Sunday, 26 April 2009

Anzac Day

Speaking of Australian folk religion, yesterday was Anzac Day. For those readers from outside Australia, this day commemorates that landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs) at Gallipolli in Turkey in 1915.

In military terms this landing was a complete disaster. Originally planned as a surprise attack, the Turks found out about it and placed machine guns at the top of the hill. The ANZACs had nowhere to go and spent months trapped in the cove, gunned down whenever they tried to advance beyond their trenches, until months and thousands of deaths later they retreated.

Yet in Australian folklore the obvious command failures were overwhelmed by the bravery of the ordinary soldiers. Anzac Day became Australia’s main military commemoration. I remember as a child buying and selling Anzac ribbons at school to raise money for veterans, and then on the day marching with my scout group down the street past my house to the service in the Sunnybank Municipal Hall. There, beneath the honour rolls of local soldiers killed in the two world wars (after whom the streets of our suburb were named) we would sing “lest we forget” hear the Last Post played on the bugle and pray for the souls of the dead, or something.

By my University days Anzac Day was decline. The ANZACs themselves were getting old, and in the aftermath of Vietnam war was a lot less popular. The play The One Day of the Year, which we studied at high school, highlighted not only the folly of celebrating a military disaster, but the sharp divide between the patriotic WW2 generation and their sceptical children. Interestingly, the one actual ANZAC veteran in the play, when finally pressed to speak his mind, expresses a strangely neutral view of the event.

Then in the late 1990s something curious started to happen. Anzac Day experienced a resurgence.

A number of things caused this. The military was redeemed by its involvement in the first Iraq war and more particularly the Australian-led UN mission into East Timor, which were seen as protecting defenceless people against imperialistic regimes. Meanwhile at home we became aware that the ANZACs themselves were dying out. The few remaining WW1 veterans in Australia started to be treated as celebrities, invited to address groups of children, given front-row seats at the Sydney Olympics.

Anzac Day was transformed. City marches and dawn services steadily grew in attendance, with young people, including those who had no military connection, attending in droves. Australians started to go to Gallipoli in great numbers, with a dawn service on the site of the battle a huge Aussie affair with the odd token Turk participating.

This year I saw on the news a group of young people arriving at Gallipoli. Overcome with emotion, one young woman talked of the sacrifice these soldiers made for us, while the newsreader talked of the hundreds of young people making the “pilgrimage”.

This religious language has grown steadily over the last few years. Of course the day has always had a religious flavour, but is now by far the most religious of Australia’s public festivals. Australia Day, celebrating the landing of the First Fleet, is a purely secular flag-waving event. The traditional Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter have been taken over by Santa and the Easter Bunny and become excuses to buy stuff.

By contrast, Anzac Day has resisted commercialisation and become, if anything, more religious. They day centres around religious events – the dawn service, the wreath-laying ceremonies – at which prayer and remembrance hold centre stage. Moreover, the ideas of altruism, sacrifice and eternity are high on the agenda. We remember what has been done for us not in a personal way – because the battle of Gallipoli was almost 100 years ago now – but in a archetypal way, with young men we never knew giving their lives to preserve our long-term peace and freedom.

This is not very different from the personalised religion I talked about before, with the death of Shawn Mackay inspiring his team-mates to greater efforts on the field, and his presumed presence in heaven comforting them for their loss here on earth and their awareness of their own mortality.

In Anzac Day this belief system is given a more universal significance. For the Brumbies the death of one particular ordinary young men helps provide meaning for his friends. In Anzac Day the deaths of many unknown young men provide definition to our identity as a nation. We no longer believe in Jesus’ death for us, but we are moved to tears by these young men sacrificing themselves. And their sacrifice has a purpose – preserving our freedom and happiness. In celebrating them we feel a connection to something larger than ourselves. It’s not “God” if we mean the God of Christmas and Easter, but perhaps it is the “God above God” of Tillich.

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