Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

A modest and muted Anzac day



This year the celebration of Anzac Day will be muted. No marches, no large reunions, few speeches at war memorials. The soldiers and others who lost their lives in war will be remembered, however, as they should be. Indeed, the celebration will perhaps speak more eloquently because of its simplicity.

Simpson and Duffy in action in Shrapnel Gully, Gallipoli (AWM A03114)

In recent years the rhetoric surrounding Anzac Day has become overblown. The day has been depicted as a symbol of Australian power and military prowess, and so of the distinctive qualities of Australian citizens. It has invested contemporary Australians and their leaders with unearned qualities built on make-believe.

The construction of Anzac Day as a celebration of an imagined heroic Australian identity obscures the death and loss both of soldiers and of their relatives and friends, the cost to families and to Australian society of their loss, and the responsibility of their descendants to turn from war. 

This year the backdrop against which Anzac Day will be seen will not show idealised figures in warlike poses or sportsmen looking mean, but people who have lost life and livings, first to bushfires and now to the coronavirus. 

In just a few months we have seen the reality of bushfire with its devastation of forests and impoverishment of local people in the areas that it touched. We have seen the ash and smelled the smoke that drove away the comfortable illusion that climate change was unreal, and if real, that it was harmless.

And we have seen the cost that fire and sickness have brought to many individuals and the strain they have placed on communities. We have seen our leaders aimless in the face of fire and, like the rest of us, struggling to comprehend the COVID-19 pandemic, and the vulnerability of an economy built on debt. We have also seen them at their best as they jettisoned their fixed ideas to respond in order to address the threat to the community posed by the virus.


'As we hold together Anzac Day and the trials of this year, too, we remember and are grateful for the humble and self-sacrificing lives hidden like pearls in the darkness of each event.'


Above all we have seen the courage and generosity of many Australians, their willingness to sacrifice their own freedom of movement and financial security for the good of the community. These are not narrowly national qualities. They reflect the best of our shared humanity.

When seen against the events of the year, Anzac Day will be a calling to mind of things past, things present and things future. We remember and stay with the pain, loss and grief of those who died in war and those who returned from it wounded in body and spirit. We remember, too, the courage and generosity with which so many supported one another. We remember the pain of those who grieved their deaths and whose lives were changed forever by their wounding.

This year, too, the isolation and anxiety which many share as we celebrate Anzac Day will echo some aspects of the experience of soldiers in war. This will be a time to remember and stay with the pain, loss and grief of those who have died through bushfire and virus, and the loss of those whose lives have been devastated by them.

As we hold together Anzac Day and the trials of this year, too, we remember and are grateful for the humble and self-sacrificing lives hidden like pearls in the darkness of each event. It is a day, perhaps, to hold in special honour the unprotected nurses, doctors and stretcher bearers who have risked their lives in the face of bullets and viruses.

This year the celebration of Anzac Day will necessarily be modest in its exclusion of marches and gatherings. It should also be modest in its rhetoric, forsaking any glorification of the day that would make the acts of generosity and bravery displayed in battle typical of the nation today or of its leaders. It should allow us to grieve the lives lost and forever shadowed in war and give thanks for the more domestic virtues displayed in the aftermath of war and the flu that followed it.

The celebration of Anzac Day also looks to the future. If we grieve loss and give thanks for self-sacrifice on Anzac Day, we should also commit ourselves to a future in which we turn from wars, share burdens, give priority to the most disadvantaged, and shape a more just society.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Simpson and Duffy in action in Shrapnel Gully, Gallipoli (AWM A03114)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, coronavirus, Anzac day



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for these eloquent words remembering with dignity all who endeavour to give to community and country. The raucous carnival that politicised ANZAC Day has become, is jarring and distracts from an understanding of the sacrifice made by returned service people.

pamela | 23 April 2020  

Thank you for your insightful reflection on Anzac day. You capture so well what is at the heart of all who have suffered through war. As we search for an authentic national identity, we tend to glorify events which were in fact tragedies. A visit to Gallipoli highlights the impact of all the mistakes made while invading an another country. War should never be glorified. Our hearts go out to all those whose lives were lost or damaged forever and whose families continue to mourn.

Mary O'Donohue | 23 April 2020  

This is a fine gloss on much of the corrosive nostalgia around this day. Still most unfortunate that our two significant days are Australia Day and this one. But we are a young nation. And it is not just the future we need to consider. Currently returned service people are suffering and dying at a greater rate than in action. They need significant help; Now.

Michael D. Breen | 23 April 2020  

Andrew Hamilton, as usual, makes valuable points but I'm disappointed that he should say we celebrate ANZAC Day. We do not celebrate the loss of more that 101,000 lives and vast suffering we COMMEMORATE ANZAC Day.

