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Imagining nationalism through Anzac suffering


'Anzac Spirit' by Chris JohnstonEvery year Anzac Day comes around and events held across Australia attract ever growing numbers of people. At dawn services proportionately more youthful and larger crowds venerate the memory of young men (and some young women) who died in the many wars Australia has fought since the late 19th century.

The growth in popularity of Anzac Day is an intriguing phenomenon. It occurs in a period when the vast majority of Australians have never had anything to do with the armed services and have never experienced violence, other than perhaps in the street or the pub or the home.

Australia no longer has conscription or national service and most young people, especially those with tertiary education, would not consider the military as a future career path. The Australian Defence Force has been struggling to meet its recruitment quotas for some time now.

So the reason Anzac Day draws such large numbers cannot be that those who attend have a personal connection to the services. There are also some underlying cultural currents at work.

There is no doubt that Anzac Day represents a form of nationalism — this is not to belittle it, only to recognise its true nature. Anzac Day is part of a process of national imagining that takes place through ritual commemoration — a process described by historian Eric Hobsbawn in his book The Invention of Tradition and by Benedict Anderson in his famous exegesis of nationalism, Imagined Communities.

By paying tribute to the Anzacs, Australians reinforce their sense of common identity: in doing so the Australian nation is imagined as a sovereign and limited community defined by certain ideals.

Arguably this focus on ideals is what makes Anzac Day so popular. Day to day political affairs and cultural and social debate is often antagonistic — democracy as a process of public argument rather than public reasoning. And in the realm of morality, modern life is defined by a plurality of moral perspectives so that it is difficult to form a moral consensus on a wide variety of issues. Anzac Day, by contrast, is an occasion for public concord and consensus — it is marked by displays of solidarity.

The 20th century political theorist Isaiah Berlin argued that nationalism often manifests itself most strongly in a community that has suffered some wound. Certainly Indigenous Australians have suffered a great wound. But on first reflection it appears that other elements of contemporary Australia have not so suffered. Unlike in Russia, Japan, China or Germany, modern Australians do not have a vivid collective memory of suffering.

Of course those who returned from the World Wars and the various other conflicts of the 20th century were marked forever by the knowledge they had acquired of human life and death. Today, in a period of unparalleled wealth, in which most Australians are far removed from war, Anzac Day is a way of instructing ourselves about the place of suffering in Australia's historical experience.

But perhaps modern Australian society has in fact suffered a wound, for which Anzac Day is a balm of sorts. Perhaps the wound suffered is a hollowing out of our moral and political culture, what the Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has described as the severing of our contemporary moral vocabulary and moral concepts from their philosophical and cultural roots.

We have plenty of ideals. We celebrate 'courage', 'mateship', 'loyalty' and 'fairness' but it is not clear how these ideals are integrated into a broader moral system or how they actually shape and ground our social life. Without being rooted in a conception of the 'good society', concepts like the 'fair go' (which is essentially a conception of justice) are readily interpreted according to the political priorities of the day.

In this context of disagreement and confusion about the nature of a moral vocabulary we might share, Anzac Day acts to sooth and smooth over the hollow.

As a day of commemoration it has distinctly moral themes in its focus on the virtues thought to be epitomised by the Anzacs, namely courage and loyalty. But it also allows people to get a grasp on what these ideals might mean beyond rhetoric — they are shown to us in action in the stories of sacrifice, compassion and heroism that Anzac Day brings forth.

So we have Simpson and his donkey who helped bring in the wounded, and we have the statue at the back of the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance of a soldier carrying his wounded mate over his shoulders.

Anzac Day is a day on which many of us can imagine Australia as having some kind of moral being in which we are all connected — and connected by virtues such as those we learn were evinced by the Anzacs. But we need to keep on interrogating the virtues and moral ideas evoked on Anzac Day. In the context of our actual social life, what do they mean? And to what moral vision do they orient us? Do they suffice? 

Benedict ColeridgeBenedict Coleridge is a recent honours graduate of the University of Melbourne. 


Topic tags: Ben Coleridge, Anzac Day



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Existing comments

It would be interesting to know the proportions of the backgrounds of the "proportionately more youthful and larger crowds" who attend the Anzac commemorations. If they represent the proportions as present in contemporary Australian society they may well reflect a healthy nationalism, but if they are predominantly the descendants of the Australians from pre World War 2, then they may simply reflect a nostalgic harking back to the society of that time.

Robert Liddy | 23 April 2012  

"So the reason Anzac Day draws such large numbers CANNOT be that those who attend have a personal connection to the services. There are also some underlying cultural currents at work." My mother, uncles, aunts, my five children, my wife and myself have all lost our relatives to war. Many may have been living still if they weren't killed in World War 2. We remember all who fought so hard for our freedom against a foreign occupation, those who died, those who lived (some with terrible wounds of body and soul)and came back. There are still quite a few returned service men and women alive from World War 2. My family is proof of that. I suggest that young people read the auto -biographies and biographies that have been published to educate themselves on the huge price paid by the veterans so that our young people could live in a free and good society. Lest we forget!

Trent | 23 April 2012  

A good thought provoking essay, Ben! I agree that we need to think and discuss issues of moral philosophy. We need to promote the teaching of philosophy, classical Australian literature such as the prose writing of Henry Lawson and Tom Collins (aka Joseph Furphy) and aboriginal history. I believe that Anzac Day has become our defacto Australia Day. January 26 is divisive. Australia Day should be celebrated on the 1st January, which is the anniversary of the federation of Australia, which started on the 1st January 1901. Anzac day could then be a day of remembrance for people who have died whilst serving our nation.

