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Lest We Forget Our National Dysatisfunction

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“The most dysatisfunctional thing about Anzac Day is the dismissal of significant political differences”

Australia just celebrated Anzac Day. On the 25th April, 1915, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps took part in an attempted landing of the Gallipoli peninsula in the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey. The naval assault became a protracted eight month campaign which ultimately failed. We might question why all our national heroes, from Anzacs to Ned Kelly to Burke and Wills, all gloriously fail—and often from some form of epic stupidity or narrowmindedness—but an unsuccessful war campaign is not the dysatisfunctional heart of Anzac Day.

Surely this was a bad idea at the time.

The dawn service is an opportunity to remember the fallen, those who died for their own loved ones, nationals, and future generations. We are invited to imagine core Australian values at work there on the beach: mateship, loyalty, hard work, egalitarianism, and I swear an asylum-seeking seahorse dies every time those values are invoked together, so now I feel even more terrible. As a cornerstone of national identity maintenance, Anzac Day is open to being potentially co-opted by jingoism and xenophobia, like snap-on plastic Australia flags for your VT Commodore. For others, it is an opportunity to reflect on what kind of country some of our great and great-great grandfathers were defending with their lives. All women had been allowed to vote since 1902, while Aborigines wouldn’t get the same right until 1962. The White Australia policy continued from federation in 1901 until 1973, so Anzac Day might mean something quite different for those marginalised in Australian society.

To be fair, this opportunity to reflect on social justice co-opts the Anzac commemoration no less than those who would reflect on all the ills attacking ‘normal’ Australian life. In a bad bureaucracy, they say the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, and vice versa. In political terms I would say neither the left nor right in Australia (and it would be a mistake to assume I mean the two major parties) have much understanding of how much they are engaged in the same reflective process each and every Anzac Day, but from totally different value bases. The difference between those core values is political. It is where the lines are drawn, and it is the front of Australia’s modern political agonism (which means we are arguing strenuously according to the codes of a civil democracy). So Anzac Day is of course hyperbolic national theatre—political theatre—though not exclusively so, when so many heartfelt interpretations of the occasion are reaffirmed each year by so many.

But I’m not sure how many get persuaded by this left-right political wrangling over big theatrical events like Anzac Day. These are two songbooks that generally don’t harmonise so well. Most ideologues are preaching to the converted. The phrase, “It’s just politics,” is used whenever a citizen, journalist or talking head loses patience with the issues under discussion, writing them off as pure strategic wrangling, implying very short-term gain, trivialising their importance. But politics is vital, as in ‘crucial’, but also biophysically vital: it plays directly into our health and well-being. The most dysatisfunctional thing about Anzac Day is the dismissal of significant political differences expressed through it, through the big footy clashes that take place as part of the theatre, through all the big cornerstones that beat us over the head with such an anaemic array of national identity values. Political parties curiously close ranks on these apparently stalwart national identity values, our mateship et al, and they do it because they’re scared a wrong word may cost them (and no-one cares about asylym-seeking seahorses). Anzac Day, while being intensely political, is supposed to be somehow above politics. The first Turkish president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, linked soldiers from opposing sides in his 1934 address to returning soldiers, his former foes:

“Those heroes that shed their blood
And lost their lives.
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers,
Who sent their sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears,
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace
After having lost their lives on this land they have
Become our sons as well.”

There’s something quite beautiful here, but really? No difference? Then WTF, Mustafa? What mattered so much here? Was it all a big misunderstanding?? More fool the leaders who couldn’t sort it out at the time, and more fool the internationalist Johnnies cruising for a lark, as we are led to believe in the mythology.

In terms of our contemporary relation to Anzac Day, indeed, what matters here? Focusing on an international conflict from 97 years ago seems less important than focusing on the culture wars that are so rife in contemporary Australian society. Australian social progressives have more in common with Turkish progressives than they do with Australian social conservatives. “But there are no dead bodies in your metaphorical culture war!” I hear you cry. To that I point out the significant differences between traditional left and right approaches to public spending, who to give tax cuts and other concessions to, which business sectors to promote and dissuade, how much to spend on health, education, international aid, the military and police, public servants and research institutions. The tactics, technologies and affective experiences are certainly qualitatively different from war. But no dead bodies? Of course there are.