|Dawn Service at Kings Park, WA.|
Image from Wikipedia
On the one hand, I'm still a foreigner here in Oceania/Australiasia. I feel compelled to tell my friends and family back "home" (?) in the UK what life is like, both in Aus and New Zealand - like a BBC correspondent or Louis Theroux, talking about the language, culture, mindset, the things that matter to people here.
ANZAC Day is clearly and obviously one of them.
But I have problems with ANZAC Day the same way I have problems with Remembrance Day (Armistice Day, 11th November) in the UK. I've already written about White Poppies and 2 minute silences here, 4 years ago. Have a read. I still feel the same.
People who are very patriotic, very militant, or just don't know very much, will say these days are simple and should be simple. Remember our dead soldiers. Be thankful. Don't be selfish. They gave their lives for our freedom, it's really easy.
The problems arise when you think harder and understand that ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day honour soldiers (only soldiers) in wars which were, and are, complicated and political, and that the way we commemorate them is complicated and political too.
Both ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day are about military myths, but ANZAC Day is much more specific: for Australia and NZ, it is about myths of nationhood and nation-building.
While Australia and New Zealand both have separate national days (Australia Day and Waitangi Day respectively), ANZAC Day is more than just remembering the country's war dead. It was born from Australia and NZ's involvement in World War 1, and falls on the day of the Gallipoli landings, where the widespread understanding is that cowardly blundering British generals sent brave Aussie and Kiwi soldiers into a deathtrap.
I'm not going to go into the exact history. But the notion of sacrifice, which is important but vague for Remembrance Day, is absolutely essential for ANZAC Day. The idea of sacrifice is inherent to mainstream New Zealand's and (particularly) mainstream Australia's understanding of their own identity. For many people, Gallipoli and its sacrifice marks the moment both countries became separate from Mother England.
Ironically, the conservative Aussies and Kiwis who believe in this idea the strongest are usually the biggest supporters of Aus and NZ staying part of the Commonwealth and keeping the monarchy.
The service on ANZAC Day is typically at dawn (when the soldiers at Gallipoli were sent forth). I still haven't been to one yet. I'm not going tomorrow morning (in about 6 hours), largely circumstantially. I intend to go to one some day, although mainly as an observer, because like I say, I don't do well with either outdated rituals or glorifying the military, and just like Remembrance Day I believe ANZAC Day is both.
In my liberal, lefty, progressive bubble in Wellington, ANZAC Day was clearly seen as a political issue. But being here in Australia makes the whole of New Zealand look like a happy, relaxed, comfortable family in so many respects, and ANZAC Day is no exception.
In Australia everything is brasher, bolder, harsher and stronger, especially in politics, and certainly around ANZAC Day. When it comes to anything patriotic, Australia resembles our stereotypes of the USA - flags and bunting and parades override any meaningful discussion of national identity, government policy, terrorism and war.
For example, many will say ANZAC Day is a highly inappropriate and disrespectful day to criticise the government over its decision to pay $12bn for 58 fighter jets. (The Age has already removed all mention of this issue from its front page, just 2 days after reporting it, although there is a story on an ANZAC ghost and countless articles on the royal visit.) I would say it's a perfect opportunity.
Surely the best way to commemorate the war dead is to stop making more of them?
So this is why I find it difficult to sign up to ANZAC Day as just another of Australia and New Zealand's customs. In the same way that Aborigines still have no place in Australia Day, ANZAC Day can't just be accepted without question. It has worth, and it is valuable in some respects. But in other ways, it is confused, mythical, questionable and political, just like Remembrance Day.