The decontextualisation of ANZAC Day

Everyone else is giving their reckons on the treatment of ANZAC Day this year, as we commemorate the centenary of the first year of World War I. So here are mine.

Growing up, my main impressions about World War I, and specifically the Gallipoli campaign, were formed by two narratives. The first was the 1981 film about it, starring a baby-faced Mel Gibson. We watched it a few times at school, and every time my impression, and the impression of my classmates, was that young Kiwi and Aussie men charged pointlessly into machine-gun fire while plummy-voiced English generals sat far behind the front lines drinking tea.

The other was the tale of Chunuk Bair. So the legend goes, this strategic point on the map was heroically captured by ANZAC troops and promptly lost by the Brits. It’s not completely accurate – no war story shared on the primary school playground is going to be – but what these two narratives left me with was the firm conviction that Our Boys essentially died for nothing, because Britain told us to.

And that was always the undertone for ANZAC commemorations. We honoured the dead, and the sacrifice they made, but especially because it was futile. Because it represented our reflexive support of our British masters, which we had grown out of like a proper independent nation. We sent young men overseas to die for no damn good reason, to serve in a war built on one assassination and centuries’ worth of interlocking European alliances.

Unlike, say, the American habit of conflating wars with the soldiers who fight in them, who treat every action as heroic and every failure as an insult to the whole nation, demanding vengeance, the ANZAC Days I remember properly recognised the tragedy inherent in any soldiers’ death, without implying that those deaths made the war they happened in righteous. Without making their deaths glorious.

Maybe that was all in my head. But this year, that undertone is definitely gone. In the wall-to-wall coverage of every ceremony and visit and exhibition, I’ve yet to see a single person acknowledge the archaic imperial motives of WWI, that the Gallipoli campaign was a pointless slaughter, or the simple fact that at Gallipoli, we were the invaders and we lost

Hell, I haven’t seen anyone even indicate where Gallipoli is on a map.

So I’m sad as ANZAC Day approaches. We don’t honour the men and women who died in that utterly pointless war, and the especially pointless Gallipoli campaign, by erasing the pointlessness of it all. We shouldn’t remember them because dying in combat (or from sickness or accident in the vicinity of combat) is inherently a glorious thing. We shouldn’t remember them for utterly false propaganda like “they died defending our freedoms” or “for our flag”. Because that’s a well-trodden path that leads to justifying any number of terrible things.

We should remember exactly why Gallipoli was a tragedy, because that’s the only way we can avoid doing it all over again.

Some insist that ANZAC Day shouldn’t be politicised. The thing is, ANZAC Day is inherently political. War is inherently political. The question of following bigger nations into conflicts is inherently political.

Politicians are explicitly using ANZAC Day to support the latest international military action.

In that context the most political thing of all is pretending ANZAC Day isn’t.

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