Anzac Day and ‘The Old Lie’

I have, for a while now, been contemplating the possibility of writing a few posts about war and, in particular, the way in which we Australians approach our military history.

ANZAC Day, and all that goes along with it, has become (for all intents and purposes) like something of a ‘State Religion’ for Australia. There is the tradition, the ceremony, the sacred space, and the requisite mythology that must accompany such things.

As such, I am acutely aware that whatever I say on this topic, unless it simply affirms the status quo, will no doubt upset some people. To express a point of view that does not conform to the official script has the potential to be viewed as disrespectful at best, sacrilegious at worst. This is why I have chosen to wait until after ANZAC Day this year to write. In the midst of the extraordinary emotion of it all, I see little possibility of reasonable discussion and debate. My hope is that now, after the intensity of the day itself has passed, we are in a better position for such discussion. I guess we will soon see.

In this post, then, I want to discuss what I see as one of the core untruths of the whole ANZAC tradition. Quite simply, I want to challenge the idea that the tragic death of so many young men (and women) has any meaning at all.

Please let me explain.

For many, the idea of fighting—and dying—for one’s nation is a good and noble thing. From at least the time of the Roman poet Horace onwards (and no doubt before), it has been expressed quite clearly that such a notion is to be admired. As Horace expressed it: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“How sweet and right it is to die for one’s country!”).

It is my firm belief, however, that such deaths as we commemorate on ANZAC Day were both unnecessary and obscene. Young lives wasted in the service of reckless fools who treated them with scornful contempt as expendable pawns is not ‘sweet’ or ‘right’ or ‘noble’. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions!

Such patriotic, nationalistic propaganda is to be challenged and opposed, not applauded.

Of course, there will be those who will suggest, in light of what I have just said, that I am being disrespectful to the memory of those who fought and died—that I am an ungrateful wretch who does not appreciate the ‘freedoms’ for which our brave servicemen-and-women fought and died.

To those people, I would simply say four things:

  1. I have no doubt that many of our servicemen-and-women—at least before they experienced the horrors of it all—absolutely believed that what they were doing was the right thing to do. Many went out of a sense of duty and a belief in the nobility of it all. This does not, however, make it so. It is more a testament to the power of patriotic rhetoric, and the effectiveness of official propaganda machines. The numerous testimonies from many who fought, however, show that such propaganda was often shown up quickly for what it truly was when the horrific reality of war was made known. Such testimonies speak of the futility of it all, and sometimes detail the sense of betrayal felt when such realities were made known.
  2. I am also convinced that there were many acts of tremendous courage and bravery in the midst of battle. Again, however, this does not make it ‘right’. Human beings are amazing creatures, and are capable of truly incredible things under certain circumstances. That soldiers would perform acts of exceptional bravery in the midst of raging battle comes as no surprise. That they were put into such situations is cause for regret.
  3. I passionately believe in caring for returned soldiers who have been scarred physically and emotionally by their experiences. I am not one of those people who would spit on or despise returned servicemen-and-women. I believe it is our responsibility as a nation to properly care for those who have fought ‘on our behalf’, even if I don’t endorse (or even passionately oppose) the fighting itself. Multitudes of returned soldiers experience significant physical and psychological wounds that require long-term/permanent care. The reality of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is alarming, and we need to do so much more in regards to the wellbeing of those who are experiencing such things.
  4. There is very little or no case at all for suggesting that any of the wars that Australians have fought in have secured our ‘freedoms’. Nearly every one of them have had nothing at all to do with Australia itself. WWII might be argued as a possible exception here, but it can only be argued as such if we were to believe that our ‘enemies’ in that war popped up out of nowhere. War does not begin in a vacuum. There is always a context, and the years (or even decades) before war officially breaks out are extremely important to keep in mind. Once war begins, it is easy to argue that we are simply ‘responding’, but it is rarely, if ever, truly the case.

But there is a more subtle untruth that creeps in too.

