The false nationalism of Anzac Day and football


Magpies thump Bombers, ABC, 25 April 2008Former Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy had a dream: All over Australia, on 25 April, Aussie patriots rising from their beds in the fading night and streaming into dawn services, to stand and pay their respects to the fallen. The same patriots flooding to the march, and after that 'continu[ing] the pilgrimage' into football stadiums across the nation and standing witness as Australia's youth battled it out over footballs and swore at the umpires.

The matches were to be a celebration of the Australian character on that 'most Australian of days': Anzac Day.

In a country as hungry for a founding mythology as Australia, it doesn't take long to establish traditions. The annual Anzac Day football match between Collingwood and Essendon began in 1995. By 1997 it was already 'traditional'.

Fourteen years on, the symbolism and hype surrounding the match has accumulated to the point that 'The Anzac Day Clash' has reached near-sacred heights, with every possible chance taken to exploit the links between football, war, and the Australian national identity.

Asking what it means to have football played on Anzac Day is almost as risky as wondering why the Digger has become the most powerful expression of Australian identity.

The privileging of both football and the Digger as positive statements of what it means to be Australian involves an incredible amount of forgetting on a day supposedly set aside for remembrance.

There's nothing new in worrying that the kind of Australian identity glorified by Anzac Day is restrictive. Over the last century, various groups and individuals have questioned what it means to have reified the 'Anzac Tradition' to the point that discussion of the complex trauma and evils of war is neglected.

In the 1980s, when women marched during the Anzac Day parades asking that Australia remember that war involves rape and violence against women, then Victorian President of the RSL Bruce Ruxton commented to The Age newspaper that 'if one looked at [the women marching], I wonder how rape would be possible'.

In this century, feminists no longer march in the streets, concern over the role of Anzac Day seems to have subsided, and commercialisation along with a demand for nationalist meaning has only increased the public's appetite for all things Anzac.

Reading the Sports pages after an Anzac Day match shows just how obliging the symbolism of sport and war is. A 2001 description of a Collingwood Anzac Day loss runs as follows:

'At first, there was no sound. The battle was over and night was falling. Some sat slumped against bare walls and dabbed at their wounds. Others whispered among themselves. One wiped away tears. A harsh, scraping noise carried from an anteroom. It was of a bootstudder's brush at work, but it was also the sound of a trench long ago and far away.

'At length, though, a murmur could be heard, a thin smile seen, a backslap felt. It was as if a soothing breeze had come in. A sense began to grow that this was for Collingwood what the Gallipoli landings were for Australia, a defeat that concealed a victory, a defeat that was also a defining moment, a defeat that was also a crucible.'

Given the romantic appeal and emptiness of such descriptions, along with our insatiable appetite for all things commodifiable, it's perhaps not suspiring that my generation, Gen Y, has taken up the tradition of Anzac Day with such fervor, wrapping ourselves in Australian flags and screaming at the footballers on field.

After all, in terms of real and immediate grief, what does Anzac Day mean to us, so few of whom have parents who were in Vietnam, and so few of whom have ever been touched by the societal trauma inflicted by war?

What we're remembering when we stand in front of memorials or lie in a drunken coma on the beaches of Anzac Cove is not our own trauma, but the imagined beginnings of our nation, supposedly authentic, cleanly de-politicised and made simple for us to understand.

The vigor and vim with which Anzac Day is promoted as Australia's 'most patriotic day' has led to its gradual symbolic transformation: no longer a time of mourning, it's beginning to adopt a righteousness at odds with the events the day originally commemorated.

For some members of my generation, who hear the echoes of America in everything we do, Anzac Day is gradually becoming an Australian Fourth of July, and filling the hole so many of us feel exists in Australian nationalist history.

Foreshadowing this re-imagining of the Gallipoli campaign, in 1997 Essendon captain James Hird wrote in The Herald Sun:

'What the Anzacs and their successors did was help form the sort of society we have today. They fought for Australia and what it stood for and for the right of Australians to make decisions about how their country would develop. Without their contribution we may not have become as open and free a society as we are today.'

