Ever since I won the negative in a debate at school on the topic “that Anzac Day was the birth of modern Australia” by taking the then trendy anti-war view of Anzac Day, I’ve struggled to decide what I think of Anzac Day.
But this year, the nuances of my thinking have got more complicated. Chatterboy and Hungry Boy are old enough that they are learning about Anzac Day at school. Largely they are learning about the Gallipoli landings themselves – what a debacle they were. It’s a simple story so far, but it quickly becomes complex when we talk about it.
In personalising the story for them we’ve talked about their relatives. The boys have two grandfathers and two great-grandfathers who served in World War I, none of whom fought in the Australian army. One was an ANZAC, from New Zealand, who fought on the Western Front in France. One was a Scot, who fought for the Argyll Highlanders on the Western Front. One was English, and fought on the Western Front. But the final one was a Croatian officer, who fought for the Austro-Hungarian army, in Italy.
An increasing number of Australians have family histories like this. Their ancestors come from both sides of the great European and Asian wars. But as Australia becomes a land full of people from other places, Anzac day is increasingly irrelevant to the very many Australians without a personal connection to the wars and battles in those wars that are commemorated.
The Anzac Day commemorations, as personal memories of the horrors of war fade, still largely commemorate that narrow group of ancestors who fought for Australia a long time ago. The boys’ grandfather, who was a Yugoslav partisan (captured by the Gestapo twice) was never allowed to march because other Yugoslavs, who had been on other sides in the complex struggle that was the Yugoslavian WWII, got to Australia first and put their case to the RSL. Some RSL leaders have allowed Turks, in particular, to march in Anzac Day, because they were “an honourable enemy” but others hate the idea.
Anzac Day used to be, at its best, a day that remembered the stupidity and futility of war, as well as recognising the sacrifices of those who fought and died, regardless of whether the fighting was sensible. The structure of the day, with the marches, and the dawn service, doesn’t make it easy. But I’d like to see a way in which there could be more recognition of the sacrifices and dead of all the wars, and all the losses in the wars that have made Australia what it is – many of which have done so by sending refugees to us from conflicts around the world.