Many people I speak to, who do see through the patriotic nonsense of dying for one’s country as ‘sweet’ or ‘right’, nevertheless still fall for the lie that I call the ‘myth of retrospective meaning’.

This argument acknowledges the bogus nature of what Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’, but nevertheless falls victim to the belief that, even if we accept the futility of the fighting itself, and even if we call out the incompetence and wilful neglect (and perhaps outright evil) of the leaders who sent so many to fight and to die, we can still invest their deaths with meaning if only we live our lives in such a way that their ‘sacrifice’ wasn’t wasted.

This is a popular, and powerful, lie.

There is nothing that we as a nation, or I (or you) personally, can do to make such deaths ‘worthwhile’. Trying to retrospectively invest the meaningless with meaning is as futile a pursuit as the wars themselves.

As far as I can see, this is just another (perhaps more subtle) attempt to keep the myth of noble war alive. The problem is, it’s just not true.

What’s worse, it seems to lead only to the justification of sending yet more into ongoing battles. Nothing changes. No lessons are learnt. More lives are needlessly lost.

I have thus come to the conclusion that such an argument is nothing more than an insidious attempt to overcome the cognitive dissonance that inevitably arises when we seek to confront the Old Lie in the context of the State Religion of ANZAC tradition.

The truth, to my mind, is that the only thing we can do to truly honour the memory of those who fought and died is to embrace the horror of war in all its terrifying reality and let it break our hearts to the point that we can no longer tolerate the sending of soldiers to fight and die in meaningless battles ‘in our name’.

We must acknowledge the utter meaninglessness of it all so that, once our collective conscience is pricked by the magnitude of such wasted life and potential, we might collectively agree: “never again”.

Though the facade of untruth is certainly more comfortable, I believe such reflection is necessary.

Lest we forget.

 

Dulce Et Decorum Est
(by Wilfred Owen, 1917)
.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

5 thoughts on “Anzac Day and ‘The Old Lie’”

  1. I’m not really sure I agree that remembering and reflecting on the passing if others is unhelpful. I would agree that what happens in Anzac Day is not reflective contemplation though.

    I think you’ll be called a traitor though.
    I think you could easily swap Anzac Day as Australia Day. There is far more involved in Anzac Day that every person can “celebrate” than on Australia Day.

  2. There is a lot I would agree with in here, subversive and counter-cultural as I usually am, although, I am sorry to say, I could never stand with you on charges on maiestas since, God be thanked, I am not Australian.

    Many Australians simplistically entertain the idea, the myth I dare say, that their country has heroically contributed to rescuing democratic peoples agonizing under the tyranny of past dictators (i.e., the Germans and Italians in WWI and II, the Communists in Vietnam, Sadam, and now the Talibans in Afghanistan). There is a bit of truth in there, and Australians should get credit for the blood they have (often unnecessarily) shed, but how many times has it rather been to honour the country’s political allegiance to allies whose protection it needs?

    Why did Galipoli take place? Because Churchill was bent on having Australians die in the place of British souls and the Australians could not bring themselves to contest his absurd plan and challenge their former colonial masters. The same goes for the fall of Singapore. The Brits actually ran away leaving behind a disbanded group of ill-equipped and undisciplined Australians to bear the brunt of the Japs’ assault.

    Why did the Australians sheepishly follows the US in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and accept US army bases on its soil. Because Australia needs the protection of its ‘bigger brother’. It would stand no (military) chance against potential enemies, the penguins of Antarctica excepted of course.

    So like you, Josh, come ANZAC day and I get annoyed and amazed at people’s ignorance of history and their slavish abeyance to the official propaganda coming out of Canberra.

    Yes, we do need to honour those who have fallen, and I am always humbled at the price that some country-NSW boys paid for some conflicts that should have never been their concern, but we should be equally strong in denouncing the stupidity of war (apart from acts of self-defense — the Japs did bomb Darwin and Sydney harbour!).
    There is a major difference between Australian and European commemoration ceremonies. The Australian remember ‘lest they forget’ (their former heroes), the French and Germans remember ‘so that it may never happen again’.

