środa, 28 kwietnia 2010


Dawn vigils, marches, memorial services, reunions, and two-up games (Collingwood – Essendon:)... It is a part of the ANZAC Day culture. April 25th - one of the most important and the most discussed day in Australia. The ANZAC Day (ANZAC – Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) commemorates soldiers who fought in the Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey in 1915. However, nowadays it's devoted to all people who died and served in different military operations in the Australian history. To be honest, I did not wake up for the Dawn Service (6 a.m.), but I took part in the Melbourne march.

For foreigners, celebrating the defeat (the only success of the Gallipoli campaign was the further evacuation) as a “birthplace of the nation” seems to be quite peculiar. Celebrating the Anzac Day, the march which looks like the 'family picnic event', quite relaxed, serious and non-serious at the same time, seems to be even more weird. I think the comprehension of the meaning of the Anzac Day and the evolution of that meaning are essential, because – either celebrated or contested – this is the day that shaped the Australian national identity to a large degree.

How does the ANZAC Day look like? Everything starts with commemorative services which are held at dawn (the time of the original landing of corps). Later in the day, ex-servicemen and women meet to take part in marches through the major cities and in many smaller centres. Then it is time for more formal commemorative ceremonies which are held at war memorials (like the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne).
Last weekend I went out from a book store overwhelmed by the number of books on Australians at wars. Considering, how many books was published and public debates took place recently, I am aware that it is impossible to include all aspects of the ANZAC problem here. So I will just try to underline few issues.

We should start from the beginning. Why Gallipoli? Because it was the first military involvement of Australian soldiers as Australians (January 1st, 1901 – the British colonies federated as the Commonwealth of Australia). Of course, it was the imperial conflict, the “British war”, but now Australia brought help to the “mother” Britain as an independent “child”. It made a difference. The number of soldiers killed in Gallipoli battlefields was less than in further WW1 campaigns, but it was “the first”. During the first 6 days over 6,000 soldiers were killed. Maybe it is not so much, if you compare this to other nations which took part in this campaign as France or Britain, but if you take into account the Australian population at that time (more or less 4 mln), it might make a difference. In such a small population high enlistment and high casualties increased the social impact of the war. Moreover, it was volunteer army. Australia did not introduce a conscription, so the volunteer nature of this army influence on the way the soldiers saw themselves and on the image of the ANZAC legend (as David Carter notices, “they were neither professional soldiers nor unwilling conscripts, but citizen soldiers offering their lives for a greater cause”). It was also a symbolical link between the soldiers and the nation – they were young boys, there was the young nation. The war was a test in the manhood and the maturity. Gallipoli became “the birthplace of the nation” immediately.

Places, memorials, monuments that commemorate these who died at wars (in the WW1, in particular) can be seen everywhere in Australia, in each small town, in suburbs (in fact, country towns long time ago). It has its meaning and the reason can be found in the British policy during the WW1 that bodies would be buried on the battlefield rather than brought home. Bereaved families had to mourn without a funeral and a body. Memorials or the ANZAC day could cure the post-war trauma.

Nevertheless, I think there is something more. Australia was not only a young country, but also unexperienced one. It was the nation which did not know great wars and international conflicts. Of course, Australians participated in the Boer War in Africa, but the WW1 was something different. They did not have stories of grandfathers at wars, there was no experience of caring for returned servicemen as we, Europeans with hundreds years of the history did have. It was really a bloody exam for that new nation. Then, the WW2 came with Kokoda, after that – Vietnam. And in this way, the ANZAC Day started to commemorate all Australians and New Zealanders soldiers at all wars. Nowadays families put red poppies next to the name of their died beloved each year and many people go to Turkey to celebrate the Anzac Day in the Gallipoli Peninsula (sometimes their behavior causes controversy...).

However, as it always happens with the national events, the ANZAC day is contested nowadays. The question has arisen, why celebrating and defining the national identity through wars? Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake, authors of “What's wrong with Anzac?”, the recently published and widely discussed book, notice: ”Like many Australians, who are concerned with homage paid to the Anzac spirit and associated with militarisation of our history, we are concerned about the ways in which history is used to define and distort our national heritage and national values. We suggest that Australians might look to alternative national traditions that gave pride of place to equality of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice. (…) The key premise of the Anzac legend is that nations and men are made in war. It is an idea that had currency a hundred years ago. Is it not now time for Australia to cast it aside?”.

When I looked at old people marching toward the Shrine of Remembrance on last Sunday, applauded by the crowd, young people with their grandfathers medals, women with red poppies in their hands – I thought, yes, maybe it is a façade, it is a national performance, but it is also something that all nations need. To built a legend you need Private John Simpson and his donkey, instead of proofs of the Anzac soldiers' cruelty. The essence of the Anzac Day celebrations could seem 'funny' and culturally absurd for someone abroad, but it is still important and very interesting from 'the culture studies point of view'. Why? The issue of masculinities, the national identity, the question of what formed the ANZAC spirit legend, who was/is included or excluded from that legend (women, Aborigines, even that they participated in wars as well). It produces lots of questions that have to be considered. That's why it is not ridiculous for me, but quite fascinating.

I would like to finish with the song which recently I like very much. It is “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (Eric Bogle, 1971) which, in some measure, contests the Anzac legend. (“Waltzing Matilda” used to be the unofficial national anthem of Australia).

“And the old men march slowly, all bones stiff and store,/They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war/And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”/And I ask myself the same question”

Could anyone in the last Sunday crowd answer me that question? I don't think so. Maybe they would have given me slogans that newspapers were full of on the Anzac Day. Maybe that's why, there is a need of the book like “What's wrong with Anzac?”. A contestation is good, because it makes us think about what we are celebrating and why.

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