Some 37,000 people attended the dawn service at the Australian War Memorial on Anzac Day. That’s a bit less than ten per cent of Canberra’s population. We were not part of that crowd, but our nursing home put on an Anzac Day service that was sensitive and well thought-out. We did go to that one, and as usual, I kept thinking about what ‘Anzac’ means now, and what the young people think about it. Last year 17,000 Australians and New Zealanders went to the service at Gallipoli; this year, given the recent strife in the Middle East, and the warnings from our own Government, the number was around one thousand.
What does it all mean? When I was an Air Cadet (1951 and 1952, I think) we paraded as a part of the Anzac service, but we did not march. The marchers included a lot of Great War veterans, and of course a comparable number from World War II. As the years passed, so did the Great War veterans. The last to die was John Campbell Ross, who died in 2009, aged 110! He was a wireless operator who never left Australia or saw active service. Now it is the WWII veterans who are ageing and dying, and the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan returned service-people who are in the majority.
Anzac Day as a remembrance started very early, with ceremonies within a few months of the actual landing in 1915, and it grew in popularity. The second great war boosted its significance even further, but the divisions within Australia over our role in the Vietnam war politicized the event, with protesters using the occasion for their own ends. It was felt that Anzac Day might soon pass, especially as the original Anzacs were themselves largely gone. From the 1990s on, however, the Anzac Day dawn services and official remembrance have grown in attendance, and there seems little likelihood of a slump in popularity any time soon. The younger generations have embraced it, and there can be few families of Australian-born fathers and grandfathers that have not been touched by their families’ participation in military conflict.
What follows is sustained speculation. I have no real evidence for any of it. Our younger generations are involved in a search for the meaning of ‘us’. It was no problem for my generation. Australia had supported the British Empire in the Great War because we were loyal to the King, and Australia was a key part of the Empire, determined to show that we were as good as the rest, or even better. Before films started at the local cinema, the King’s image was projected on to the screen and the audience stood up in respect. I simply assumed that this was the way things were. I had no special love for the King, or for Britain, but I did feel that we had come from there, so there was a bond, or link, that was important. Some of that sentiment is still present in my sense of self.
The ‘usness’ of 1950 was based on the great preponderance of Australians whose ethnic roots lay in Great Britain and Ireland. Yes, there was a division between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant rest, but that was subordinate to a strong sense that all of us were Australians, and that meant something important. What exactly it meant I don’t think any of us could articulate well, but it was really important in sport, and of course it had been most important in war. We didn’t celebrate Anzac Day as a glorification of war, or of sport, for that matter, but as a sign that our nation, one that grew in size and strength and self confidence throughout the 20thcentury, amounted to something, and would be even more important in the years ahead, which has proved to be largely true, I think. Anzac Day symbolized the formation of the nation, and gave it a founding myth that has some romance to it.
All nations need founding myths. Indigenous ‘dreamings’, the fable of Romulus and Remus, the descent of the gods in Ancient Greece, Genesis for the Jewish people — sooner or later there develops a story of how ‘we’ came to be who we are; the myth is a source of pride, and of belonging. It enables us to take our neighbours seriously as good people, those who we can trust. We recognise other Australians in foreign countries, and feel good about that, for the most part. I have argued before that the nation-state is the most important entity in the modern world, and the nation-states that are best at the business of delivering a good life to the great majority seem to have a good sense of themselves, and a good sense of who they are, relative to other nations.
That is one of the problems with the present European Union, which is an attempt to subdue the nation-state, and thereby the distinctiveness of the nation-states within the Union, in the interest of a peaceful co-existence that would rule out wars in Europe. It may be a noble aspiration, but it cuts across that sense of ‘us’ that makes the nation-state work well. It diminishes local histories, cultures, languages and myths. Increasingly, it seem, parts of the EU are having to deal with dissident populations who don’t want to be ruled from Brussels. The Brexit referendum showed how powerful that sentiment could be in the usually unexcitable United Kingdom.
I think our younger generations are having something of the same struggle to determine what it means, in our case, to be ‘Australian’. And the Anzac myth provides an opportunity for many to fasten onto something that has some quasi-religious tone to it, and brings us together on one day in the year. Some others of the young have abandoned Australianism in favour of global interest and action, notably in climate change. Those involved here want to be part of something virtuous and meaningful, and they can see our present society as too materialistic and almost meaningless. The meaning they want comes from the brotherhood of man (it’s too hard to make that phrase gender-neutral) not from the nation-state. That they plainly do not understand the problems with ‘climate change’ is of little importance. They want to be part of something global and noble. A lot of the young have involved themselves in community work of one kind and another, to make Australia a better place, and in doing so they do bring the society together.
We had a very British ‘Australia’ when I was young. When I was in my forties Australia had emerged into the global world as a serious competitor, not just in sport or war, but in music, literature, art, drama and other cultural pursuits. We were wealthy enough to make that happen, and determined not to have a cultural cringe any longer. Now, in my eighties, I see a less confident Australia whose citizens are not sure what they want their country to be, and even less sure how they could achieve such an end. We want leaders, but we haven’t much time for the present crop. We want the goodies the nation-state can provide, but are not especially interested in how the wealth comes to be generated, or how it should be divided up, so long as our special interest is properly served. We have to fasten onto something that provides a modicum of meaning, and Anzac Day is the best we have. That it immortalizes a military defeat is not important. It is where ‘mateship’ and sacrifice and service were demonstrated, and we hope that these attributes still distinguish us from the rest of the world.
At least, I think so.