Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Meaning of ANZAC Day

above: The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Australia.  Built originally to commemorate Australia's fallen in World War One.

ANZAC Day is the day on which Australians remember those fallen in war.  In this article Tristan Ewins considers the real meaning and relevance of that day.

by Tristan Ewins

ANZAC Day is a day of remembrance for Australia and New Zealand: a time of reflection upon the involvement of those countries in terrible wars. Specifically, the term ‘ANZAC’ is derived from the words “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”: the military organisation within which Australians and New Zealanders fought in World War One.

All in all almost 80,000 Australians and New Zealanders died during the First World War: and many more still were terribly maimed, or left with grievous psychological scars.

The day has also developed to be considered a day of remembrance with regard to all wars and conflicts in which Australia and/or New Zealand have been involved. It should also be mentioned, therefore, that in the Second World War almost 30,000 Australians died. And tens of thousands suffered terrible cruelty as prisoners of war – especially of the Japanese.

More recently annual commemorations of the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey have seen tens of thousands of Australians undertaken a ‘pilgrimage’ to ANZAC Cove. The bloodbath of Gallipoli has been established as a cornerstone of Australian identity.

Australians have also been involved in conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and more recently elsewhere – including Afghanistan and Iraq.

In modern times AZNAC Day has been developed into a day whose meaning and significance is hotly contested.

Australian academic Marilyn Lake has contributed to a book: ‘What’s Wrong with ANZAC?’ - along with Henry Reynolds, in which she dares to criticise the ‘ANZAC legend’. Her views were expressed recently and concisely, also, in an op-ed in ‘The Age’ – a Melbourne newspaper.

Lake criticises the ‘coming of age’ narrative: the idea that Australia needed its ‘baptism of fire’ to prove itself in the horrors of war, and thus take its place amongst the nations. But instead Lake sees a way beyond what she calls ‘the AZNAC myth’:

“until we have the courage to detach ourselves from the mother country, declare our independence, inaugurate a republic, draw up a constitution that recognises the first wars of dispossession fought against indigenous peoples. Thus we can truly make history in Australia.”

For Lake, ANZAC is a myth which excludes women: essentially “[locating] our national identity in the masculine domain of military warfare.” Further she sees the ANZAC story as eclipsing other narratives: of struggle against war and oppression, racism and sexism; and “the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia.”

As many of us would have expected, the reaction from the dominant right-populist elements in Australia’s media has been one of apparent outrage and indignation.

Neil Mitchell from radio 3AW in Melbourne might be considered a liberal in comparison to Melbourne Talk Radio’s Steve Price, but on April 21st he went so far as to say about Marilyn Lake and other contributors to ‘What’s wrong with ANZAC?’:

"I think today there is screaming proof that some academics should be legally required to get a real job, in the real world, and be legally required to keep their mouth shut…. A bunch of academics have announced today that ANZAC day is past its use-by date and is just an exercise in male bonding which is not diversified enough for modern Australia… For heavens sake, what do they want, do they want marches for vegetarian lesbians?”

Mitchell’s treatment of the matters raised by Lake and others is regrettable as it trivialises the critical issues raised in ‘What’s wrong with ANZAC?’ concerning colonialism, and what Lake has called “the militarisation of Australian history”. His response also needs be called into question in that it challenges that right to dissent and free criticism which really ought to be at the heart of our identity as a liberal democracy.

As Lake observed in an interview with Mitchell, though – also on April 21st – war destroys men. Many Australians who experienced war in the 20th Century were so deeply scarred not only in their bodies – but also in their hearts and minds - that not only did they not march on ANZAC Day, but they tried to avoid even talking about those experiences.

For now, though, we will consider the Australian experience in World War Two.

There is no problem in solemn commemoration of the costs of war. And indeed we should remember that in the Second World War Australians played a vital role in fighting fascism in Europe and North Africa, and ending Imperial Japanese domination and oppression of Asia and the Pacific.