Mark Doyle | 23 April 2012  

I was a child during WW11, a young woman in the fifties. I am grateful for Benedict's attempts to explain the Anzac day phenomenon because I cannot understand what has happened. I knew the Anzac day portrayed in the play, "The One Day of the Year", a day of heavy drinking, gambling, a seeking after comradeship, perhaps a search for the oblivion which could the horrors men did not want to remember. These were the men that I knew in my youth. My father turned the other way. He had served in the Pacific. He did not want to talk about his experiences and he had no time for Anzac day or the RSL. Now the further we are from the reality of war, the more Anzac Day becomes sacred. Is this a search for identity or an unrecognised longing for a spiritual dimension in an increasingly materialistic life or is it merely romantic sentimentalism fostered by a cynical media. Thanks Benedict for exploring some of the possibilities.

Sheelah Egan | 23 April 2012  

Thank you Ben, and the consideration of commentators too; Sheela has given me much to think about. An 86 year old veteran selling Anzac badges was escorted from a Shopping Mall last week by embarrassed security. A "rent" of $1,ooo.oo per week was required. I am often reminded who I would want beside me in the trenches.

Gray Lindsay | 23 April 2012  

My father also fought in WW2 and completely ignored any RSL or ANZAC day rememberances. Sometimes he recounted stories to us, but as an event my generation felt the weight of that war. It overshadowed not just Australia but our world for decades. Those who shun remembrances and those who embrace them still bear the weight.

Jenny Esots | 24 April 2012  

I liked this perceptive piece, Ben, and was particularly struck by your words here:

'We have plenty of ideals. We celebrate 'courage', 'mateship', 'loyalty' and 'fairness' but it is not clear how these ideals are integrated into a broader moral system or how they actually shape and ground our social life. Without being rooted in a conception of the 'good society', concepts like the 'fair go' (which is essentially a conception of justice) are readily interpreted according to the political priorities of the day.'

Absolutely right. Australian political culture overexercised these words at a time of particular indifference to the sufferings of the weak, of moral selfishness, and of unfairness. The men and women who fought in WW1 and WW2 had a
clear conception of the good and generally just Australian society for which they were fighting. They lived within a broader moral system. The trouble with those ideals you list above is that without such an integrated vision of what we agree that we stand for, they can become empty vessels -patriotic slogans, flags to wrap oneself in. Anzac Day is a time to reflect on who we are and what we stand for: are we a caring compassionate society or do we still have some way to go?

tony kevin | 24 April 2012  

I think Jeff Sparrow's article - entitled MEMORY AND THE ANTI-POLITICS OF ANZAC - addresses the important questions you pose at the end. Just one quote: "...in these endless discussions about the young men of that time, how often does anyone point out that Australians saw one of the very first anti-war protests anywhere in the world, when the Industrial Workers of the World called a rally on the Domain the weekend the conflict broke out? Everything that the IWW predicted about the war came to pass, just as everything that the official jingoes said proved entirely wrong. But amidst all the Anzac headshaking about the horrors of Gallipoli, there’s no room to mention those who tried to stop the killing taking place."

Clair Hochstetler | 26 April 2012  

I think, originally, Anzac Day allowed those diggers who had survived the atrocious carnage of WWI to remember their young, brave and cheerful comrades who had been slaughtered at Gallipoli; on the Western Front and in other theatres of war. It was a time when brave men could weep. There were others in the Allied side at Gallipoli who helped break the back of the Turkish Army which never quite recovered: Gurkhas; Brits; French etc. But they all had long, sad and bloody military histories. Australia was a new country. It was a crucial time in the development of our national consciousness. The situation was similar, but different, in the other Anzac nation: New Zealand. My son wore my father's WWII medals with pride on Anzac Day. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather had served in the respective world wars. My father, a Brit, was an officer in the pre-1947 British Indian Army, of which 70% of the officers were Brits. So neither of them were quite in the Anzac tradition. But my son can, to some extent identify with the tradition. I wonder, if he were a Somali-Australian, or a member of one of those groups which identify to some extent, but not completely, with "Australian tradition" - which means different things to different people - what it would mean to him? Australia's defence forces seem, to a very large extent, without there being any discrimination in either encouraging or recruiting outside, to consist largely of white, relatively long established citizens of this country. I am sure this is not official policy, just the way the cards fall. I wonder how long it will be before all Australians, by birth or choice, automatically feel something connecting them with Anzac Day? I am absolutely sure that most Australian vets of all wars and their families do not wish in any way to exclude anyone from celebrating - which to me includes weeping for the dead - Anzac Day. I think most interested Australians - including posters here - would want Anzac Day, without in any way losing its historic roots and without going to ridiculous lengths to be as inclusive as possible. Perhaps that is already happening. Our national consciousness is in a state of continual development from its roots which are already pretty wide and inclusive anyway.

Edward F | 09 May 2012  

Why do we have to analyse this subject with so many words and such deep thinking. The bottom line is these people went to war and to fight for their country and their families freedom, that's it ! And of course we need to remember them. Our traditions need to stay.

David Bingham | 20 November 2012  

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