By Alice Barricadas
Today is a sad day.
It is probably a good thing that the hundreds of old men, who used to line the pub walls on ANZAC day as an act of both remembrance and to forget, are mostly dead. Many of them like Alec Campbell, the last ANZAC still alive in 2002, were incredibly uncomfortable being lauded by toffy conservatives looking for votes. Whatever Australian-ness was during his time, and it was many awful things, flag-waving haughtiness was not one of them.
Campbell was the secretary of the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Workers Union. In his latter life, he knew all too well what Howard was trying to do by encouraging a rabid nationalism, using the ANZAC story to promote a right-wing agenda.
Speak to somebody over 35, and they will fill you in on how the expensive fanfare now put on by the government every ANZAC day, is only a relatively recent phenomenon. The coming ANZAC centenary celebrations starting in 2014, will cost something in the order of ninety million dollars, complete with USSR-style military re-enactments.
Back when the ANZACs were still alive, a commemoration for the dead turned into a celebration of nationalism and war, always ran the risk that an old “digger” or two might speak up about the hypocrisy of it all. Of course governments have always used war-stories to further their conservative agenda, but it is telling that the operatic explosion of ANZAC day did not take off until most of the actual participants were long gone.
As we get further from the past, the better it can function as a mythology written by governments, with nobody left to contradict them. As Orwell said, who controls the present controls the past. I’m sure that in fifty years, we’ll be hearing about how the whole nation was united in support for our diggers in Vietnam.
No story better encapsulates the blatant lie of nationalist unity promoted during the annual ANZAC day celebration, than the story of Simpson and his Donkey. Kilpatrick (Simpson) was a revolutionary and anti-militarist, who only signed up to the army in order to get a free ride back to England. Hence using his middle name Simpson. He intended for ‘Simpson’ to disappear when the ship got to England where they were headed for further training. He got a nasty shock when they were diverted to Gallipoli, where he refused to do the dangerous job of being a stretcher-bearer… hence the donkey.
The vast expense of historical cover-up and myth-making, is in order to encourage more young people to sign up to die, just as they did 100 years ago. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have little in common militarily with WWI, there is this striking similarity: these wars have absolutely nothing to do with protecting our freedoms or making the world a better place. They have everything to do with the geopolitical significance of the countries that we have invaded. And, just like Gallipoli, which was promised to the Russian Tsar by the British should the Australian and New Zealand invasion have been successful, Australia holds Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan for the benefits of a foreign power (foreign to us, and Afghanis), the United States.
The sad thing about ANZAC day is how the state uses the legitimate emotions of people who have been through the traumatic experience of war, to create a celebration designed solely to win recruits for the next useless war. I have an uncle who was drafted for the Vietnam War. He is quite progressive, in his way, and has said as much that the Vietnam War was an imperialistic crusade Australia should never have been a part of. But he still participates in ANZAC day, as a way to commemorate his dead friends. People like this shrug off the politicians, while those who point out the futility of war before, during and after the useless conflicts are fought, such as the draft resisters, are barred from any participation. An anti-Vietnam activist giving a talk about the immorality of the war and why they resisted it, would be cast as “too political”, while an army officer invading schools to tell children what an honourable thing it is to join the army, is said to be neutral.
As the ANZAC centenary approaches it may be pertinent for us to turn our minds to creating an alternative to ANZAC day, some kind of Anti-War ANZAC Day. It has been tried before, but perhaps we should try harder. An attempt to do this should actively seek out and include anti-war activists from past conflicts, as well as people who have been to war and know how shit it is first hand. It should be an event that achieves in reality what ANZAC day pretends to do, by providing a truthful account of war, remembering the dead, the immorality of war, as well as the futility. In other words remembrance and reflection without promoting the next war. Anti-militarism makes up a large part of the history of anarchist struggle, especially during WWI when the broad anarchist tradition was one of the few socialist variants to remain committed to its internationalism. It is also a good way for us to reach out to a wider audience. I think there are plenty of people out there who are tired of seeing their grandparents’ memory being used as an expensive recruitment strategy for the armed forces. While seeking to broadly appeal, we should insist that the organisation of such an event remain fiercely independent of both the state and capitalist interests, whose only interest is to promote war.