But Anzac Day is not a festival of nationhood, and as we stand in the MCG amid the yelling fans and perform its most recent 'tradition' we are letting it slide uncritically into a day of celebration. While remembering the dead is important, it's also important that we remember that not all wars are the same, that war in itself is ugly, awful, and traumatising.

It's important that when we applaud nobility in conflict we remember that we are applauding it not because noble behaviour is the norm, but because it is the exception.

It's important that we remember courage in all its forms: the courage of those who stay at home in times of war and conflict, the courage of those who speak out against violence and war, who refuse to be silenced, the courage of the bereaved, the courage of the traumatised, the courage of those who return with the memories of the atrocities committed by both sides.

No matter how we try to romanticise it, the trauma of war stays with those who fight in them, and those who are caught in the middle. Acts of war are only romantic in the florid writing of sports reporters. It's when we forget to remember the complex horrors of war that we risk turning Anzac Day into a celebration of nation.

Ruby MurrayRuby Murray is co-founder of The Democracy Project. This article is drawn from research on Anzac Day nationalism conducted by Murray at the Australian National University School of Social Sciences.

Topic tags: ruby murray, gen y, anzac day, essendon, bombers, collingwood, magpies, digger, gallipoli, kevin sheedy



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Existing comments

Thank you
Our lack of intellectual rigour in Australia is evidenced by our glib relationship with war and its ghastly aftermath as well as our lack of understanding of the sacrifices made by individuals and their families who go to war

Judy | 24 April 2009

THANK YOU Ruby. I am one who wants to hide away on Anzac Day, to avoid the rampant jingoism and the total nonsense peddled. It is impossible to express a contrary view to the iconography of Gallipoli and Anzac in public without being either attacked or regarded with horror.

If Australia defines itself in terms
of fighting and losing a battle in someone else's war, invading someone else's country, then something is very wrong. Perhaps this is why we still continue to fight unjust wars on behalf of other countries. Anzac provides the ideological basis for this to continue.

What I don't understand is the lack of anger about what happened to those young people who were sent to do something so pointless and unnecessary and suffered so terribly for a war they didn 't understand.

The other thing that has changed since I was growing up, is that Anzac Day now focusses almost exclusively on WW1. We no longer focus on WW2 and the struggle to defeat fascism, for which we should feel justifiably proud.
Perhaps when we can celebrate ourselves as a nation by owning our love of peace and justice we will truly have come of age.
Vivienne Luke | 24 April 2009

Great piece - ANZAC Day is a commemoration not a celebration but it is at risk of being hijacked in a jingoistic fashion. One point is that since Vietnam, over 100,000 Australians have served overseas on operations. For some, the trauma of their service never leaves them.
Phil | 24 April 2009

Thank you for your balanced and excellent article. I find myself becoming a little sickened by the way the community or at least the media are prostrating themselves before the altar of Anzac Day. This is the 'new religion' in our stridently secular society.

Don't get me wrong, my father served in Darwin and PNG during WWII and my son is currently a serving member of the ADF. I honour our service personel. But especially coming so soon after Easter, I find the glorification of Anzac Day rather tacky.
Joan Clements | 24 April 2009

Anzac Day celebrations spiled out of the need of veterans of war - any war - to externalise their trauma in a tangible way Mateship with fellow-sufferers, getting pissed in a deliberative way on a particular day, having an opportunity to shout at the heavens and rail at the demons, being allowed to talk about the nightmare in an accepting atmosphere all make ANZAC Day so special for veterans. One can understand and even empathise, especially if such a one is in close contact woith a veteran or is a veteran oneself.

What is frightening is the way in which the youth of today have adopted St Anzac as their patron saint, as a self-identifier who consume the myths of men-become-gods in extraordinary ways, including getting pissed on the beach at Gallipoli, and who transfer the myth of ANZAC into their everyday lives in self-destructive ways, not realising that war - any war - is always destructive of the human spirit, for victor, vanquished and the collateraly damaged.
Mike | 24 April 2009

Wonderful article. Thank you Ruby. I can't help thinking that some Australians need this romanticised Anzac Day to distract from the true foundation of white Australian history: the day those sails come into Botany Bay. There was a fair amount of hard work happening and identity being formed before the ill-fated horror of Gallipoli.

