Questions of Identity

As a teenager, I learned very quickly that there are some things that you just can’t do in public in Australia. Every year at the end of April, I am reminded of the one that has always stood above the rest: questioning Anzac Day. I remember tentatively expressing my doubts as to its validity and meaning and being shot down, made to feel like I was something sub-human. Once, I was told that I couldn’t possibly understand because I wasn’t born in Australia and my family were only migrants. I quickly realised that Anzac Day was not something I could criticise and have people take me seriously. So I leaned to keep my mouth shut.

But today I saw a poll on the ABC News Radio site that asked whether the ‘Anzac Myth’ truly reflects Australia today, and that the majority of people had answered ‘no.’ The last time I checked, the numbers were at 75%. And so I thought: well, maybe I won’t just shut up this year. Maybe now there is space for me to say something.

The Anzac myth pervades Australia’s perception of its own identity. At least, that is what we’re told – the numbers in that poll suggest otherwise. Australia sees Gallipoli as its birthplace, as the definition of what it means to be Australian, as the place where those quintessential values of mateship, egalitarianism, courage and sacrifice all originated. Questions of identity – particularly national identity – can be incredibly powerful. Yet questioning of the Australian identity, tied up in the Anzac identity, is not something that can be openly engaged in.

Over the years, I have found myself asking again and again who the ‘Australians’ the Anzac myth talks about really are, and whether they still have relevance to who Australia is today. Because when I look at the Australians of the Anzac myth, the ones we are all meant to identify with and be indebted to, I see only a small part of WWI Australia, and an even smaller part of contemporary Australia. I see white, able-bodied men from humble origins in the bush. I see a narrative of race and imperialism and manhood, where Aboriginal people, women, civilians are absent. I see a narrative that  – because of its uncritical acceptance by governments and military and the public – sees these things as more important to Australian identity than anything else in its 60,000 year history.

I think Anzac Day is convenient for us to focus all our attentions on, because that way we don’t have to remember everything else in Australia’s history – especially the unsavoury parts. It makes us forget the conflicts between Indigenous peoples and colonists, the contributions of migrants, even the experiences of soldiers in other wars like Vietnam. As Professor Marylin Lake of the University of Melbourne said in a lecture in 2009:

Amongst other things the myth of Anzac requires us to forget, first, the gender and racial exclusions, the centrality of manhood, race and colonial anxiety to its begetting. Secondly, the long history of pacifism and anti-war movements in Australia, the historic opposition to militarist values in Australia. Thirdly, the stories of national aspiration and identity based in civil and political society, not military society, the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia. And fourth, that at Gallipoli we fought for empire not nation, symbolising our continuing colonial condition.

There is no question that the Anzac myth has a very personal meaning to a large number of Australians. To veterans still living today, to their families, and to the families of soldiers who died in the first world war.I acknowledge that there was a tremendous amount of sacrifice. But I question whether that specific sacrifice was necessarily what allowed contemporary Australia to flourish. I question whether there is a place for me and my German family in the Anzac myth. I question whether the majority of Australians today can find a place in it. I question whether there are perhaps more representative, inclusive, relevant aspects of Australian history to remember in a public holiday, one that can be engaged with by all Australians rather than pedestalling a select few and marginalising the rest.

I wonder what this sort of day would look like. A day remembering multiple peoples and multiple narratives. Perhaps, as a starting point, it could look something like this.

'Lest We Forget' by David Pope.
‘Lest We Forget’ by David Pope.

3 thoughts on “Questions of Identity

  1. For me, ANZAC Day is about remembering the past and present veterans. It brings to my mind too, the assistance that past and present soldiers have needed but have never received.

    1. I find it conflicting that on one hand, WWI veterans are celebrated as heroes, and on the other, Vietnam War veterans and others have been treated abysmally and received no recognition or assistance. I think there is scope in Anzac Day, even as it is, for broad-scale recognition of the costs of war (on everyone, not just those on the front lines, and of every war, not just one event in WWI) and active reconciliation and peace actions. But sadly I don’t see this happening or being talked about.

  2. I’m sure everyone has their own personal spectrum of issues that is wrapped up in all things war, and yes, its a pity we can’t talk about it. But Australians are a defensive lot and, I hate to say it, somewhat black and white in their thinking. That way, things stay simple. And we’re the poorer for it.

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