellectual curiosity, Nelson would have see the folly of his idea - Simpson deserted the merchant navy before opportunistically signing up as a stretcher bearer as means of getting back home to England. He wanted to get away from Australia, a country he was growing "tired" of. He was also an active trade unionist. While he performed his job admirably in Gallipoli, rescuing soldiers with a donkey got him out of the more dangerous stretcher-bearing routes where many men died ferrying the wounded back to safety. He was fatally wounded on one of these trips.
Propaganda publications like the Glorious Deeds of Australiasians in the Great War painted an image of untold glories that were swallowed whole by an Australian public in need of good news from the front. Like the stories of the Bible, the myths of ANZAC were spoken, re-spoken, collected and published. The myths, set in print, then became fact, rarely to be critically analysed again.
Until today, where there is a small, but growing movement contrary to the reinvigorated Howard-brand ANZAC festival. While it is incredibly important to remember those who have died in the service of our country, it is even more important to place that in a context.
Why? Where? When? How?
The day before ANZAC soldiers landed at Gallipoli, Ottoman authorities rounded up 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders and deported them. Most of them would later be killed. Thus began the Armenian Genocide, still denied by Turkey to this day, resulting is some 1-1.5 million deaths. An unabashed and unknown (in Australia anyway) act of inhuman savagery.
At Gallipoli, almost 11,500 Australian and New Zealand troops died. Some 21,000 British troops suffered the same fate. While the impact of the Great War can't be understated in its affect on two fledging antipodean countries, it is time to move beyond symbols and myths to something more nuanced and dignified.