As a nation forming event Gallipoli is important, but it needs to be seen in the context of white settlement. White settlement is important, but this needs to be seen in the larger context of the impact it has had upon the Aboriginal nations of Australia.
Andrew McAlister | 24 April 2009

Brilliant. Your article adds to my concerns about the increasing tendency to sacramentalize ANZAAC Day. The day reflects the secular in search and hunger for the holy. It's no coincidence that the language of religion is used in Anzac day rites. Such language trivializes religion and divorces the day itself from the hell that is war.
Tony Duncan | 24 April 2009

Excellent article,and agree with Vivienne Luke's comment, that it's time we stopped fighting unjust wars in support of other countries.
Margaret Lochtenberg | 24 April 2009

A wonderful article, so very true!
folkie | 24 April 2009

Thank you, Ruby, for speaking up on behalf of those of us who feel nauseous at the elevation of the Anzac myth of Digger manhood. Marilyn Lake said it well in yesterday's Melb Age: "this business of memory-making demands analysis.."

The wars fought by the Australian aborigines on this soil against dispossession by the white invaders require recognition by this nation. Australians must move on from the colonial mentality which glories in military operations once fought for Empire and in this generation for the 'American alliance'.
Neil Tolliday | 24 April 2009

I am happy to be at odds with Ruby & it seems other commentators. I find it insulting to the many Australians who genuinely interpret celebrating Anzac Day as a way of recognising the heroism of people who have had a most significant place in Australian history. It seems intellectually snobbish to accuse others of "rampant jigoism" - "lack of intellectual rigour" etc - there will be thousands of Australians who with a tear in their eye will celebrate Anzac Day while remembering the dead and the horror of wars. Yes they will be people of intellect who do understand what it is all about!
brian | 24 April 2009

I find it hard to reconcile Anzac Day as a celebration, particularly having been to Gallipoli on a quiet day, having wept over the graves of young men of my father's generation who did not live to be old enough to vote, and to know that it was all a horrible mistake when you looked at the beach just a few ks away. I think it is a reminder to us to not allow ourselves to be pawns to anyone, not to react to emotive calls to show our national pride, and to remember the huge loss of life on both sides of war and on the impact on the generations that came after them either from loss of fathers, male models, possible husbands, and men who returned badly damaged emotionally and physically.

Lest we forget
Marie Wilson | 24 April 2009

I hate this time of year. Australians who know nothing of war suddenly become experts about sacrifice. War is ugly. Many Australian wars (Iraq, Vietnam, Afghnanistan) were wrong. Yet we lie to the young and tell them Australians fought for freedom.
Dan | 25 April 2009

To Ruby Murray re ANZAC day and football : Leave it alone. It's one way of remembering , respecting and belonging. It's not the only way, but it's a good way for the many who attend. Of course it's a travesty to compare defeat in a football match with a war experience, but that was just a foolish journalist's effort.

We shouldn't denigrate a 'tradition' that is meaningful to many, and which will help to keep the respect alive as the actual veterans disappear. It's not jingoism ---it's taking a ( much needed ) pride in being Australian. When you go to the Dawn service and then the football, you understand what it's all about.
June | 25 April 2009

What an interesting read, thanks for that!
Nathan | 25 April 2009

Thank-you my own sentiments expressed and so much more. A friend forwarded the article and reading it has cut through my feeling of isolation on this day. Yesterday, gng into Brisbane on a train a young intellectually disabled woman left the train saying to her friends journeying further "Have a Good Anzac Day".
margid bryn-burns | 25 April 2009

Great article Judy
Practically everything about the Anzac Day myth is fictional.

The purpose of the day is absolutely no
different from that of the Fourth of July, Bastille Day, the Russian (before or after the fall of communism) or Chinese grand days of military parades.

They ensure each succeeding generation will kill and die mindlessly for the State.
Please don't stop writing about it!
Jim Dowling | 25 April 2009

Thank you for publishing this article. It sums up a lot of what I feel about Anzac Day. I hope the time will come when the notion of settling conflicts by sending young people to kill the young people of the other country will be seen for the outmoded, and pointless method it is.

