Former prime minister Paul Keating caused a few ripples by suggesting that commemorating the Gallipoli campaign and ANZAC Day is “utter nonsense”. In his view, we were “dragged into service by the imperial government in an ill-conceived and poorly executed campaign … cut to ribbons and dispatched.”
Keating’s comments are basically common sense. It is ridiculous. During the manufactured mourning of a dawn service – lest we forget! – what exactly are we meant to remember? If this was the “birth” of a nation, what type of nation was born?
SBS reporter Scott McIntyre answered these questions truthfully, describing ANZAC Day as: “The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with.” He preferred to remember atrocities carried out by ANZAC troops in Egypt, Palestine and Japan, and he commented on the alcoholism and whiteness of Australian nationalism. For his efforts, he was fired.
Funnily enough, the solemnity of “lest we forget” has become blackmail encouraging us to forget.
Still, ANZAC Day and Gallipoli do tell us something about the birth of Australia.
On the one hand, we got the dregs of the British upper class. Only the most incompetent, inbred and socially bankrupt outcasts were relegated to the Antipodes. Of all the colonies, this was the most desolate and distant. The 2005 film The Proposition captures this magnificently. As Captain Stanley, a reforming police officer freshly arrived from the mother country, says: “Australia. What fresh hell is this?”
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the French bourgeoisie killed kings and established republics. The Americans fought a civil war against slavery and for liberty. Here, rich squatters were comfortable with pragmatism, genocidal racism, gambling and alcoholism (and maybe church on Sunday). Their biggest victory was the defeat of the Eureka Stockade.
And yet, like every ruling class, they need national mythology. While other countries celebrate real victories or humanist ideals, we celebrate the bravery of going to a pointless death. Indeed, it seems like Australian national history has a lot of this: Bourke and Wills, Bon Scott and Harold Holt come to mind.
And they call ISIS a death cult! So, the spectacle of Tony Abbott and the princes Charles and William joining with a few thousand flag-wearing, southern-cross tattooed dickheads as they get teary eyed at Gallipoli should be viewed with disinterested contempt.
After all, our side can do a lot better.
On the other hand, Australia was sent the best of the British lower classes. Chartists, Fenians, early trade unionists like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and the occasional good honest criminal were all shipped here. Thus, we have genuine heroes like Ned Kelly, whose Jerilderie letter is as close as Australia has to a revolutionary manifesto.
Add to this the brave Aboriginal warriors like Pemulwuy or Windradyne. The latter led the Wiradjuri people to resist settlement in the Bathurst region, causing mass panic and the abandonment of a number of outposts.
Much better that we remember these heroes.