From my own perspective, my grandfather served in Singapore during World War II as a Corporal in the 8th Division Australian General Hospital. My grandfather did not wield a rifle. Rather he was an ambulance driver whose job it was to save lives. Apparently his bravery in the face of fire, rescuing the many wounded, was such that his mates would later quite earnestly insist he deserved a Victoria Cross. In military history, however, this kind of bravery is seldom recognised.

In the heat of battle my grandfather’s leg was shattered by gunfire. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese, and witnessed incredible cruelty during his many years in Changi POW camp. Beatings and torture were common. POWs were subject by Japanese guards to cruel and unusual punishments, and summary executions under the most brutal of circumstances. I have been asked by family not to go into details as “the men wouldn’t want it”. But while I’ve accepted this, I do still hope somehow the full story will come out – and for survivors to receive the recognition they deserve from the Japanese government.

In Changi food was scarce also. Prisoners were sometimes fed banana skins – and if they were lucky a handful of dirty rice. Malnutrition, and conditions such as beri beri, malaria, dysentry and infections were common.

Australian and other POWs were also used as slave labour – even when they were obviously ill or wounded. Thousands thus were to die in captivity.

Specifically, my grandfather had contracted beri beri and malaria while a POW in Changi. Beri beri was generally caused by a lack of Thiamine (B1) in the diet. The most visually obvious symptom was extreme swelling, including of the stomach. (akin to images many people will have seen of starving children in Africa) Symptoms included paralysis, mental and emotional disturbance, awful pain, vomiting: with the risk of heart failure and death.

Women also endured suffering and brutality in Changi at the hands of the Japanese. One such Australian was Vivian Bullwinkle, a nurse in the 13th Australian General Hospital.

Attempting to flee Singapore, Bullwinkle’s ship was sunk by Japanese bombers. Some of the survivors managed to make their way to shore: but none would have anticipated what happened next. First male survivors were bayonetted. Thereafter, Japanese troops gathered the women together and ordered them to wade into the ocean.

What followed was a barrage of Japanese machine gun fire. All the women were thus slaughtered: with the exception of Bullwinkle herself, who while injured (shot in the hip), feigned death. Fortunately, when later captured by other Japanese soldiers, these did not know of the atrocity, and Bullwinkle was formally taken as a prisoner of war. (POW)

The next few years were to be a living hell. Eight of her nursing colleagues where to perish of starvation. But Bullwinkle survived. After her liberation, Bullwinkle committed herself to nursing, and worked to raise awareness about Japanese wartime atrocities.

The point of these stories is to emphasise the extent of the endurance amdist suffering of Australian POWS: soldiers and nurses. The spirit of mateship, especially: of camraderie between soldiers in intolerable conditions; ought never be forgotten. For women, these stories are also crucial: the Second World War was a time of transformation and of perseverance amidst hardship for women as well as men. ‘Total war’ mobilised and impacted upon the lives of women as never before.

There are some who look upon these stories as relics of a past-age: of a ‘White Australia’ which no longer holds resonance. But if we insist on an inclusive narrative of Australian history: why should these stories be excluded? And why ought Australia’s diverse communities – welcomed into the Australian nation – not take these stories also as their own? That is: a narrative which emphasises solidarity between ordinary people – even in the worst of circumstances?

But this ought never be distorted into a nationalist device which glorifies war as ‘the making of men’ or ‘the birth of nationhood’.

There is a danger that uncritical celebration of Australia’s military traditions and history could well give support to those today who seek to legitimise Australian participation in unjust wars in the here and now – by reference to such sentiment.

It is troubling even today to hear talk of the First World War as a ‘fight for freedom and democracy.’ These kind of rationalisations, it should be remembered, were employed by the Germans as well. In reality the war was a struggle not only for domination of Europe, but to carve up the world into spheres of influence; spheres of imperialist exploitation. In World War One soldiers of the Australian Dominion fought for the interests of the British Empire.

