They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Tomorrow morning many of us will wake in the dark to early alarms and make the devoted trek to a Dawn Service at one of countless events held in parks and amphitheaters around the country.
We will stand in the chilly pre-dawn air bearing poppies and wreathes. We will sing the Anthem and recite the Ode. We will listen to the Last Post and maintain a minute’s silence with a shiver on our skin.
Australians are devoted to the ANZAC legend. It is a source of national pride, a symbol of our gratitude and a demonstration of our deep enduring respect for the men and women who won us our lucky freedom.
Far from a celebration of victory, like other wartime anniversaries such as Remembrance Day, ANZAC Day pays tribute to the beginning of a long and bloody campaign waged on the Turkish Peninsula that ultimately failed in its objective. It’s not a celebration, it is a commemoration: a moment to consider what it really means to be an Australian.
Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of Anzac, with its human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.
This ANZAC tradition is not one we take lightly. Almost every Australian town, no matter how bijou, will have an ANZAC Park with a memorial dedicated to the men who lost their lives on that day, or who fought in some war at some point in the history of our small but wiry nation. It represents for us not only the integrity of Australian mate-ship but more importantly what we, a small and relatively insignificant nation, are capable of when we band together and put our shoulder to the wheel.
Like most Australians I am fiercely proud of our ANZAC history. Even though I’m several generations removed from the First World War I am immensely moved by the ceremony and what it represents.
My grandfather was a naval engineer in the Second World War. ANZAC Day attendance was an annual requirement in my formative years, a meaningful day for our family, blurred in my child’s eyes by the mystery of time and the greatness of the past. As I grew to understand the true scope of the event it only became more significant and more incredible to me. It’s something that was part of the fabric of my life and the life of my family.
And yet on this, the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day, I am led to ponder the nature of the cultural tributes we pay to our wartime history. Most Australians will have seen the movie Gallipoli at some point in their lives, a beautifully understated and shockingly realistic depiction of the journey young men faced when they left their hometown for the battlefront. Yet the most recent retelling of the event, a well-produced mini-series that aired on Channel Nine, struggled to compete in ratings with inane reality TV shows.
What’s wrong with us? Some commentators believe that the more removed we become from the experiences of war, the less new generations care for remembrances such as ANZAC Day. I disagree, having taught in many schools where students are intensely aware of the significance of the occasion. And yet if society is somehow losing perspective on ANZAC Day, isn’t that our fault? As Australians it’s our responsibility to keep our remarkable heritage alive in the social and cultural consciousness of our own nation.
Unlike many nations around the world, our military history is actually something to be proud of. We have never initiated a conflict with another nation and yet we have always come to the aid of our allies when fighting for peace and the civil rights of cultures and nations far removed from ours.
Our soldiers are renowned for their strength, resilience, loyalty and commitment. Despite being such a small nation, in many ways we have a greater fighting spirit than countries far larger and more powerful than us.
And yet what are we doing with this incredible part of our identity? Many Australians are more familiar with the conflicts of the USA or Europe than that of their own homeland. Simply because of the amount of cultural currency we attribute to the exploits of other nations compared to that of our own.
I have no doubt this is largely because of long-entrenched national identity problems such as the ubiquitous Cultural Cringe, somehow wrapped up in our ridiculous obsession with self-deprecation and achievement-avoidance known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome.
In reality, we are now better known around the world for these two insecurity issues than we are for the actual reality of our nation’s history and achievements. How absurd.
In fact, how shamefully embarrassing. Do we have such a low opinion of ourselves that this is the legacy we have created? Or do we just care so little about anything that we simply can’t be bothered?
As I think about it now I find it utterly dumbfounding. I’m frustrated by the lack of understanding we have about our own significance and our own cultural strength. I’m angered by the subsequent lack of understanding that this generates in the eyes of the world. Why don’t we celebrate our history? Why don’t we make it part of our identity? Why don’t we think it’s even worth the value of artistic effort?
In truth there’s a vast disconnect between our world stance and our true national identity. And it’s our fault. What are we going to do about it?
We owe it to ourselves to retell the stories that shaped our identity as a nation, to learn how to celebrate our achievements instead of hiding them behind false modesty. Really, we owe it to the world to stand up and own our history, to reverse the negative legacy we have built for ourselves.
But most of all we owe it to the men and women who made possible the freedom we enjoy today, and upon whose sacrifice our identity is built.