Peter Goers | 23 April 2020  

Dear Andrew. We commemorate Anzac Day. We do not celebrate Anzac Day. With love and respect, John

John Crowe | 23 April 2020  

Modern war attracts a tremendous butcher's bill. Our family name is on the Roll of Honour at the British War Memorials at both Tobruk and Gazala. Relatives had their lives terminated or sustained serious injuries in both World Wars. So many people in this country have similar experiences. Many - most - of the mainly young men and women who joined up here and elsewhere were real potential leaders whose lives were sadly terminated. No one in their right mind would glorify war. There is something raising its ugly head which is as bad as any 'glorification' of war. That is the self-righteous labelling of all those who died as morally flawed and asking questions such as 'Were those who died on the Allied side in WW 1 really imperialists?' Life is often ambiguous. Sometimes people do something from the best of motives with unimagined adverse consequences. Life goes on. Our duty is to do the best we can now. 'Trust in God and do the right.'

Edward Fido | 23 April 2020  

Profound thoughts. Similar sentiments expressed at honesthistory.net.au, including in our three archived items From the Honest History vault (honesthistory.net.au)

David Stephens | 23 April 2020  

Anzac Day is about remembrance, and mateship: remembering those who died, and the rekindling of bonds born in hardship. A POW on the infamous Burma-Siam railway, Tom Uren spoke admirably of his camp commander Weary Dunlop, and noted, “We were living by the principle of the fit looking after the sick, the young looking after the old, the rich looking after the poor.” W.A. Cull survived Gallipoli and the Somme, and wrote of the “magnificent brotherhood” that Anzac produced—“where all selfishness disappears…It is the love of suffering man for his fellows in suffering.” [“At All Costs”]

Ross Howard | 23 April 2020  

Very moving.

AO | 24 April 2020  

Hello Andrew, Thank you for your beautiful thoughts as we approach Anzac Day. On the 11th November this year it will be 50 years since I left for service in Vietnam. Tomorrow,Saturday 25th April, my family and I will gather at 5 AM in front of the flag pole and commemorative pond in our front garden, which honours the memory of L/Cpl John Francis Gillespie (RAAMC) who was killed in action in April 1971 .The site was dedicated by his daughter, Fiona after we all attended the dedication of the site of the Vietnam Memorial on Anzac Parade, Canberra. We will remember not just John, but the other members of 8th Field Ambulance, who have passed away since the Unit's return from Vietnam in October 1971. This year we will avoid the rhetoric that is often preached about war service. I often say to those who ask me about my time there; "If you were not there you can never understand." For many Veterans this time is particularly hard on us, as memories we normally suppress come bubbling to the surface . All I ask is that politicians think a lot more carefully before sending young men and women off to war. The consequences to them and their loved ones are life long and extend across generations. Lest we forget

Gavin O'Brien | 24 April 2020  

This year, too, the isolation and anxiety which many share as we celebrate Anzac Day will echo some aspects of the experience of sexual abuse victims at Jesuit Schools. This will be a time to remember and stay with the pain, loss and grief of those who have suffered a lifetime of confusion and loneliness and homelessness and alcoholism that resulted from child abuse perpetrated at Jesuit schools over at least a thirty year period.

Patrick McCauley | 24 April 2020  

Thank you for a thought-provoking article Andrew. I am also one of those who think that ANZAC Day is a day of commemoration rather than one of celebration. But obviously, on such a day we also celebrate the courage and selflessness of those who gave their lives in fighting against tyranny and the defence of our nation. I totally agree with your statement that the rhetoric around ANZAC Day has become "overblown". Some might also say the rhetoric has become overly patriotic and also glorifying war. As humanity faces a bleak future because of overwhelming environmental issues, such a day should cause us to contemplate ways of avoiding wars altogether as a means of solving problems because of the destruction to the environment that they cause - not to mention massive loss of life, suffering, waves of refugees and destruction of infrastructure. Such reflection should also cause us to question the reasons why our leaders have involved us in many of the wars that we have participated in. It has to be admitted that many of the wars were not "just wars", but were more to do with advancing British or US imperialism using the flawed and dubious logic that we needed powerful allies.for our defence. Australian soldiers have played a proud role in UN peace-keeping - eg helping our East Timorese friends to gain their liberty from Indonesian tyrranny. Apart from resisting a direct threat to our security, peace-keeping should be the only other reason for our defence services.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 24 April 2020  

