We were always going to have to brace ourselves for the centenary of the failed Anzac engagement at Gallipoli. In the years since John Howard arguably appropriated military history for his own post-9/11 ends, 25 April 1915 has become entrenched in the public imagination as the definitive Australian moment.
Anzac Day has become 'a sort of military Halloween', the Disneyfied version of the terrors of war, as former Australian Army officer James Brown puts it in his book Anzac's Long Shadow. From the Woolworths #freshinourmemories meme-jacking and the Camp Gallipoli merchandise at Target stores, to the $145 million being spent by the federal government over four years on commemorations and related projects, plus corporate and private donations to the Centenary Public Fund, it is a behemoth to behold.
I look upon it with the distance of awe, and as the deification of the white male soldier continues apace, with a deeper sense of alienation.
I did try to make it relevant for myself for a while. The Philippines, like many of the countries from which migrants make their way here, has known its share of war. It also lost sons and daughters in the cause of freedom from colonisers, as well as internecine conflict. So I know something about heroic sacrifice, the bonds forged by mortality, and the tragedies that are a central feature of war. In recent years, Australia has received refugees and asylum seekers from places like Sudan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan. They have their own perspectives on war, as do the Australian men and women in military service today.
Yet our collective understanding of what it means to have armed forces has atrophied, starved of the dimensions that more recent history should have brought. The propagation of the Anzac story has made a virtue of engaging in conflict – the Prime Minister invoked it recently upon announcing the deployment of 300 troops to fight IS/Daesh in Iraq. We now see the casual militarisation of political language and policies, such as the way 'operational matters' is used to keep opaque any incidents involving seaborne asylum seekers.
The Anzac story has also become a cultural shibboleth deployed against non-white Australians. There is a Facebook post that gets shared around which claims that Anzac celebrations are being toned down in order to avoid offending new migrants. Such claims are often written in all-caps and liberally doused with exclamation marks, calling on everyone to resist the dilution of the Australian way of life, which at first glance seems to involve being a white man in fatigues.
'Love it or leave' has become the knee-jerk ultimatum for anyone who has the temerity to be black/brown and ambivalent at the same time. Yet the 'Anzac spirit' is essentialist, excluding those who are not of British stock, who cannot claim that a grandfather or great grandfather died in or survived World War I, and who have no current connection with the military. It also excludes descendants of those who fought for Empire in British colonies and dominions but were not white, including a great many Aboriginal Australians, Indians and West Africans. For some reason, only soldiers who die white are honourable.
This myth rests on the notion that mateship, courage, egalitarianism and stoicism are uniquely antipodean qualities, virtues that can only be inherited and must be foreign to those who arrive here. Migrants like me are supposed to endure this insult to prove our patriotism, to participate in performative genuflection.
The reality is that we have had to think more deeply about Gallipoli – and the Western Front for that matter – precisely because we have not been indoctrinated into the digger myth. This is what migrants do: moderate jingoistic excess. For me, an objective reading of World War I history is not soothing; it does not leave me grateful. Anzac Day makes me angry.
It is infuriating that the preference for imperialist aggression over diplomacy led thousands of young men to their deaths. It is frustrating that a hundred years later, the best experts on the tactical failures at Gallipoli and more recent wars are American, not Australian. It is maddening that the weirdly triumphant temperament of Anzac Day keeps us from properly engaging with the achievements, needs and diversity of our current defence force. It is enraging that politicians continue to exploit the military for their own purpose, that the digger myth promotes hubris and exceptionalism rather than introspection and restraint.
Do such feelings make me unpatriotic? Too bad, I'm staying.
Fatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. She tweets as @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.
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