Last Friday night I went to see the local Super Rugby team, the Melbourne Rebels, play South Africa’s Cheetahs at the imaginatively named “Melbourne Rectangular Stadium“. While it was great to see a sadly-not-too-common Rebels victory, something odd happened just before the game.
An Anzac Day ceremony.
At the rugby.
It’s not even Anzac Day until tomorrow!
Call me unAustralian, but that ceremony made me feel a little uneasy. It did not feel like it belonged there, in that place, in that context. Sport is not war without guns, as David Stephens wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last year.
Stephens is the secretary of the Honest History coalition of historians and others “supporting the balanced and honest presentation and use of Australian history”. There’s a very long but illuminating transcript of a speech he gave in Kogarah in June 2015 on the Honest History website, and it’s a very useful read at this time of year. Among other things, he argues that Anzac should be “about the private, within-family, remembrance of – and caring about – people who have suffered in war, both those who have been killed and not come home and those who have come home but who are injured in body or mind – and those who live with the memory of the dead and the reality of the presence of the living.” In other words, Stephens sees Anzac as a primarily personal thing that is connected with those affected by war: both the effects on those who were actually there and the effects on the direct families who lived with them. “For families who are directly affected by war,” Stephens writes, “commemoration isn’t parades and wreaths and speeches by politicians; it is something they live every day and every week.”
As we move further and further away from the events being remembered, though, those private, individual stories seem to become lost in the mass. The Great War is now beyond living memory, and in a few short years WWII will go the same way. Meanwhile, Anzac Day continues to increase in popularity, at least if the crowds at the big marches are anything to go by. “The obsession about remembrance has grown stronger the further away we get from the reality,” Stephens writes. “It has grown stronger as the number of people who actually remember the reality of total war has got fewer and fewer.”
Why? Perhaps because Anzac has become almost a secular religion in Australia. We’re in danger of losing the quiet remembrance of individuals and of the terrible things war did to them – and continues to do to them – lost amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears.
This is a part of what the Honest History crowd likes to call “Anzackery.” Stephens again:
Anzackery… is public, very public. It’s marches and flags and hymns and speeches. Nowadays it’s also projections of pictures of Diggers onto buildings, it’s battlefield tours and Gallipoli cruises […] it’s ministers and prime ministers and war memorial directors making emotional speeches to nostalgic audiences about the Anzac legend, it’s Anzac football matches in whatever code you fancy… Anzackery is sentiment and it’s nostalgia and it’s nationalism – which people think is patriotism but which is really jingoism.
I was struggling to articulate ideas like these when I wrote this post last week. That remains an important piece of writing for me because it attempts to deal with the future of my own personal remembrance, both of the great uncle I never knew, and the Bomber Command veterans I did (and still do) know, and all their family members who had to cope with the effects the war had on them. But if I’m being truly honest with myself, it does not say completely what I think I wanted to say. That out-of-place Anzac observance at the rugby last Friday night, though, made me realise how uncomfortable I’ve become with many of the things that go along with Anzac Day these days. The problem is that I’m not quite sure how I can reconcile that realisation with the act of taking up the banner and marching down Elizabeth Street in Sydney tomorrow morning.
I maintain my desire to continue doing so while we still have 463-467 Squadron veterans capable of marching because supporting them, particularly as they get older and older, is an important thing, and many of them have become friends. But once they’re done, so am I. It’s time to find a quieter, more personal form of commemoration.
John Coyne – a veteran of Bougainville and East Timor – describes his own private tradition of remembrance in a beautifully-written piece in The Age last Friday:
These days I choose to head out into the Australian bush surrounding Canberra. Well before dawn’s first light I make my way to a piece of high ground overlooking a valley floor. I stand too with dawn’s first light, sitting silently and generally shivering in the pre-dawn chill.
To the cacophony of bush noises, I reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice while on operations, or after they’d returned home. I think about the cost of our service: both the physical and psychological. I remember our stories, good and bad.
After the sun’s rays warm me up I make my way back to my car and return to my family.
This, clearly, would resonate most with ex-service personnel, which I am not. But it’s a lovely concept, and it’s perhaps something to think about as you watch the Anzac Day march on television tomorrow morning.
(c) 2016 Adam Purcell