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Remembering shared humanity on Anzac Day

  • 23 April 2018


My childhood was spent near Anzac Hostel, a repatriation centre for invalided soldiers, predominantly from the First World War. It was a towered white building on a large block of land surrounded by Moreton Bay figs, a gathering place for cicadas in summer.

I was torn between the desire to sneak into the property in the hope of being able to boast that I had seen greengrocers, orange drummers, redeyes and other colourfully named cicadas, and my fear of the men in the hostel, whom people described as shell-shocked or damaged. They, and the Western Australian flowering gums along the road, each of which bore the name of an Australian soldier killed in the war, were the physical reminders of war and of Anzac Day in particular.

Even to children these things intimated a reality only later to be entered: the sadness of war. As did the Anzac Day celebrations, largely composed of fellow soldiers and those who had lost husbands, brothers, fathers and lovers in the war.

Today the celebration of Anzac Day has changed notably. Its participants encompass soldiers who have fought in a variety of wars since 1945, their relatives and descendants, and people who find the rituals of the day moving and encouraging. The focus of the day has switched from honouring and grieving the soldiers who died at Anzac Cove and in the trenches to honouring and celebrating the heroism of all those who have fought in the Australian armed forces.

Anzac Day has also been increasingly used as a commonplace by politicians for praising distinctively Australian values. They have accordingly spent heavily on facilities for remembering the war, focused on the site of the battle rather than on the hometowns of those who grieve, and often yielded to the temptation to glorify war.

The change of focus has not been universally accepted. The tension between remembering those who have died in battle and celebrating those who have fought in battles makes the celebration of Anzac Day inherently controversial. It is seen by many to canonise military values.

I believe that the risk is less to glorify war than to sanitise it by allowing time and space to take away its physical reality, and with it the sadness of war. The relationships involved in it are reduced to those that link soldiers on the battlefield to one another and to those at home who support them faithfully.


"Anzac Day is an occasion