We should never forget the suffering and the sacrifices of Australian men and women in wartime. And we should celebrate and sustain traditions of solidarity even in the worst of circumstances. Furthermore, again to this day there are survivors of, and families of those who experienced war-time atrocities: who have waited decades for recognition by a Japanese government that remains in denial.  Even today – with time running out – these people deserve justice.

But also, we need to recall the human costs of war in the broadest sense: that war ought only be a last resort in the face of oppression and conquest which threaten our lives, our rights and our liberties. And even then we need be aware that there are those would appeal to such values: but behind whose rhetoric there lies cyncial geo-politics.

To conclude, regardless of the importance of Australian wartime stories, we should take seriously claims by Marilyn Lake and others of a “militarisation” of Australian history.

The narrative of Australian history needs to be broader: telling also of Australian egalitarianism and democracy; and also of the struggle for recognition and justice amongst Australia’s many-varied communities.

The fight against fascism was a crucial one, but we should not harbour illusions about the nature of other conflicts: allowing them to be rationalised behind a veil of nationalism.

Behind mock-populist outrage about the contributions of Marilyn Lake and others there is a debate that needs to be had about Australian identity and history. We should never forget - but we ought never abandon our critical faculties either: especially when it comes to matters of war: of human suffering, and of life and death.

nb: If you enjoyed this article pls join our Facebook group - to link up with other readers, and to receive regular updates on new material.



  1. Tristan, I disagree fundamentally with your analysis. Australia has a long history of supporting foreign bully boys as part of its own agenda of both coming under the umbrella of protection of the major imperialist power and expanding its own power in the region. Anzac is a rank, nationalist and sickening celebration of war and imperialism, couched in terms of remembering the brave fallen. The left should have no truck with Australian imperialism at all.

  2. John - I do recognise that WWI was an imperialist conflict, and that we were there basically for the interests of the British Empire. And you're right - to this day we 'toe the line' in order to 'come under the US umbrella.' It's true that at the time most Australians saw WWII also as defending the 'mother country': but in fact it was also a fight against fascism and Japanese imperialism - and the world should have done something about Imperial Japan long before. Remember that Japan was already agressively subduing and conquering countries such as China and Korea. That said: for my own part I remember not to glorify war - You'll notice I agree with substantial parts of Marilyn Lake's analysis - but when I think of what my grandfater and others suffered in Changi - I don't think we should forget...

    Finally though - 'not forgetting' is not the same as glorifying war, or about constructing a mythology with which re rationalise engagement in unjust conflicts in the here and now...


  3. How sad that many of our public holidays celebrate invasions, crucifictions, gambling and the monarchy! I feel however that if the Left attacks Anzac Day as "rank, nationalist and sickening" we can only alienate ordinary Australians with a strong family and cultural link to this tradition. We will be handing the Anzac tradition to conservatives for them to use as a rallying point to win the hearts and minds of "loyal" Australians. We can instead use the tradition to raise debates about wars, past and present. We could run parallel activites to present our perspective, as Indigenous people do on "Invasion Day". The system has co-opted so many of our causes - can't we do the same to them and co-opt ANZAC Day as the day Australians say "no" to war?

  4. 'Parallel activities' sound good. Although accepting the logic of your argument, we would need to be sensitive; because an insensitive approach, as you suggest, would be 'handing ANZAC to the conservatives' - that they could use the tradition to rationalise unjust wars in the here and now...

  5. Thanks for article- it articualted exactly how I feel about ANZAC day. I agree that although the wars we were in shouldn't be celebrated, those involved and all the suffering need to be acknowledged. Wouldn't it be nice if ANZAC day could be more about peace and less suffering for humans? People are scared though to crtiticise because they will be shot down with comments about their loyalty etc. I also really detest how that radio host alluded to Marilyn Lake/female academics as being "vegetarian lesbian(s)"...totally sexist and discriminatory- she was totally dismissed as being an irrational female.

