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Anzac Day celebrates humanity, not nationalism

  • 16 April 2007

When I was a boy, the school held a church service each Anzac Day. As I remember it, the cadets presented arms in the sanctuary of the chapel, and at the end a bugler played the Last Post. It was dramatic and moving. It also encapsulated the intertwining of churches and arms, of Anzac Day and religious symbolism.

These connections are natural. Like other battles in which many young people died, the military action at Gallipoli left relatives, friends and fellow Australians to find meaning in what had happened. They sought it in many places: in Stoic acceptance of the absurdity and folly of war, in the classical tradition of the patriotic warrior, and in religious traditions.

Many of those affected by the Great War struggled to make sense of what they had hitherto taken for granted about their world. The young men who passed on to the next life had lived long enough to show promise and to be loved, but not long enough to give shape to their life’s path. In their dying, they broke a web of relationships to family, to mates, to friends and lovers, to their local communities, and to their nation.

This is true of all wars. But aspects of the landing at Gallipoli made death particularly poignant and challenging. The soldiers died not in defence of their own land but in someone else’s war, far from home. The action in which they died was of doubtful wisdom, and was inadequately planned and executed. In the event, the soldiers died to hold for a short time a few hills, a few valleys, and a tiny stretch of beach.

In response to the defeat some simply wept for the folly and the waste of the enterprise. Others looked for a higher meaning. Some drew inspiration from the bravery and generosity shown by so many of the soldiers. Others identified in Gallipoli a particularly Australian contribution to the war, and saw that it gave a distinctive shape to the Australian people. Many people sought in the Christian tradition a way of understanding the significance of Gallipoli. This tradition is based on reversal. Both the Jewish stories that Christians inherited and the story of Jesus Christ find hope and meaning in catastrophic events that seemed to destroy hope. The people of Judaea were sent as exiles to Babylon, and Jesus was executed as a criminal. Yet these