April 29, 2013
The Anzac experience
Europe remembers its fallen soldiers on the 11th day of the 11th month. That was Armistice Day, the day on which hostilities on the Western Front ended in 1918. Two minutes' silence is observed at 11am, and in some countries there is a national holiday. In the run-up to 11 November, people buy and wear poppies, and the funds raised support those who have served or are currently serving, and their dependents. In the UK, public figures have to be seen to be wearing poppies. Ordinary people are under less social pressure than in Australia to attend commemorations at war memorials on Remembrance Sunday. Veterans march and bands play solemn music, but it's all rather understated.
Wherever and whenever we honour those who die in wartime, care must be taken to draw a clear line to separate respect and gratitude from militarism. Silent contemplation or sombre poems are appropriate, but political correctness has no part. Or 'poppy fascism', as described a few years ago by a well-known UK television newsreader who was the subject of viewers' complaints after his lapel was bare on air as Poppy Day approached.
This weekend I noticed a piece on independentaustralia.net expressing huge indignation at the selection of a young councillor to represent Blacktown council (in Sydney's western suburbs) at the local Anzac ceremony in preference to a former councillor, mayor and Korean veteran who has represented the council on this occasion for almost a quarter of a century. The outraged author of the piece saw this not only as blatant politicking – the young councillor happens to be a Parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming Federal election – but a slap in the face to Australian troops, 'at best unpatriotic and at worst an act of pure bastardry'. Such an overreaction is at best attention-seeking and at worst despotically nationalistic.
History is sometimes reinterpreted by governments seeking to add gravitas and verisimilitude to the modern context of their policies. The First World War was deeply unpopular in Australia and the debate about conscription divided the nation. No one marched to war memorials until 1965 and even then protests against the war in Vietnam were commonplace. Bob Hawke and John Howard in the 1990s marked the start of the rebranding of Anzac Day: for years attendance at dawn ceremonies had been only for the hardy. Amidst the brouhaha that surrounds the occasion these days, there are some who believe it has been hijacked by politicians and the media who use it to justify Australia's involvement in Afghanistan and its posturing in Asia Pacific as part of the power realignment in the region. Yet others believe it is a ploy by the military to keep them in business.
During my working life in London, if the company employing me did not observe two minutes' silence at 11am on the 11th of November, I would slip out of the office and find a park or a similarly suitable spot where I could sit and imagine how it was for those fighting in the muddy bloody battlefields of Northern Europe. I have always thought far differently about the World Wars than my country's involvement in the Falkland Islands, Iraq or Afghanistan. A man down is a man down, regardless of the cause, but Birdsong by Sebatian Foulks or the poems of Wilfred Owen did more to awaken my sense of responsibility to ensure that such a war should never happen again than any conflict during my lifetime. Along with a million other people, I marched through London on 14 February 2003 to message Prime Minister Tony Blair that I didn't approve of his taking us to war over oil. He didn't listen, and so forfeited his right to my support of the UK's involvement in someone else's conflict merely because I was a UK citizen.
Remembrance Day, for me, has never been about the UK's identity as a nation or its role on the world stage. Perhaps that is because the UK has such a long history. As I watched poppies fall poignantly during the Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall, I thought only of life and death and the futility of war. I would never be less than respectful of those who have given their lives in patriotic duty, but what I believe about their cause and the manner in which I pay my respects are my business.