Anzac Day: Reflecting on Australia’s Diverse Experiences of War

Small plaque set in a boulder in a natural landscape.

On a walking track across the road from the Australian War Memorial is this memorial to Aboriginal people who have served in Australian defence forces. Find your way to this simple place of reflection on Canberra’s Mount Ainslie via the Creative Spirits website.

I have written several posts over the years about the origins of Anzac Day from the Anzac Day celebration in South Australia in 1915 and the solemn commemoration in Brisbane on 25th April 1916 marking the first day that the Australian and New Zealand troops, together with large numbers of troops from other countries in the Allied forces attacked the Ottomans on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula.

I have written about the strong Christian history of Anzac Day that still permeates our Anzac Day ceremonies today (see, for example the 2016 national Anzac Day order of service – pdf), and the early observances of the Anzac Day silence – a reverent, respectful pause to remember the wreckage wrought by war. In another post I wondered about how respectful Australians really are when I found Anzac logos emblazoned on some rubbish bins.

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of Anzac Day and the 101st anniversary of the landing of Allied troops at Gallipoli. This anniversary is an opportunity for deep reflection about how this day can continue to reflect the ongoing history of Australia and our society’s needs both now and for the future.

It is understandable that the effects of World War I and the second part of this maelstrom which was World War II continue to reverberate today. Anzac Day focuses on the Australian and New Zealander contribution to these horrific conflict, so much so that we might forget to reflect on the enormity of these wars on a global scale. Statistics on World War I are hazy, but one estimate suggests that 65 million troops were deployed in the War, over half of whom were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The impact of World War I on Australia was significant, and so it was in many other countries throughout the world.

In my Anzac Day post last year I wrote about how the fighting at Gallipoli was not simply between the Ottoman forces and the soldiers from the Antipodes accompanied by a few, much maligned British officers. The Allied forces were represented by men and women from both the British and the French empires. It was a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual combined effort. In that post I focused on the too often forgotten contribution of Indian soldiers in the battles of the Gallipoli peninsula.

Australia today is very different to Australia one hundred years ago. The 2011 census showed that 1 in 4 Australians were born overseas and 43 percent of Australians had at least one parent born overseas. While people born in Britain continue to dominate these figures and nine percent came from New Zealand, the 2011 census showed that six percent of Australians were born in China and 5.6 percent were born in India. There were people born in China and India who lived in Australia one hundred years ago and some served in the AIF during World War I, but by any account Australia has a more diverse population now.

Does today’s Anzac Day reflect the fact that many Australians had no forebears living in Australia one hundred years ago? A few days ago historian, Carolyn Holbrook observed that Anzac Day is so powerful that marginalised groups in Australia seek to be linked to this national day. “These groups do not criticise Anzac for its militaristic, colonial or racist connotations”, Holbrook observed. “Rather they seek to be embraced by it.” Yet many Australians would find it difficult to successfully weave their stories into the Anzac Day legend.

Australians have been severely affected by many wars that are not considered in traditional Anzac Day ceremonies. Bosnian-Australians fled the vicious civil wars which tore apart the former Yugoslavian countries in the 1990s. Somali and Sudanese Australians, women as well as men, still live with the consequences of wars in their countries. On Anzac Day we remember those who had a formal role in war but the distinctive feature of modern warfare is its appalling burden on civilian populations, particularly women and children. War can leave them with serious physical scars, but often it is the psychological scars they bear which are more severe.

Anzac Day is a remembrance of certain wars and a forgetting of others. When the British first landed on Australian shores and took over Aboriginal land, they operated under European conventions of war. There were cultural and legal forms that were required at the time in Europe before violence would be considered a war. Aboriginal peoples in Australia operated under a completely different cultural paradigm almost totally incomprehensible to the British who were taking over their land. But there was a shared humanity between the two populations. The British settlers understood that the ongoing violence between the two populations was warlike. The settlers themselves used the term “war” to describe the ongoing clashes.

Just eight days before today’s centenary of Anzac Day the bi-centenary of one of the first massacres of Aboriginal people by British government forces in New South Wales was marked by about one thousand people who gathered near the site of the massacre. On 17th April, 1816 armed men sent by Governor Macquarie attacked Aboriginal people, killed some with guns and pushed others to run in fear to their deaths at the bottom of a nearby gorge. To my mind the anniversary of the Appin Massacre was a powerful way to start a week of reflection on how war has affected Australians.

History can be a profound reflection and an inspiration to change our community, as a nation, and dare I say it – as a world. Yet too often history is a trap, the weight of tradition, the arrogance of wanting one’s forebears to be seen as having acted correctly, even heroically in the past prevents us from changing in order to do better now. Anzac Day is a day of contemplation but too often the same simplistic thoughts dominate each year.

Anzac Day does not reflect the diversity of thoughts and experiences of war held by Australians today. Too often it does not even reflect the varied needs of its core constituents, the men and women who have served in Australian defence forces. On Anzac Day we focus on the history of past wars. We remember past battles and destruction, but we forget that for too many soldiers and their families, war never ends.

Many returned soldiers and their families battle every day with the effects of the psychological damage wrought by war on the psyches of men who served. The insidious effect of post-traumatic stress disorder and the different but equally debilitating ‘moral injury’, can wreak havoc on soldiers and their families through the emotional withdrawal of the soldier or domestic violence. Today the suicide rate of returned soldiers is horribly high.

As returned soldier, James Brown, so persuasively wrote, the Anzac ideals and character of the heroic Australian soldier can create more anguish for soldiers trying to reconcile myth with reality. This week returned soldier, John Coyne, wrote about why he avoids the official Anzac Day dawn service in preference for his own personal form of remembrance. There is a diversity of thought and experience among Australian soldiers that is missing in official Anzac Day observances. Too often, some Australian soldiers feel crowded out and ignored by the overwhelming official remembrance ceremonies of Anzac Day.

History is a dialogue between the present and the past. It responds to our current concerns, our current questions. It is a reflective discipline. As our present changes, so must our questioning and understanding of our past not only change but hopefully deepen as we see the same evidence in new ways. Fairness and honesty is at the core of ethical historical practice. We can’t pick and choose the stories which make us feel good about our past and ignore those which make us feel uncomfortable. It is important that we have the humility to remember that people in the past, even those who we might be related to, did some things that we wished they had not.

Anzac Day is about recognising the service and hardships of the Australians who officially served in past, traditional wars. If our focus is on our common humanity we can expand the embrace of Anzac Day to include the stories and thoughts of all Australians who have been affected by war and care for all of them. Let Anzac Day be renewed to reflect our diversity.

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5 thoughts on “Anzac Day: Reflecting on Australia’s Diverse Experiences of War

  1. Pingback: Our Vietnam Nurses, by Annabelle Brayley | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. How true! As far back as 1914 (and probably much earlier), many returned soldiers and their families battled daily with the effects of the psychological damage wrought by war on the soldiers’ psyches. In the early days, there was not even a term for “shell shock” or “post-traumatic stress disorder”, and no understanding of its terrible impact. Men were thought to be malingering 😦

    Even physical conditions were inadequately treated by surgeons and avoided by the public. Men with blown up faces or missing limbs often had to hide in their house for decades..

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    • Thanks for letting me know about the symposium Neville. Sadly I won’t be able to attend. It looks excellent. I will be in Brisbane at the end of May/early June for a few days. I wonder if there would be a good exhibition or event on then?

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