Relearning the lessons of Anzac Day


13 Apr 2021

We need to turn away from the chauvinistic view of Anzac Day as a celebration of self-attributed ‘Australian values’.

This year Anzac Day falls at a time when we still live in the shadow of coronavirus. The epidemic has been a tragedy for many people and societies. That is true of Australia, too, though we have been spared the massive deaths and continuous disruption experienced in many other nations. The costs of the virus, however, have also been accompanied by benefits. They have pressed us to separate what matters from what we have always taken for granted, and the superficial from the genuine. It is no coincidence that the Black Lives Matter movement and the marches to protest against the toleration of abuse against women in parliamentary circles have eroded community tolerance of systematic racial and gender abuse. These are all part of a wider need to rethink previously accepted attitudes.

That need may also touch our celebration of Anzac Day. Its association with flags, with guns and whizzbang weaponry, with a warrior culture, and with self-congratulation on our perceived national identity, seem superficial. As in Homer’s poem The Iliad where the excitement and courage of battle ebb away as the curtains of death fall over the eyes of the fallen, we shall now be more inclined to see the battles of Anzac through the eyes of those who died both on the beaches of Gallipoli and in the flu epidemic that followed.

In its earliest days Anzac Day was an occasion to remember the dead and, what a North Vietnamese novelist described as, ‘the sadness of war’. It is a day on which to remember both our own soldiers and those whom they fought as alike they lie beneath the earth. As we pray with our New Zealand cousins in thanks for the lives of our soldiers who fought together, we can also join in thanks that in both nations we have largely been spared from the ravages of the coronavirus.

As we recover from the coronavirus, however, there is a risk of forgetting its lessons. It taught us to respect the living – those different from ourselves as well as those like us. We need to extend this respect to the people whom we often treat as outcasts, for example the vulnerable young people who come into the justice system. They are often regarded, even by politicians, as trash and treated in a way that makes them more likely to reoffend.

The effects of this kind of disrespect shows us the ultimate futility of dividing our world into people like us and enemies. This lesson might be pertinent at a time when a romantic view of China as best mates has given way to a clearer view of a nation with its own interests that will sometimes coincide with our own interests and sometimes differ. We also see differences in the values espoused by the political class in each nation and the conflict in each between its spoken values and its practice.

A change of attitudes carries the risk that we shall see China as our enemy, and its people as different and lesser than ourselves. We then congratulate ourselves for living by the values we proclaim as Australian, and condemn Chinese people for not living by their spoken values. China and Chinese people alike become the enemy. We have already seen this risk on display in the pillorying of Chinese business people in Australia and in the growing reports of prejudice and abuse met by Chinese students and their families.

In such an environment it will be natural to return to the chauvinistic view of Anzac Day as a celebration of self-attributed Australian values. That return should be resisted by focusing on those who have died, not only from our own nations, but from all nations.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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