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Anzac Day: Why not Kokoda « Previous | |Next »
April 24, 2010

If Anzac Day is for many Australians a true and authentic national day---a cathartic moment of Australian nationhood---then Anzac Day has been captured by a new form of nationalism - all the flag waving, the kids chanting ''Aussie, Aussie, Aussie'' and wearing stick-on flag tattoos that often turns into a jingoism that supports military intervetions overseas.


What puzzles me is the celebration of Gallipoli, which represents military disaster for the British Empire, rather than Kokoda, which represents blocking the Japanese advance and the defence of the homeland.
In the National Times Martin Flanagan rightly says that:

the Anzacs didn't die protecting Australia from being invaded. Rather, we were invading a country on the other side of the world - to wit, Turkey - with whom we had no difference as a people outside the larger politics of the day.

Surely the celebration at Gallipoli represents a love of country that is misplaced; it is distorted because it represents fighting another country's wars in a foreign land that does not threaten Australia at all. As such it represents the militarisation of Australian history by the conservatives.

An earlier example of Australia participating in, rather than avoiding, foreign wars fought to further the interests of the British Empire is the Boer War (1899-1902). Instead of remaining neutral, the six Australian colonies and then the new commonwealth government sent thousands of troops to fight alongside the British forces against the two Boer republics. Crazy. Yet Gallipoli and the memorialisation of the first world war, is now a bloated media event. Solemnity has become sentimentality; banality has triumphed over profundity in the contemplation of sacrifice.

In The AustralianTim Soutphommasane writes:

Yet it would be superficial to renounce the Anzac tradition, or even to believe that all things Anzac must involve jingoistic fervour. Equally, it is wrong to believe that any trace of myth must invalidate the Anzac story.To be a nation is to have a common memory of great deeds that inspires citizens to perform still more....At its best, the Anzac legend isn't a narrow myth about military prowess or the virile manhood of an Australian race. One needn't have had a forebear who fought on the Western Front or at Gallipoli in order to engage with the tradition.Rather, the Anzac legend can be an inclusive and unifying story. It symbolises an ethos of egalitarianism and mateship that animates our national life. It serves to remind us that when we are at our best, we are prepared to think about something greater than ourselves, to place duty above interest.

Fair enough. But why Gallipoli not Kokoda?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:46 AM | | Comments (12)


I suspect this is frightfully unfashionable, but....

As part of my routine, I check the site a couple of times a day. So... I am utterly sick and fekking tired of the juvenile ANZAC chest-thumping of the last few days. Holy cow, sometimes it seems like we are trying to outdo America in it's WORST aspects. Is this some sort of "small man syndrome"? Are we trying to make up for some shortcoming we'd rather not talk about? Oh shit... it's a truly pathetic sight....

Placing duty above interest? I'd like to read an argument that Australians fighting in the First World War had some moral duty to do so. Most of the justification I've read for our participation in that conflict rests in a hard-headed analysis of Australian interests. Indeed it's revealing that the stories of the fighting get much more prominence in public discourse than the much more significant national arguments at the time over conscription. Certainly the majority of Australians in 1916 and 1917 (relying on my memory there for the referendum dates) don't seem to have recognised any compelling sense of duty to defend the Empire.

Anzac Day is used by people with a certain ideological bent to embed the belief that supporting the troops is always the moral and righteous thing to do. They pretend it's possible to have a clinical disagreement about the merits of a conflict while simultaneously cheering on the soldiers as heroes fighting in a noble cause. It's pernicious nonsense, intended to overwhelm opponents of military action in a wave of jingoism as soon as the first casualties happen. Never was this illustrated more dramatically than in the grotesque exploitation of the death of Jake Kovco by Howard and Nelson and the whole panoply of the general staff.

I agree that the arguments for admiring the sense of selfless sacrifice are clearer in the case of New Guinea. Yet even here, few Australians are prepared to acknowledge that our involvement in the Pacific War was largely of our own choosing and dictated by our analysis of our interests. We could have followed a different foreign policy in the 1920s and 30s that left us out of the conflict; we were involved because we were allies of the UK, and had troops garrisoning the UK colonies of Malaya and Singapore. One can argue that realistically we had little choice, but it's an argument that rests on interests, not duty.

A touch of Eric Hobsbawm in Tim Soutphommasane's comment.
Why not both events?
Yes, on different levels anzac can be said to reinforce stereotypes and ignore subaltern, gender, class etc- commodification. How have the white armbanders been so callous as to leave out so many "others", in the cause of their "volkisch" myth.
The white heroes of the wars not only stand as exemplars for what makes a real citizen, but represent the aspiration to inclusion of Indian and African troops, people trying to survive in occupied lands, and Aborigines who also stepped up and were then excluded.
Gallipolli and Kokoda are the basis of the anzac parable, a powerful Homeric / Sophoclean tragedy that won't shirk presentation the darker realities of life.
Someone like Simpson, rising above an attempt to destroy his soul at the cost of his life, like wise folk as various as the Germany's reluctant warrior against the nazis, Bonhoeffer, or the diggers shouldering their wounded mates thru the mud of Kokoda,women comforting fellow victims duringthe rape of Nanking: the actualising under dire necessity of the truer characters; genuinely great, in fact astounding people, like Dunlop and Vivian Bullwinkle.
People duck anzac, like good friday the stories present a side of human nature and existence people do not like to contemplate, involving uncomfortable exemplars of what might be actually involved (commitment?) in depicting what might represent a genuine path to authenticity.

I suggested to Suzanne this morning that we could walk the Kokoda Trail as her father had been stationed in Port Moresby during WW2 and she knew little about the events there.

This would, I continued prove both our physical fitness and be a test of our moral character---resilience, self-sacrifice and helping your neighbour. I said that these virtues constitute the Australian way. The media and politicians continually remind us that it is Australians who excel in these virtues (with the implication that many other peoples lack them altogether)

She was not interested. Too much mud.


I just had a worrying thought. Have we actually checked that out patent on "mateship" is still valid? I think the original copyright expired long ago... at about the same time we started blowing our own horn... if I recall.

I have an uncomplicated view of ANZAC Day. I like a parade. It doesn't matter to me whether its gays, the circus or soldiers I will be there front row with the family tomorrow waving my flag.

We have a kokoda walk up here in the gold coast hinterland that is becoming quite popular.

jeez... bugger me sideways...

Headline at reads, "Young people keep Anzac spirit alive at dawn service"

Yes indeed! Because the ANZAC SPIRIT is best encapsulated as being able to get up early and walk through the city!!!!

Oh spare me!

There are many areas of Australian life where the Anglo-Australian male, the ‘Aussie bloke’ that has for so long epitomised understandings of national identity is central. Anzac is but one of these.

Anzac Day still represents the old view of nationhood: the belief that a nation can only be truly borne through the spilling of the sacrificial blood of its young.

"Anzac Day still represents the old view of nationhood..."

Fair enough. But I seems to me...for more and more younguns... that ANZAC Day has come to mean a new and ugly view of nationhood... OI OI OI.