Kathy Damm | 26 April 2009

Thank you Ruby for your observations about ANZAC Day.

I am a Vietnam Vet.On ANZAC Day I pause to reflect and remember my mates and those who went Vietnam and didn't return. I also remember and pray for those who continue to suffer from their experiences of war.

If anything the unedifying use of ANZAC Day for commercial sports promotion is sickening in the extreme. The young people of today, most of whom have no concept of the reality of war are being fed a diet of nonsense about W W I in particular. The emphasis on 'The Great War' discredits those who were involved in other conflicts or are involved in today's wars.

I would like Australia to revert to the older tradition of a day of quiet reflection with NO commercialism of any sort allowed!
Otherwise I suggest with a sense of great sadness , that we end the practice completely.In this way the Nationalistic issues surrounding the Day will die -they have no place on this Day of Days!
Lest we forget....

Gavin | 26 April 2009

Rubys article really read true to me. Although I sat and watched the footie like so many others yesterday, I am appalled by the rise of anzac day nationalism during my adult life (I am a late babyboomer). As a GP I hear and see the effects of war on individuals and their families through the generations, both Australian soldiers and refugees who arrive here traumatised.

That rape is a ubiquitous weapon of war is rarely acknowledged as Ruby points out, in this glorification of war. MAPW is my organisational way of working against these trends of war worship and weapons multiplication.
Dr Jenny Grounds | 26 April 2009

I think Ruby’s argument is too inclusive, and casts too wide a net. Yes, ANZAC day does have its limitations in meaning, but it represents a historical event: the first time Australians, who were politically united by Federation in 1901, all, across the nation, were united in sharing the same immediate personal concern: a concern for the nation’s troops who were facing great danger.

In this sense, then, ANZAC day does deserve its role as a symbol of nationalism, and can validly be celebrated as such.

I went to a small dawn ceremony in my local suburban park (to reflect upon many things) and the clapping given to the returned service men and women was heartfelt. This clapping once again gives validity to recognizing ANZAC day as day of remembrance and recognition.

I agree with much of what Ruby’s states – and am against the day being exploited by scheming politicians (J. Howard?) and drunken xenophobic yobbos. But ANZAC day is still important and valued in many ways, and to many people. The fact that it does ‘celebrate’ a defeat, unlike the bombastic triumphal arches of Europe, is a sweet point too.

Conrad | 26 April 2009

I am one who doesn't agree with all that Robyn has said. Yes there are 'some' who haven't a clue about ANZAC Day and have "taken up the tradition of Anzac Day with such fervor, wrapping ourselves in Australian flags and screaming at the footballers on field'. I was one of 'some' (40,000)at Perth's Dawn Service, who quietly reflected on the efforts of Australians who gave up so much at home and abroad to ensure the peace of our great nation.

As Robyn says there are 'some members of my generation, who hear the echoes of America in everything we do, Anzac Day is gradually becoming an Australian Fourth of July, and filling the hole so many of us feel exists in Australian nationalist history'. You can point the cynical finger at the 'some' who attended the footy and others could point the finger at the peace industry, where 'some' are paid to protest, and at times become involved at their instigation in protests which are by no means peaceful, alongside "some" genuine ordinary people who want only a peaceful protest.

That's what makes the efforts of the Anzacs special: the sum of all those 'somes' makes us a whole nation, a nation of diversity and hopefully of moderation which doesn't allow or accept extremism in anyway, pursuing honesty and integrity in all we do without wanting to stuff our own views and politics on a people who probably have the greatest level of freedom on this planet.
Roy Robinson | 26 April 2009

Remembrance and sport should be clearly separated. I see no glory in a man or woman dying for a country, only sadness. Nor do I see glory on the football field, only the foul play of commercialism.

But once again they try to justify their empty sporting/financial spectacle by associating it with something meaningful. Although it's only the fools amongst us that are fooled.

And it's the best of us who speak up or write about it. Thanks for the article.
Jon Bauer | 27 April 2009

Thank you for pointing out the naked Emperor!

