Back when I was in high school I planned on getting a tattoo. Specifically I planned on getting the Southern Cross, the five stars that adorn the Australian (New Zealand, PNG and Samoan) flag. Probably on my shoulder. Maybe my calf. Not important. Anyway, at the time the idea behind the tattoo was to demonstrate that I was an Australian and, more importantly, proud of that fact. The Southern Cross had after all long been a symbol co-opted by Aussie culture (despite the fact it is visible across the Southern Hemisphere) from the flag flying above the Eureka Stockade to the plane flown by Charles Kingsford Smith on his record-breaking journeys. Then the Cronulla Riots happened.
To my great and continued shame in the weeks before the riot I supported what was going to happen. I’d heard that a pair of surf lifesavers had been beaten up by bunch of Lebs, and I wanted to hear that those bastards got their heads kicked in for harming an Australian icon. A ‘fight’ was planned. Rumours spread a small army of Lebanese youths were going to descend upon the beach so good, honest Aussies better turn up in force. Other rumours said it was going to be a fairly multicultural affair, with Greeks, Turks and even a few ‘good’ Lebs joining up with their white Australian brethren to beat the shit out of those who were violently refusing to assimilate into our culture, our way of life. I may not have participated but I didn’t have a problem with it happening, and for that I am sorry. I was a fuckwit. I strive to be less of one now.
It did turn out to be a multicultural affair, since there was a pretty multicultural range of victims. A few thousand white morons rocked up to Cronulla and proceeded to harass (at the very best) and violently attack (at the far too frequent worst) anybody who looked remotely brown or ethnic, including Greeks, Turks and Lebs, while a thin line of brave police threw themselves in front of the mob. Watching it on the news and hearing the stories afterward you couldn’t help but be horrified at the thought of a bunch of arseholes wearing the Australian flag attacking their fellow Australians in a misguided attempt at avenging the perceived wounding of an Australian icon. Shitheads looking for an excuse to attack folk they already considered un-Australian.
The anger, the resentment, the disillusionment, the isolation of the communities that had been attacked was visible and raw. It was not the first time that nationalism was used to excuse senseless violence, but it was the first time I’d seen it and its results from more than an academic perspective. For someone who’d always associated the national identity with their own, it was a hell of a learning experience.
This past April 25th marked the centenary of Anzac day, one hundred years since thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, not even a year into the First World War, at a spot that we’d come to call Anzac Cove. Over the last century the mythology that has developed around Australia’s involvement during the eight month campaign has become a key part in defining the national culture, and I would argue that this mythology is the linchpin upon which most Australian nationalism is built. We don’t have the long histories of art, architecture and enlightenment that many other nations have. We are a young nation. We have our military history, our sport, our bushrangers and then a host of things to be ashamed of like the Stolen Generation and the White Australia Policy. When we have little in the way of widely and regularly discussed positive national mythology to start with, it should be no surprise that what we do have has been latched onto to by the national consciousness. Especially when they refuse to talk about the ‘fun’ parts of colonisation (I’d recommend John Birmingham’s Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney for that) and both pre and post-colonial Aboriginal culture (instead of, I shit you not, the literal bones left behind at a turn of the 19th century butcher’s shop that counted as the ‘Australian content’ of the high school ancient history syllabus).
The key word above is mythology, because make no mistake the popular memory of Anzac Day is far more taken by the stories and legends of the campaign than the actual history. Simpson and his donkey rescuing wounded men until he was killed (he was one of many, but the only one whose name is commonly remembered). The incompetent English landing our brave lads on the wrong bloody beach. The incompetent English soldiers playing a game of football on another beach while our brave lads were butchered capturing Lone Pine (mind you there were plenty of English troops getting butchered at different beaches at the same time as well). The incompetent English officer who decided that the Light Brigade should empty their rifles for a good old fashioned bayonet charge at the Turkish machine guns (actually it was an Australian officer, but that doesn’t make for as good a movie). Aussie troops playing cricket between artillery shells on the rare bit of flat land. Two-up. Mateship. The Anzac Spirit. Humour in the face of adversity. Courage under fire. Service and sacrifice. Warrior larrikins. The baptism of blood from which our great nation was forged or united or whatever. Good stuff. Maybe. Depends.
That bloody waste of life attempting to take the Dardanelles from the Ottomans has become our origin myth, with the Anzacs standing besides the USA’s founding fathers and Civil War leaders, the UK’s Winston Churchill and (literally on the other side of the battlefield) modern Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk as the referential arbiters of the national zeitgeist. We talk about the Anzac Spirit and what the Anzacs fought for with the same kind of conviction that Yank pundits bring to arguments about what Ben Franklin’s opinion on the gun control debate would be. Bringing up the Anzacs is a quick way to add credibility to a statement, argument or ideology. We make bold claims about what they fought for, what they would be ashamed of, what they would be proud of, their preference for lamb over tofu. There are few higher honours than associating ourselves (or our brands) with the Diggers of wars gone by, when we can get away with it. Can’t always, thank god and the law for that. This is of course failing to mention when some bastard on a bus (or train) decides to inform some poor family that the Anzacs fought specifically to keep out anyone not born on the British Isles.
Of course it’s not just the Gallipoli myth that’s used to justify or underpin Australian nationalism. Charles Bean, Australia’s official historian during the Great War, arguably did more to construct the image of the noble Australian sheep-shearer-turned-warrior courteously gunning down Germans with one hand while refusing to salute with the other than any other correspondent at the time or since, and he believed that it would be the battlefields of Passchendaele and Fromelles that would become the great Mecca for Australians coming to pay respects to their honourable dead, not Gallipoli.