With the exception of George W. Bush’s ill-advised war against Saddam Hussein, all of the wars since WW1 in which Australia has been involved have been just wars. Anzac Day remembers Australians who helped other people to rebuff fellow humans who had become fallen angels. We mourn for human heroism and against human decadence. There is less such poignancy in remembering, whether this year or later, this year’s bushfires and epidemic. It was only ourselves whom we were helping, and there was no tragic condition related to the marring of the image of God, only some irruptions of a mindless Nature. True, the irruptions were on a grander scale than is usually the case but, at the end of the day, these were no more than boils and blisters on the skin of Nature, and no violation of the image of God. We commemorate 'Anzac'. We only remember the fires and Covid.

roy chen yee | 24 April 2020  

I am almost 'happy' that the overblown 'celebration' will not take place. My father was a career army officer and served throughout the span of the second world war and after. His father had served in WW1 on the Western Front. My father did not like all the 'hoopla', he thought it was a cover-up of the actual truth of war. I know he reflected on and remembered his dear friends and colleagues, but he preferred to do this in private and silence. In his late life he did attend the Dawn Service with my brother and pay tribute at the amazing eucalyptus tree dedicated to his arm of the services. Obviously, he found comfort in this. As an 'army' brat' I am sad that more people do not understand that serving in the armed forces does mark you out from others - but it should not be cheapened.

Jennifer Raper | 24 April 2020  

It is right and fitting that we commemorate our brothers and sisters fallen in war and pause to reflect on how we can contribute to a world in which the supreme sacrifice does not need to be exacted in the bloody theatre of war. While we remember and reflect on Anzac Day, now announced and enshrined in many speeches and media reports as "our most sacred day", I hope we would also recall and ponder the day on which Christ laid down his life for all people, and the future enabled by his sacrificial payment of sin's wages (Romans 6: 23).

John RD | 25 April 2020  

Best to learn from past mistakes! On this Anzac Day, 2020. Let us also remember the thousands who died from the Spanish flu Pandemic H1N1. James Harris a historian believes the rapid spread of Spanish flu in the fall of 1918 was at least partially to blame on public health officials unwilling to impose quarantines during wartime. In Britain, for example, a government official named Arthur Newsholme knew full well that a strict civilian lockdown was the best way to fight the spread of the highly contagious disease. But he wouldn’t risk crippling the war effort by keeping munitions factory workers and other civilians home. According to Harris’s research, British government leader Arthur Newsholme concluded that “the relentless needs of warfare justified incurring [the] risk of spreading infection” and encouraged Britons to simply “carry on” during the pandemic.

AO | 25 April 2020  

One of the great books about Australia at war was written by Ion Idriess who served in the Lighthorse both at Gallipoli and later in Palestine. Interestingly, he records in THE DESERT COLUMN the great Christianity of the Australian soldiers and their involvement in seeking out the places of Jesus' biblical journeying in the Holy Land where the Lighthorse won a number of decisive battles against the Muslim Turkish and others of their Arab allies. They really appreciated the sacredness of the land where they fought and many believed they were indeed involved in a sacred quest, modern versions of the Crusaders. When today we speak of Anzac Day as the "most sacred day in the calendar" I think the word "sacred" sadly has a meaning very different today from its meaning to the Anzacs of a century ago. Its current religious connotation in relation to Anzac Day is on a par with that of AFL as the religion of the people and gambling as the greatest of Australian virtues. Nonetheless, there is a very emotive attachment of many to the day and for me it shares that attachment with Good Friday both of which remember great human sacrifice on behalf of others and both of which are capable of bringing a tear to my silly old eyes. I hope its not a sign of impending Alzheimer's.

john frawley | 26 April 2020  

Whilst I can say 'amen' to all of what Andrew has written and to much of which others have added, I remain uncomfortable with the Australian version of Anzac Day.. I remain uncomfortable that the deaths, injury and suffering that we have caused seems not to be remembered, let alone commemorated, or are excused as the regrettable consequences of 'just war'. I remain uncomfortable that the ordered character of war cemeteries and the symbolism of war museums divert our attention from the failure of diplomacy and the grabbing for resources that results in armed conflict. And while I have a great deal of respect for the wisdom and insight my friend John Frawley, I cringed at his reference to the Crusades, as if, as I interpreted him, to identify those as 'just wars'.

Ginger Meggs | 27 April 2020  

Similar Articles

We need to go beyond Australians First thinking

  • John Warhurst
  • 28 April 2020

We have done a lot right as a nation during the pandemic, but on the whole we have not treated foreigners as well as we might have. The inequality of treatment has been in evidence during the twin health and economic crises brought on by COVID-19.


Remember to be kind to yourself, too

  • Marnie Vinall
  • 28 April 2020

The notion that we’re stronger together and we all just need to be kind to each other is reinforced by our leaders, from celebrities and public figures, and broadcast widely across social media. Yet something is missing from this encouraging messaging set to keep our spirits up and that’s the need to offer kindness within, too.