ANZAC Day Myth and Meaning

Richard Laidlaw, an Australian who lives in Bali, reflects on the modern meaning of ANZAC Day in his home country and in New Zealand

ANZAC was the spark in the crucible of Australia’s nationhood.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. That unforgettable opening sentence in L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between precisely demonstrates the implacable march of history. James Matthew Barrie, most famous as the author of Peter Pan, also memorably reminds us: “God gave us memories so that we might have roses in December.”

So it is that ANZAC Day has assumed a central place in the mythology of Australia and in the curiously similar-yet-dissimilar society of New Zealand. Both countries would be unrecognizable to the original ANZACs. They sprang willingly to the defense of the mother country – Britain, though they almost universally thought of it not only as England but also as Home – in a conflict that today exists now only a handful of memories and in the history books.

Then, it was England to the last shilling and membership of the imperial club, ironically more valued in the dominions than at home. Today, Australia and New Zealand, while still small countries in population terms – Australia 22 million, New Zealand under 4 million – are fully independent nations pursuing national aims that do not necessarily coincide with those of other western democracies and especially Britain.

This can sometimes be obscured by the common front against challenges, particularly today’s challenge from international terrorism and state policy in some Muslim countries that have acceded to the demands of combative Islam. That there should be common interest among western democracies in countering perceived danger is surely no surprise. But those who see in this some craven collectivization of policy are mistaken. New Zealand, which is part of the coalition in Afghanistan, still excludes American nuclear-powered or -armed warships from its ports. Long ago, Australia broke with its western partners to support and foster Indonesian independence.

Forty years ago history was out of favor. In Australia – as in other western democracies at the time, beset directly or indirectly by angst over Vietnam, much of it misplaced – celebrating and honoring the past and its heroes was rather frowned upon. You had to be a warmonger, a CIA mole, a proto-Fascist or a member of the Returned Services League (Australia’s veterans’ organization) to be into that.

More recently, that picture has radically changed. ANZAC Day in Australia is now more fully a national commemoration – and a celebration – of nationhood than ever before. Some critics see this as a retrograde step, a retreat to the shibboleths and false comforts of the past. It is nothing of the sort. All nations create myths around which they construct their popular history. ANZAC was the spark in the crucible of Australia’s nationhood.

Some might think that 93 years after a significant military misadventure, marking the event is pointless. That’s not how Australians and New Zealanders see it.

Since the first ANZAC Day commemoration, held in 1916 in the West Australian port city of Albany – from which many of Australia’s Gallipoli contingents sailed, some of them under protective Japanese Navy escort; Japan was an ally in World War I – the day has been the national day of remembrance in both Australia and New Zealand.

It is not a day that is marked by militaristic pomp (neither Australia nor New Zealand has an institutionalized military tradition as part of its culture) but rather by pride. Both are societies in which the citizen soldier is the ideal.

The huge crowds which turn out for the commemorations at Gallipoli itself – today a pilgrimage for many Australians and New Zealanders, a modern rite of passage – and an increased attendance at ANZAC Day parades and services throughout Australia and overseas testify to the strength of the legend and the power of mythology. Here on Bali, Australians and New Zealanders mark the day – our uniquely shared One Day of the Year – somewhat more poignantly than elsewhere because of Bali’s undeserved place on the very frontline of the world’s efforts to combat terrorism. It is here, on this beautiful island, that Australians have paid their greatest price in that undeclared war.

That has nothing to do with the original ANZACs – the 21st century is not their world; theirs is a world of the past, very much a foreign country. But it has everything to do with shaping today’s Australia and New Zealand and building in turn the mythology that will inform future generations.

Richard Laidlaw was born in Britain and moved to Australia in 1971. He served in the Australian Army Reserve from 1975-1999.

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