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Untangling the cords of Anzac Day

  • 21 April 2022
  This year Anzac Day promises to be a subdued celebration with local events in which people who have fought in wars and their relatives can take part. Few will be able to travel to Gallipoli to remember the invasion. The focus of the day will remain rightly on the sorrow of war and not on the heroic achievements of soldiers or on deemed distinctive Australian qualities displayed at Gallipoli. The association of soldiers at Gallipoli with footballers playing their games on Anzac Day will seem not only crass but ridiculous.

With the reality of war in Ukraine daily before our eyes we shall remember with compassion people who died and whose lives were maimed by war with sorrow, and think of war with horror, not excitement. Each day in the media we have seen the destruction in Ukraine of cities, of centuries-old centres of civilization. We see the young soldiers on both sides brought into the conflict and sent back in body bags. We see the columns of refugees leaving Ukraine and read of those forced to stay in cities that are bombed around the clock, where the dead lie frozen in the ice with the living.

As we think back to Gallipoli and the battles in Europe we rightly honour the suffering and the courage of the Australian soldiers who fought there. But we think equally of the grief that spread from the battlefield to the Australian families and rural settlements who lost sons, brothers, fathers and the hopes of growing communities. We think, too, of the families to which soldiers returned, changed for the worse by their experience and sucking joy out of their homes.

Anzac Day also invites us to reflect on the ways in which it subsequently shaped Australian life. It has often been described in grandiloquent terms as the birth of Australia, as the forming of Australian identity and as the expression of such distinctively Australian virtues as mateship, informality and endurance. Such claims recognise the enormous effects that unprecedented travel, the death and injury of so many young Australians, and the self-conscious desire of many Australians to prove their credentials to the rest of the British Empire had on society.  The high claims for Anzac Day also reflect the religious imagery in which such a momentous loss of life was described. Australia’s birth was through blood sacrificed on the altar of arms. The events of Gallipoli and