Thursday, 25 April 2013

Anzac Day

It's very interesting to see what's happened to Anzac Day over my lifetime.

I attended a lot of Anzac Day ceremonies in my childhood.  On April 24 there would be a memorial service at school and we would all buy Anzac badges.  Then on the day itself my scout group would gather early in the morning with the other marchers at the Sunnybank shopping centre on Station Road.  Led by local war veterans, the various organisations would march - or rather stroll - down Station Road, turn left into Lister St (passing my house on the way, where Dad would wave from the verandah) and attend a short memorial service at the Municipal Hall.  Someone would play the Last Post, we would sing Lest We Forget and someone would give a short address.  I don't remember what they said, because I was always distracted by the honour boards listing the names of the local men who died in the two World Wars and whose names also graced our local streets.

I stopped attending these events in my early teens and haven't been to one since except to chauffeur my children.  When I stopped, the day was very much on the wane.  The veterans of the World Wars were diminishing, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars had soured my generation's views on war in general. 

In high school we studied Alan Seymour's play The One Day of the Year, which captures the feeling of those times brilliantly.  Written in 1960, it portrays the conflict between working class war veteran Alf Cook and his university student son Hugh.  For Alf, Anzac Day is the "the one day of the year", the day when he and his mates are honoured and the values of mateship and the bravery of the soldiers is celebrated.  Hugh, however, has co-authored an article in the University paper criticising the day.  While for Alf the Battle of Gallipoli is a symbol of Australian bravery and military glory, Hugh has read enough history to understand that is was a huge military stuff-up.  But the conflict is wider than that.  What, after all, is the value of war and military glory?

I was with Hugh all the way, and still am.  I respect what Alf and his contemporaries did in the wars, but I see war as a cause for mourning to be avoided at all costs, not something glorious to be celebrated.  Back then the majority in my generation seemed to agree. The overwhelming danger of nuclear destruction swamped ideological differences.  No-one replaced the ageing veterans in the marches, fewer kids attended, numbers and interest dwindled, the status of the day as a national holiday was questioned.  Anzac Day seemed destined to become an historical curiosity.

The tide started to turn in the late 1990s.  No doubt there are many complex causes for this change, including the end of the Cold War, but a watershed moment was the 1999 campaign in East Timor.  This was Australia's most significant military engagement since Vietnam, and it was everything Vietnam was not.  It was close to our borders.  It was led by Australian troops, instead of us following in the footsteps of our American patrons.  The cause of Timorese independence, backed by the vote to break from Indonesia, had widespread support across the political spectrum. 

It also helped that the campaign was highly successful.   The Australian troops quickly overwhelmed their much weaker opponents (bandits left behind to make trouble by the withdrawing Indonesian military), provided security for peaceful elections, assisted in rebuilding efforts, and generally succeeded in everything they attempted.  The media was flooded with images of Australian soldiers playing soccer with Timorese kids, building playgrounds and smiling, always smiling.  It is no accident that General Peter Cosgrove, who led that campaign, is still Australia's most recognisable military figure years into his retirement.

Subsequent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been so successful, but the military heirarchy has learned the secret of projecting a positive image.  They understand it is not enough to be highly trained fighters.  Soldiers have to be seen to be ordinary people, motivated to do good.  In conflict zones, they are as often portrayed doing community work as they are shooting or being shot at.  At home, the military has become a conspicuous presence in disaster zones, helping clean up after flood and fire.  Our military heroes - two soldiers have been awarded the Victoria Cross in recent years - are used as faces in the marketing war, giving motivational speeches to footballers, gracing the stage at official functions and being freely available for media interviews.

As a result Anzac Day has become a bigger event than it ever was in my youth.  Marches, led by serving soldiers and ageing veterans, are swelled with thousands of families and televised amidst breathless commercial TV journalism.  The annual dawn service at Gallipoli itself has become a huge tourist drawcard and Australians sometimes talk as if we, not the Turks, own that ground.  (For the record, we lost that battle).  Footballers pay their respects to "our soldiers" in annual Anzac Day contests graced with military bands, flag-waving and balls ceremonially delivered by military helicopter.  The day has become a full on, 3-D multimedia experience.

It's a very impressive marketing effort, but I'm still not buying.  War is still hell.  Timor aside, our military adventures in the 21st century show that global problems are difficult to solve by force.  The rapid global re-armament since 1998 has made us less safe, not more so.  When we see soldiers marching in our streets, followed by mobs of people waving flags, we should feel anxious and afraid, not happy and secure.


Hermit said...

I deeply respect those young men who lost their lives in the service of Australia in times of war.

However, the Bible says to overcome evil with good. I wonder if, instead of going to war in Afghanistan, we'd spent the equivalent of the cost of that war in aid to Afghanistan, whether we might have achieved a better outcome?

Mike Westerman said...

Hermit - for once I'm very pleased to agree with you!

Peter Chapman said...

I recall standing at the back of Brisbane City Hall during a rally calling for Australia to send troops into East Timor. A strong lobby, with a strong Catholic element, was crying for intervention to stop Indonesian massacres of East Timorese. At that time my son was aboard HMAS Tobruk en route from Townsville to Darwin to load troops and equipment for just such an intervention. I remember thinking at the rally, "That's my son you are talking about." Peace-loving people calling for war, I thought, I don't like this. I was concerned that Australia should get a UN mandate before intervening, which subsequently happened. One of the few good things John Howard did as PM. Subsequently my son had two tours of duty to East Timor and four to Afghanistan. Every twelve months or so he would be off to war. He lost friends in combat. There was a strain on his young family. There was constant pain and concern for all who loved him, and his comrades. Much of the time the military chose secrecy to manage the public perception of what our troops were doing: oh, we cannot talk about what our Special Forces are doing. When my son first went to Afghanistan we were not even supposed to know where he was. We could learn more online about US, UK, Canadian troop activity than about Australian activity. There are many points in your commentary I could take issue with, but the main one is this: most of us do not know the half of what we ask our young service personnel to do, when we send them off to war, whether it is a laudable "peacekeeping" action or the latest American adventure. And all along we have had hardly a word of debate in our Parliament about what we are doing. We have a shameful "bipartisan" major-party approach to the use of our forces. We have the same shameful shared approach to asylum seekers, many of them from the same regions we have sent our troops. Time to think about what we are doing. Time to ask questions and argue. Maybe, soon, time to march in the streets again. To stop the idiocy, which starts here at home, thinking we can support some wars and condemn others. Thinking there are justifiable interventions that will achieve peace. Thinking, like gods, we can then decide the fate of our young people.