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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Anzac Day, sacred moments, and the revival of Australian nationalism

It's the Anzac Day long weekend here in Australia, and as an Australian who has lived overseas since 1998, I'm finding the experience an odd one. While I appreciate the tragedy that was The Battle of Gallipoli and the pointless loss of lives, particularly those of the ANZACs (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp) who were sent to slaughter, I feel completely disconnected from the sentiment that an increasing number of Australians, especially young Aussies, are feeling. According to media reports this weekend, there was a Big turnout for Anzac Day marches (ABC) and Thousands of young Aussies pay homage at Gallipoli (Brisbane Times). In Aussies keep the faith on Anzac Day, Sydney Morning Herald reporter Doug Conway writes: "A navy chaplain called it "a sacred moment" - dawn on April 25, when a nation remembers the 1.8 million Australians who have gone off to war and the 102,000 who never came back. On the 94th such sacred moment, Australians showed that as the ranks of veterans dwindles, so the numbers of those honouring them swells. In cities and towns around Australia, at Gallipoli and on the western front, in NZ, PNG, Britain and the US, tens of thousands were urged to keep faith with the Anzac spirit." While I'm open to experiencing "sacred moments", this one passed me by. I spent the day at my desk writing, feeling little duty or desire to attend an Anzac service or parade. I'm not even sure what it means to "keep faith" with the Anzac spirit, nor what that 'spirit' is, because the 'national character' it was meant to capture has eluded us on our recent travels here. I'm not so sure that it exists anymore - if it ever existed at all. Perhaps it's because I've lived 'away' for so long and travelled so much that I feel (as pretentious as this might sound) more a citizen of the globe than of one particular nation. And I like it that way. I like being 'globalized', feeling 'international' in spirit. I know what that means. But I don't understand nor do I like the spirit of nationalism that seems to have swept Australia, the ugliest 'ism' of all. It's one that in Australia I associate with the Cronulla riots and many Australians' unquestioning support of John Howard, George Bush and the Iraq War. So while I appreciate the need in human beings for "sacred moments" and I understand how Anzac Day tourism has developed, in the way that any form of dark tourism or grief tourism develops - although to be honest I'm not even sure that's what's happening when Aussie backpackers visit Gallipoli - I am deeply uncomfortable with the revival in nationalism among young Australians.


A Girl in Asia said...

Hi Lara 0 interesting topic, am curious to see what kind of responses you get! While I don't think there's anything wrong with commemorating the Anzacs I do agree that Anzac Day seems to have had its meaning lost among SOME people (not all), i.e. bogans using it as an excuse to gather together, be 'patriotic' (cue flags draped on shoulders and painted on faces) and drink! Which is precisely why my parents who visited Gallipoli last year (to pay their respects to a grave of a relative) purposefully avoided visiting on Anzac Day - to avoid all the bogan Aussie backpackers that congregate and supposedly trash the place. I don't know if they (the backpacking masses) really care about the Anzacs or if it's just some kind of herd mentality and rite of passage to visit Gallipoli. Something about the Anzac spirit seems to have been misinterpreted, even lost, along the way.

Lara Dunston said...


Well, no comments other than Sandy's thought-provoking response (see above) and your equally inspiring one. I better go back to writing about itineraries and Dubai - only joking!

Look, I totally agree with you. And I find the idea of it being a rite of passage and herd mentality fascinating - is it just something that's in fashion? Is this generation looking for more from their holidays than beach bars in Bali? Interesting stuff...

Thanks for commenting!

Mark ("Travel Wonders") said...

I can't agree with your post. Yes, there are some ugly Australians that gather in "rite of passage" locations as much as there are ugly other nationalities that do the same. However I do believe that there has been a marked change in attitudes - much greater interest in tracing our forebears, mcuh greater interest in Australian history (I learnt English history at school and I am only in my early 40s now) and a greater interest in Australia's part in the world. I attended an Anzac Day dawn service with some good friends inluding an 11 and 9 year old and they had an excellent understanding of Australia's war history and what it meant to Ausralia at the time. I personally wouldn't go to Gallipoli on Anzac Day but spending a spring morning (alone for part of it) in the European/Australian memorial near Villers-Brettoneux was a moving and special time that will stay entrenched in my memory forever.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Mark

Look, I totally agree with you that it's not only Australians who behave in this fashion - the NZ media, and Kiwis who were at Gallipoli last week reported on appalling drunken behavior there by fellow Kiwis.

And I'm not painting all young Australians with the same brush. Sure there are young Australians who are interested in our history and commemorating the Anzacs but it seems there are also a lot who aren't who are simply going to Gallipoli for the booze-up with their mates and wearing the Australian flag in the same way they'd wear a footie jersey to a match. (I'm obviously not talking about 9-11 year olds - but 20-somethings.)

I guess we're about the same age. I'm 41 and my senior high school education at a public school on the Sunshine Coast in Qld was appalling (thank god I had done correspondence school in my junior high school years as we travelled around Australia!) - disinterested teachers, even more disinterested students, and a very passive, old-fashioned approach to teaching-learning. I only did well academically because of the preparation, nurturing and exposure to 'other' history, politics, social sciences, art, literature, etc, that came from my family. So my point is that my history syllabus was probably very similar to yours - very Anglo-Saxon, everything began with the First Fleet, and very much focused on battles and wars. It wasn't until my first year of university in Sydney that I learned about Australia's rich Aboriginal history and I was enlightened. How appalling.

It's for this reason that I'm uncomfortable with the passion with which young Australians seem to be embracing the Aussie flag and Anzac Day and this new spirit of nationalism. Because it seems to be at the exclusion of their Aboriginal history and culture (of which most Australians still appear to know very little about) and the rich multicultural aspects of Australia which I think are what really make us who we are. I simply don't relate to this idea of a national identity that I read about in the papers over the Anzac Day weekend, and that I saw represented in the media - and I don't know anyone else in my age group who does. I've been away since 1998, so to me it seems like we've stepped back in time almost... and, in view of the degree of racism that exists in Australia, found across the country, in big cities and small towns, I find that a little scary.