Monday, April 27, 2009

Lest we forget

I was talking to a publisher recently about possible subjects for future books. There are so many books about war, soldiers, battles and so on, why not a book on the peace movement, I suggested.  The Anzacs, Simpson and his donkey, Vietnam, the Western Front...these subjects are catnip to awards judges. But the peace movement? My publisher friend just laughed.

"If I wanted to throw away money," he seemed to say.

Such thoughts were in mind in the lead up to Anzac day, the one day of the year. It is not I look forward to. Sure I love a footy match as much as any, but I feel uncomfortable with all that unquestioned acceptance of authority. 

My unease about the way we mark war was there again recently during my first ever trip to Canberra. A friend works for the War Memorial; its education program is experienced by more school children than any other cultural institution in Australia. Canberra seems built for grand parades, though its no Champs Elysees. The money expended on memorials, sculptures and buildings marking our war history...it's all just a bit over the top. 

Anyway, my thoughts on why I don't get Anzac day crystallised yesterday listening to this lecture by historian Marilyn Lake. Commemorations like Anzac day are not only acts of remembrance, but of forgetting, also, a highly selective version of history, one that smoothes over difficult passages, the conflicts that go on in the making of history. Anzac day itself has a particular history, one not unconnected with the political influence. Howard was particularly adept at wrapping himself in the flag. It is the selective remembering of war and what war is that makes Anzac day one that I find very hard to love indeed.

3 comments:

thelittlestranger said...

Well said, Mike. I have ambivalence about the current commemoration of ANZAC Day too. Doubtless many will call me an Australia-hating latte drinker for saying this, although in reality I’m neither. I’m all for the act of remembrance for those who have risked or lost their lives in past conflicts. This is important as we’d do well not to forget the destruction of war. However, the day now seems to involve aspects of romanticising war - particularly the Gallipolli campaign. From what you hear sometimes, you’d think that Gallipolli was a sweeping military victory. Countless calls to invoke the “ANZAC spirit” cheapen the occasion too. I will always be prepared to pay my respects, though, as there is otherwise much to respect and remember.

Penni said...

My dad served in the British navy in world war 2 and he never participated in Anzac Day, partly because he wasn't Australian when he was fighting, but also because he didn't actually believe in glorifying war. I grew up listening to 'And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda', I think there was traditionally a deepseated cultural ambivalence to Anzac Day which for some reason is diminishing - because we need the myth (about Australianess, or masculinity or heroism)?? Not sure.

I listened to a fascinating radio programme ages ago and then relistened recently, about Conscientious Objectors during world war 2 who undertook an experiment in starvation, I thought it was a fascinating juxtaposition and would make a great basis for a novel. Here's more info:
http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/T/tucker_great.html

Mike said...

Some of these feelings are also shared by others. Ruby Murray says it better over at Eureka Street (thanks Kirsty).
http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=13175