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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Anzac Day imagery and 'young Australia': national identity and the need for heroes

I recall when the defining image of Anzac Day was a shot of craggy faced old diggers in uniform, slouch hats on their heads, medals on chests, marching with pride, many pushing their comrades in wheelchairs. Now the media is saturated with images of young Australians, standing on the beach at Gallipoli, in over-sized sunnies, hoodies and beanies, 'tattoos' of Aussie flags painted on their cheeks, themselves swathed in the Australian flag, like this image here and here. While we've still seen images of veterans on parade, flags being lowered, hymns being sung, and soldiers playing two-up, pictures of young people participating in Anzac Day services, particularly at Gallipoli, have proliferated in the Australian media in recent days. Admittedly, none of the original Anzac diggers are left, and there are fewer veterans around from other campaigns. But I'm curious as to why we weren't seeing more images of the young Iraqi veterans at Anzac Day events? And why the media wasn't taking the opportunity to tell their stories. Perhaps because Iraq is a war Australia shouldn't have fought in and hence once they want to forget? But Anzac Day had come to symbolize so much more for Australia than just Gallipoli - it was always an opportunity to commemorate the fallen from other wars. So why, I'm wondering, when Australia has fought so many other battles, is there now a focus on Gallipoli and on young Australians making the pilgrimage there? When, how and why did Gallipoli begin to inspire young Aussies?

Some revealing comments come from Australia's politicians who joined the grief tourists in Turkey
- an act itself that's an indication of how important the event - and being seen to participate in the event - has become to Australians. Interviewed at Gallipoli, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said: "There was a very good crowd of young Australians there, I think reflecting that these days it's both a commemoration of those that lost their lives... but also a celebration of some of our national characteristics and values and virtues." Smith explained what those were: "The great Australian notion of a fair go, of looking out for one's mates, of a sense of humour in adversity, and the sure and certain knowledge that however bad circumstances might be, there was always someone else worse off who needs a helping hand." He said: "Short moments on the beach, and long months in the trenches, in conditions of the greatest adversity have taken on profound significance over time - they now say something about our characteristic as a people and our spirit as a nation." And: "The soil on which we stand today has extraordinary significance for our people and our nation," he said. "It is a place of terrible loss, solemn memory and now immense national pride."

As an Australian who has been away for a decade, I'm struggling to understand when and how
Gallipoli took on this "extraordinary" meaning for Australians. New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees, who was with a school group who travelled to Gallipoli on a Government scholarship, said: "Anzac days at school often had real diggers from the wars come and talk. With the last digger dying 10 years ago that option is not available for the new generation of students." So because the Anzac diggers have all gone, the kids go to Turkey instead? As a travel writer, I'm grappling to understand how a new generation of young grief tourists has formed, but perhaps this statement by Australia's ambassador to Turkey Peter Doyle is the most revealing: "The Anzacs … helped to tell us who we are, we created their legend, and made them our heroes," he said. Ah-huh...


Sandy O'Sullivan said...

Yeah it's a funny one, eh? It's not just happening in Aus, the UK has a very similar thing going on... and it seems to be both a response to immigration (or backlash, or something equally creepy), and an opportunity to define the boundaries of country. I really struggle with this. For all that I've spent a lifetime having a problem with nationalism, I don't hate the notion of being proud of a country... but pride in an imagined set of attributes is nonsense and it really is about reviving the idea that the term Australian can be defined... and definitions always exclude, ya know?

The flag stuff totally gets me. When we were growing up, the flag was something to be made fun of. The only people who didn't was, you know, my dad and Ted Bullpit who remarked that he 'died for that flag'... it was a bloody joke... and it was actually, by virtue of the stupid friggin' union jack on it, a reminder of EXACTLY what happened at Gallipoli, which was that Australians and Australia were treated like a resource to be marked and used.

Now if we had a flag that had actual meaning, I might feel differently about it... but probably not... again its not the flag, it's the sentiments behind what it means to use it... and just like America post-911 when I spent five months driving around regional areas, and saw a lot of flags being used as both a weapon and as a defense (in Moscow, Idaho a motel run by some guys from Pakistan had the flag out the front and when I asked them about it, they rolled their eyes and said that they didn't want to be targeted). Yukk stuff. The concept of a flag is nice. But in my life, I haven't felt nice about the Aussie flag, and the history and the union jack is just one of the problems... again it's this odd sentiment. Very strange.

I think the other thing that amazes me is just that my original feelings about the flag really had to do with the times... usually when you are involved in unpopular wars, this kind of seething resentment arises, nationalism gets challenged... and, you know, I grew up in that Vietnam war (and post) moment... but yeah, far out, we have that now... so I really don't get it.

I reckon the grief tourism is a void filled by a lack of religion or interest in religion. It's the thing that you do when you can't be bothered going to a church on your travels... I think its still all about entertainment. I don't think its about actual grief.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Sandy

I'm glad I'm not the only one who is uncomfortable with this. You're right. I'm sure it's all about re-defining and reinforcing what's Australian to some (and by doing so excluding others). Because I've been away for so long I'm wondering if it might have all had a kick-start with the Sydney Olympics... people I meet and things I read often talk about a newfound pride developing them - but of course this is urban East Coasters - the rest of Australia is a different world, isn't it?

Agree re the flag. It was the same for me, and my friends, especially at uni, which is why I find this so odd - but it's a younger generation, isn't it?

I think you're right about the grief tourism to a certain extent, but I also wonder if there isn't real grief there for that generation that has passed - the grandparents and great-grandparents - and a nostalgia for that era they represented, you know, when life was so much more simpler, when there was less 'evil' in the world, etc etc

I've noticed that Australians seem to be obsessed with all things retro at the moment. If I see one more cup-cake I'm going to go crazy! And I think the U.S was experiencing the same moment too. I'm hoping it will change under Rudd and Obama - that people will start looking forward rather than backward - but it seems to be taking a while...

I'm still intrigued by the resurgence in grief tourism though... because I'm reading that it's not only Turkey, but also a new interest in the Kokoda trail and other war destinations... it's all very interesting, don't you think?

Thanks for your comments! :)

Mark ("Travel Wonders") said...

I think the resurgence in interest in Anzac Day and so forth will actually help tose who are fighting in Iraq and prevent them from being obstracised like those who returned from Vietnam were. I hope and believe that it educates people that Australians continue to be involved in wars (evil and unpopular wars at that in some cases) and we have had troops in the Solomons, Iraq, East Timor, Afghanistan and probably several other locations in just the last decade.

That being said, I do agree with you and hope that Rudd and Obama and others will allow us to look forward more and make decisions with vision and not pray for a 1950s Australia.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Mark

But for us, having lived away for 11 years, Australia now feels like a 1950s version of itself what with its obsession with cupcakes, nostalgia and making babies; everywhere it has a small-town feel - even in the cities. For us, Australia feels so much more insular and parochial than it did in the 1990s. Watched the Logies last night - very depressing stuff!

Mark H said...

Interesting - I was away for 4 years in the early 1990s but maybe that wasn't long enoguh to get such a feeling. Sadly, I do think that Howard and some bad policies made us more insular - and the Logies, aaahhhh....

Lara Dunston said...

It is interesting actually. I do sense the place will open up more under Rudd.

I'm hearing lots of people pan the Logies, which I'm rather pleased about!