What exactly do we need always to remember?
We do need to remember the valour and sacrifice of men and women who have given their lives and service in the name of peace and freedom. Both my grandfathers fought in WW1 and my father in WW2. We need to remember that freedom is indeed hard won; but harder to honour in peace time, when much effort by many people goes into self interest, greed, domestic violence and the avoidance of civic responsibility.
What we also need to remember is that wars are grotesque, futile, mistake ridden, and the cause of enduring sorrow. Lives are not only lost in war, they are lost in its aftermath as damaged lives find it very hard to adjust to civilian life. Arguably the only war worthy of Australian engagement was WW2. Nazi Germany presented an impossible threat to the peoples of the world.
WW1 was a war in which national and personal hubris dragged countless thousands into a needless conflict of unimaginable suffering and death. The aftermath of the war led to WW2 and in addition it has had enduring consequences in the Middle East a century later. Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories were created and carved up by Britain and France with their interests, not Arab interests, in mind. Half promises were made which could not be fulfilled, but which have set peoples with different hopes and expectations against each other. That Iraq and Syria in particular are caught in a seemingly unsolvable cycle of conflict can be attributed in large measure to outside interference that dislocated the fragile balance of centuries, at the commencement of both the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Vietnam War, The Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan have not contributed to a more stable secure and just world, in fact the contrary. The rise of ISIS or Daesh can be attributed in no small measure to the aftermath of the Iraq war when the Sunni population lost its voice and representation in most areas of the country’s power and administrative structures.
We need to remember too that war is a financial bonanza for one of the largest industries on the planet – the armament industry. The armament industry does not distinguish between friend and foe, a sale is a sale. Saudi Arabia remains a partner with the West in the arms trade, notwithstanding the reality that Saudi Arabia has funded some of 21st century’s worst terrorism.
It is a myth that Australian nationhood was forged at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, many other factors have been at least, if not more decisive. That war and its aftermath was a cause of considerable tension in the Australian community. Australian nationhood has been forged through its vibrant and enviable democracy; the federation of its fiercely independent states; migration; the principle of equality that emerged out of the struggles of the early settlers and the emancipation of the convicts; the courage, endurance and enterprise of the rural communities; and the regular triumph over natural tragedy of fire, drought and flood. All have contributed to the nation that Australia is today.
So why is ANZAC day, by default, Australia’s national day, far more significant than Australia Day, Easter, Christmas, or any other day? Perhaps, despite the continual reference to ‘Australian values’ by the Prime Minister and other leading politicians, the reason is we really do not know what Australian values are and fallback on ANZAC Day as a default position. ‘Mateship’ is thrown around as the great Australian value. But is Australian ‘mateship’ any different from the commitment Indonesians, Turks, Kurds, Greeks or Italians feel for one another. I doubt it. What about a ‘fair go’. I have learnt that in Islamic culture care for the needy and stranger is taken for granted. If there is food in the house, it is there for all. I am not sure that a ‘fair go’ is any more Australian than it is a character of other peoples.
My memory of growing up as a child in the UK is that scattered throughout the year there were many days that celebrated different aspects of our history, culture and values. No one day dominated above others. Remembrance Day was important, but not more so than other days of religious and civic significance.
21st Century Australia needs a variety of days to celebrate values, hopes and aspirations. We should have a coordinated day across all states which celebrate our multicultural and migrant past and present. Our multiculturalism is arguably our great strength; celebrating it with vigour should bury the prejudice, fear and intolerance of popular right wing politics and celebrate what makes Australia qualitatively and successfully different from virtually every other nation on earth.
We need a national day which celebrates the rich culture and history of our indigenous peoples. What has happened in the past is shameful, but we need to move on. There is so much to share and gaps that need to be bridged. Most Australians are shamefully ignorant of the challenges and disadvantages suffered by Australia’s indigenous and equally ignorant of the rich heritage we can discover through and with them.
We should have a day which celebrates the richness, diversity, beauty and fragility of our landscape. The continent is our greatest treasure; it is also our most vulnerable. A sustainability day could see trees planted, parks dedicated, green space celebrated, resources audited and national policies aligned to a sustainable future; the greatest legacy we can bequeath to our children and grandchildren.
Of course we should continue to celebrate ANZAC day, but it alone cannot focus our values hopes and aspirations, indeed it may contribute to a values vacuum based on a myth that Australian youngsters look for at Gallipoli as a rite of passage, while the real issues that will determine their future remain unattended.