  6. The obvious question hanging over ANZAC Day and Armistice\Remembrance day, is:

    if these commemoration days are to signify losses through war, why is there no day to signify the mass slaughter of up to a million aborigines?

  7. Tristan,

    good article, just a few points. My main concern with Lake and Reynold's analysis is that it seems to create a divide, one that you seem conflicted by, of having to select, to remember or not remember, a particular narrative. For many, like Paul Keating, the emphasis should have been on a different battle-Kokoda. For Reynolds and Lake, on other achievements. This type of dualistic thinking- the either/or type approach undermines more fundamental critiques of Anzac as a political, economic and cultural institution embedded within and influenced by wider social forces excluded for the most part from the types of debates seen in the history wars from both sides.
    This type of analysis is only ever briefly touched upon in Lake and Reynold's new book. But is one I think that might avoid divisive discussions of narrative rather than on broader social and political institutional forces of which Anzac is merely a helpful part. Recognizing and addressing these institutional features may see a resulting shift in narratives within and outside of Anzac that promote more humane and progressive perspectives while avoiding this type of idea that Australia must have some singular national identity or story.
    This is what I hope to do with my research if I ever complete it :)

  8. Dear supporters;


    This article has been republished this morning at On Line Opinion. Your discussion and input would be welcome there, as it has been as Left Focus. My hope would be that with more discussion we’ll attract more readers too.

    But also:

    Everyone – thanks for the comments. It’s rewarding as a writer to provoke real discussion – to see that you’ve genuinely made people think… Please feel welcome to debate the issues raised in this blog in the future too… If any of you think you’re up to writing an essay or op-ed for the blog in the future feel welcome also to run ideas by me…

    Justin: It’s good that you’re interested in these issues – If you ever have any material I could use feel welcome to pass it by me too… And BTW – as we’ve discussed before - if you’re ever interested in writing something on PARECON for the democratic mixed economy group as well – that would be good… Although I’m kind of tied down with my PhD for a bit over the next month… and already have a contribution I haven’t got around to publishing…

  9. ANZAC day and all other days centered around remembering those fallen in battle is an event all Australians should be proud of, if we weren't to celebrate these days they would become forgotten.
    Their ultimate sacrifice should NEVER be forgotten.


tag cloud

aarons (9) according (12) aged (23) ago (13) america (18) argues (14) au (27) australia (20) australian (32) bank (25) based (14) billion (17) blog (17) book (11) budget (25) bush (11) business (13) capital (17) cent (13) change (16) com (25) comments (15) commonwealth (16) competition (18) congress (10) conservative (10) consider (10) country (10) course (15) cpsa (9) create (12) crisis (12) critical (10) cuba (12) deficit (11) democratic (10) different (10) economic (26) economy (24) en (9) ewins (20) federal (14) financial (11) focus (12) full (10) government (41) greens (12) groups (15) hayek (9) housing (10) html (16) http (42) income (13) increase (13) infrastructure (14) interest (10) investment (9) labels (11) labor (64) labour (13) land (32) liberal (15) market (10) matwe (10) money (9) needs (16) news (13) obama (22) office (15) opportunity (12) org (15) parents (13) party (22) pension (23) people (16) per (18) platform (9) political (18) posted (18) poverty (13) power (14) president (19) production (12) progressive (15) provide (10) public (19) raised (9) rate (14) red (14) reform (16) revolution (17) rudd (12) scare (11) services (12) single (14) social (38) socialist (10) sole (13) state (26) strong (10) struggle (11) suggested (10) support (19) tax (33) taxation (12) trade (12) tristan (23) unemployed (13) unemployment (12) values (14) venezuela (9) vulnerable (15) war (13) wealth (12) week (11) welcome (15) working (9) world (15) www (26) years (27)
created at