    It is equally important, in my opinion, for the public to hold accountable past governments for their questionable decisions. I am amazed that Howard got away with Iraq the way he did. Not even a parliamentary commission like Blair had to go through.
    The Australians are so keen to defend the honour of their fallen diggers when comes ANZAC day, but live apathetic lives the rest of the time! How about bringing those really responsible to justice?

    The truth of the matter is that more often than not, Australia has subserviently served the imperialistic goals of its diplomatic allies. This is why many Australians have died.
    I am sorry to say, but there is nothing to be proud of.

  3. I think it is possible to be a reflective person, think things through, experience other cultures and other systems, and then come to the conclusion in the end that in fact, yes, West is Best. That doesn’t necessarily imply ‘slavish abeyance’ of force-fed propaganda. Not everyone taking part in an ANZAC Day service is a mindless sheep, ignorant of history.

    I am 44 years old and count 20th Century history as one of my main interests. I have explored ideas all over the political spectrum but come back to a settled belief in the superiority of liberal democracy and the validity of armed force to protect and preserve it.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Trebor!

      I absolutely agree that not everyone taking part in AZAC Day commemorations is a mindless sheep! Please let me make that clear.

      I guess what I would say in reply to your main point is that I don’t think our wars were actually fought in the service of ‘protecting and preserving’ liberal democracy.

      (I happen to think that the system of government in a place like Australia is a pretty good option(!), even though it’s certainly not perfect. I would not, however, ever seek to suggest that ‘West is best’. That discussion, though, is for another time.)

      In terms of the discussion here, I think that the notion of ‘national interest’ is a far more central idea in terms of the wars of the 20th-21st centuries. Though the propaganda suggests it’s all about ‘our freedoms’, I remain unconvinced. There is far more to the story.

  4. Under John Howard and Brendan Nelson Anzac Day has become a fetish which celebrates, as the author of this piece so well put it, absolutely nothing worthwhile. Howard, in his term as PM did quite a remarkable thing: he kept Australia under the yoke of an Imperium which has been long dead, and he also made Australia part of the United States. We now cononila vassals to two empires. Anzac Day should be remembered as a day of shame becasue we allowed a criminally foolish government to sign us up for a war which was none of our business. Our leaders were fools and our ‘boys’ were duped by an insidious propaganda machine, which is still on full throttle right now.. We have to stop and ASK QUESTIONS. We also have to stop and remember that warfare of all kinds is the most hideous thing ever invented by man. The damage it does is irreparable, the mental torture it causes is unspeakable for thousands and thousands of people, and, in our case NOTHING HAS COME OF IT. Now the purblind fool Abbott wants the noble tradition to continue. What have we to do with Iraq, Afghanistan and now Isis? Abbott and his cronies are so mindless that they cannot for a moment see that these countries are not part of Australia’s concerns. We have been bullied into making them so. Taking part in these conflicts achieves nothing for us and, more important, it achieves nothing for the countries we help ruin, as we have ruined Iraq. Nor, after more than a decade of useless conflict, has it does anything for America.

    Anzac Day in Australia is a perfect example of a vast propaganda machine at work. It should be a day of national mourning. It should be a day where we promise ourselves that we will tell our kids that Australia must never send its young men and women – as we have done for over a century – to be killed in wars that served no purpose at all. Australia did not come of age at Gallipoli. It went to sleep, and it goes to sleep every year. It’s about time we woke up from that dreadful post-colonial sleep and had the balls to stand up and tell the truth about Anzac Day. My uncle was 19 when he was mown down my machine gun fire on the heights of Gallipoli. Were he here I am sure he would agree with me: he died for NOTHING. There was no glory or HUGE MEANING. Just death, meaningless death. It’s about time we told people like Howard to go drown themselves in their own xenophobic slime. They are worse than useless. They are blind liars, and in spite of their tremendously banal ordinariness, they are dangerous because, in their own smooth and bland and ‘sincere’ way they perpetuate the horrors of meaningless war. We have to call their tune.

    Keith Harrison

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