I am sad and angry at the AFL's blatant theft, promotion and misrepresentation of the most tragic event in our country's history. My grandfather and his three brothers fought on the Western front. Each returned totally screwed up, affecting the lives of their families and friends. One drank himself to death, two became social hermits and died young and alone.

My grandfather "coped" and I was lucky to sit on his knee as a child and read his numerous letters to my grandmother from the Western Front as an adult. He was a Quartermaster and looked after 250 of his "boys" of his company. He was one of only four of his "boys" who left Australia together, to return to Australia at the end of the war. The rest had been killed or wounded. There was no celebration then.

Lest we forget.
David | 28 April 2009

Thanks Ruby for this insightful piece. While I don't necessarily agree with all of your sentiments I certainly appreciate the opportunity for dialogue about what ANZAC Day means to Australia and Australians. This year in particular, I have struggled to come to terms with ANZAC Day and the celebration of mateship and the momentous football game which characterise this day and are the most significant reflection of our apparent national identity. I find it difficult to include myself in something which glorifies war without necessarily encouraging healing, and which is so blatantly built on certain patriarchal myths.

I guess my most significant thanks to you is for creating a space (whether big or small) for the 'absolutes' of this day in all its meanings to be challenged.

So thanks Ruby.
Emma | 30 April 2009

I still have time for Anzac Day as an opportunity for ritualising mourning and for commitment to peace. I have no time for the way it's been corrupted by untruthfulness.

Why does James Hird believe that the Australians and New Zealanders fought for 'the right of Australians to make decisions about how their country would develop". Not in the First War, they didn't. Many of them may have fought because they believed (falsely) England's freedom was in danger, but who was threatening Australia? I was never taught this as a child - it seems to have crept in more recently. I can only think this is an attempt to glorify 'fighting for your country' even when we're not being attacked!

If Anzac Day can't be honest, let's get rid of it and concentrate on Australia Day and Remembrance Day - and keep them clean!

They fought for Australia and what it stood for and for Without their contribution we may not have become as open and free a society as we are today
Joan Seymour | 18 May 2009

Great article. My daughter (12) and I laughed this year when Mick Malthouse said that Collingwood'd insipid effort had 'let down the Diggers'. On Mother's Day, when Adelaide lost to the Bulldogs, she asked whether Neil Craig would think the Crows let down all the mothers.
Paul Mitchell | 20 May 2009

what is this about football and anzac day its a load of cheese bucket ...
peter filee | 10 June 2009

It is obvious that you have never served your country. Perhaps a little less academic discussion and a bit more hard yacker outside the classroom or library would change your trendy view. Ruby, Anzac Day for veterans is about remembering and remembrance for fallen mates and those still suffering, not about football. If Ken Sheedy or you want Anzac Day to serve another purpose then so be it, but leave us veterans out. We fought so you and Kevin have the right to think how you do, but please do not seek to take our Anzac memories from us. Lastly Ruby, despite your comment about the awfulness of war, you have no idea. Those few of us who do know will not speak of it. Best wishes and good luck - in action, we needed both.
Peter Murray | 08 November 2009

Do Kiwis feel the same, why do so called patriots celebrate Australia's greatest military defeat, do they know what Gallipoli was? The best thing about ANZAC in a state election year is that the Premier will give you a long weekend ... only because it is an election year, screw anzac day just make glorification of war day and give me a day off not to commemorate. I thought Armistice day was for the remembrance of all dead in all wars across the world for the world.
U2 | 20 April 2010

Thank you for a superbly written critique of what has become in many ways 'war celebration day'. I'm a kiwi, and I'm tired of the flag-waving way military operations in the present and past are celebrated and glorified in the media (especially anything the SAS does) as if they are like the All Blacks playing rugby with guns. See today - they now have a whole section 'celebrating our military history - am i living in the USA? . Its about: capital, ownership, power, greed. That's why millions of men died in world war one, why over 100 million people died in the 20th century at the hands over fellow human beings. WW1 was an insane conflict which achieved nothing but mass death and suffering on an unspeakable scale and further war. Honour the dead, but learn more importantly that military action is not something to celebrate - killing isn't sport.
Blair | 23 April 2012

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