Doctor and activist

ANZAC Day- Lest We Remember

24 April 2020

It is ANZAC Day again and we are urged as always, ‘Lest We Forget’.

It is right and proper to remember the heroism and sacrifice of our troops, and to reflect that we are lucky to have lived our lives without having to risk them in battle.

But the distorted perspective of ANZAC needs to be addressed.  It was an attempt to open a route to Russia to help the crumbling Czarist regime which was being hammered by the modernised Germans.  It was hoped that the decadent Ottoman Empire could be overcome quickly, which would open a route to Russia to help take some pressure off the stalemate on the Western Front.  The ANZACs were not attacking the Turks for our freedom, they were supporting the British Empire in a European war.  The British leadership both at Gallipoli and the Western Front in France was very poor and caused the needless loss of many Australian lives.  It may be too cynical so say that the ANZAC myth was created to ensure that there was not too careful an analysis of why they died, and if the war could have been conducted considerably more competently than it was.  But the legend of ANZAC and it eulogising of mateship and courage has meant that analysis of what our soldiers were doing in WW1, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been seen as unpatriotic and somehow demeaning to the courage of the veterans.

As the imperialist Rudyard Kipling put it, ‘If any question why we died, Tell them because our fathers lied’.  A German, Erich Maria Remarque wrote ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ describing what war was like and an Australian, Arthur Wesley Wheen translated it. The similarities in the situation of soldiers on both sides in France was similar to the relationship of the Turks and ANZACs.

With the exception of WW2 in the Pacific, our troops have not fought from our freedom, they have fought for the British Empire, or the American one.  In Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam we believed, with declining probability that we were preventing a hostile invasion from the North.  Nothing like this could be believed of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We were there to please the Americans so that they would defend us against a decreasingly likely attack from the North.  Our soldiers are the currency of our payment.  The futility of the Afghan objective was clearly written in ‘Exit Wounds’- One Australian’s War on Terror’ by John Cantwell, the Australian commanding officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He developed PTSD as he saw Australian soldiers’ lives sacrificed in a totally futile cause.  Yet still we see the glossy ads for military recruitment, and the tiny requests for charity to fund PTSD treatments in our ex-servicemen.  The suicide rate and problems in the Vietnam veterans remains a poorly expunged blot on our consciences.

The ANZAC legend is in grave danger of becoming the ANZAC myth as we refuse to look honestly at what happened.  Dr Brendon Nelson is happy to have the Arms industry give large amounts of money to the Australian War Memorial.  We must be careful lest it subtly shifts from being a shrine to a temple of militarism, as governments try to justify ever more absurd military spending.  I find the new  statue of bullets in Hyde Park near the ANZAC Memorial quite offensive and wonder how it got there.

Last year, Nick Deane of the Marrickville Peace Group made some A4 signs which said, ‘Honour the Dead by Working for Peace’.  This seemed very reasonable to me as the object of war is surely to achieve peace.  So we put these around our necks with a lanyard and went to the Cenotaph in Hyde Park for the ANZAC ceremony.  An aggressive policeman told me to go and stand 150 metres away as I was ‘offending people’. I had been there for some time handing out leaflets on the same theme and no one had been offended, so I said that no one was offended.  He said I would have to move if anyone was.  Eventually a man came up to me and said that Muslims were shooting Australians in  Afghanistan, so what was I going to do about that?  I replied that we should not be in Afghanistan and then we would not be shot. But he was determined to pick a fight so he said, ‘I suppose you would not care if a Muslim raped your grandmother?’  It is difficult to answer such an absurd question, but the Policeman returned and said I had now offended someone and that he would arrest me if I did not move.  I stood my ground.  I told him that we had freedom of speech, and that there was no guarantee that no one would be offended, and his job was to enforce the law, not to make it up. Furthermore, if he arrested me what would I be charged with, and would he just look silly in court and be criticised by the magistrate?’  He was extremely angry and I thought that if he ever took me to the police station I would be beaten up for sure, but he backed off and said that I could not go on the concreted area around the Pool of Remembrance, which meant I only had to move a few feet away.  But I took the incident as a pointer to the degree to which ANZAC has been taken as a pro-militarism ceremony, and also to the degree to which police have had their powers so extended that they have no tolerance for anything out of the ordinary.

The ANZAC legend/myth has been said to have distorted the analysis of the development of Australian culture, making it white, male and militaristic. History is not a series of battles, but the social evolution of a culture.  Sadly, our troops have generally not fought for our freedom, but been used to please colonial or neo-colonial masters.  The historian Manning Clark noting the relatively recent turn to Anzac Day as ‘Australia’s day of glory’, wrote, had made the nation ‘a prisoner of her past, rather than an architect of a new future for humanity.

My grandfather was wounded at Passchendaele and my grandmother was a nurse he met in hospital.  He was not keen on war, and not keen to talk about it to a child. All I could get out of him was, ‘War is bad.  You had to shoot them or they would shoot you’.  It is no disrespect to my grandfather to look again at ANZAC In a more realistic light.  Some do not want us to remember the fiasco and pointlessness of many of our wars.

Here is more academic look at the situation, complete with details of the fuss it caused.

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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