Others point out that far from uniting the nation in a baptism of blood the Great War actually did more to divide it, as the reasons for entering the war (loyalty to Britain, the mother country) and the (failed) referendums over conscription split the country along class, religious and ethnic lines (that can more or less be described as “English vs Irish”). It is far easier to claim that the battles of World War Two did far more to unite Australia than the First did. The Siege of Tobruk where the second round of Anzacs earned a reputation for ingenuity and attack dog enthusiasm for a good fight. The Fall of Singapore, which shifted the mentality of many Australians away from “still a far flung British colony” to a nation that couldn’t keep relying on mum and had to start looking out for itself. The Kokoda Track where the Japanese Army was beaten for the first time, by soldiers referred to as “Chocos” because it was expected they’d “melt like chocolate” upon contact with the enemy.
The debate over which conflict should take precedence in the country’s collective consciousness is one argued by nationalists and national leaders. I’ve always been partial to the Light Horse Brigade’s campaign against the Turks in the Middle East myself, particularly the Battle of Beersheba (called the Last Great Cavalry Charge for a reason). Keating tried to push Kokoda as the fight we should focus on during his tenure as Prime Minister. But when I hear pollies talking about which bloodbath we should remember most fondly I can’t help but remember a few of my old history (and geography) teachers, back in high school, who’d joke that since it was a Liberal PM (sorta) that won the First World War and a Labor PM that won the Second neither party wanted to admit the other war happened (I myself am a bigger fan of Billy Hughes than John Curtin, mostly cause I’m a sucker for anyone who takes the piss out of an American President at important negotiations deciding the fate of the world).
Even the brutal battle at Long Tan during the Vietnam War has entered the positive national mythology. Gallipoli is still king though, and that’s not likely gonna change any time soon.
At university ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Nationalist’ became dirty words, usually shorthand for some reactive leader, party or ethnic group responsible for half the unspeakable acts of violence over the last century or two. The “great disease of the twentieth century” as one of my lecturers called it. After all, it was the actions of a handful of nationalists that lit the fuse that started the Great War, and nationalist pride that allowed it to detonate so spectacularly. Or it became shorthand for the very mockable ignorant jingoists who live in perpetual fear of societal collapse, y’know, the kind of folk who took Pauline Hanson’s warning of an Asian invasion seriously, or who recently piled onto streets around the country (with their swastika-wearing kin) because some jackass reckons that Halal Certifications are being used to funnel money to ISIS or some such shit. Fucken ‘Straya cunt. At one point during a course on religion and violence, when looking at religious nationalism, the tutor asked us to raise our hands if we identified as Australians, identified Australia as our homes. Two people did, and one of them promptly dropped it when he found out that not identifying with any nationality, being a “citizen of the world” so to speak, was an option.
I might sound cynical. I tend to sound cynical. It’s part of my sense of humour. I blame my parents for letting me watch too much Blackadder growing up (though you could argue there’s no such thing). The thing is I am a nationalist. I always have been and likely always will be. I was the guy in that class above that kept his hand up (I remember jokingly stating that the rest of them could “get the fuck out of my country”). There was a time when I tried different labels, like ‘patriot’ (which carries its own clichéd baggage), but the substance hasn’t changed. I identify as an Australian first and foremost, and embrace the heritage and history that comes with it. Good or bad. I still call Australia home an’ all that implies. Living across the world on another continent with a different culture, sports and traditions, I have embraced this identity more than ever. I’ve fallen back on my accent, old slang and old profanity more than I even did back home. I talk about it every chance I get. I love Canadian beer, but I use it as an excuse to talk about Australian beer more than anything else. Poutine’s alright, but you really wanna get a meat pie inta yah. Stuff baseball, cricket’s way better. Good god I miss Aussie coffee, as I keep telling people. And thunderstorms. You can bet that when Anzac Day rolled around, I was happy to talk to anyone who asked about what it meant, and meant to me.
Because I’m proud of what I am. There’s an argument against national pride that effectively amounts to “why be proud of an accident of birth?” The fact that I was born in Australia and not some other nation was random chance, why should it matter that was where I came from? Add to this the fact that I’m the son of immigrant parents (my dad was born in Iraq, mum was born in England, they both came to Australia when they were kids), so I don’t even have that strong a claim over Australian history and heritage. I don’t have a grandfather who was an Anzac or a great-great-grandfather who arrived on a convict ship. Definitely don’t have any First Australian in me. But I’ve never felt this argument had much credibility. I am proud of Australian culture and history because it was part of creating who I am today.
I like who I am today, or at least who I try to be. I hope I’m a good person, though that’s for others to judge. I definitely strive to be one. This is because of the people that raised me, my parents, family, teachers and friends. It is also because of the culture that raised me. Like so many kids growing up I sucked up the mythology around the Anzacs every chance I got, and loved every bit of it. Good or bad. The virtues I aspire to are, rightly or wrongly, tied into that mythology. Egalitarianism, giving everyone a ‘fair go’, mateship, generosity, determination, humour in the face of tragedy, grace in defeat, sacrifice. These are all ideas that are embodied somehow within the mythology of Anzac Day. The Anzac Spirit. They might not always be the best virtues to aspire to, but I aspire to them nonetheless.
Now I’m not saying that other countries and cultures don’t produce good, noble, virtuous people. Nor that our mythology has a monopoly on any of those things above. I’m definitely not saying that Australia and Australian nationalism hasn’t produced more than its share of cunts (see the story at the beginning). That would be fuckin’ stupid. I am simply saying that if I can be called a decent person (and as I said, I hope I can), I can be proud of the people, places and culture that made me that way. I can be proud of my identity.
About six months to a year after I raised my hand and got a few laughs telling everyone else to fuck off, a friend from that class brought it up in conversation. At the time, she said, she’d felt like she was closer to being an Italian than an Australian, identified more closely with her family’s heritage than with that of the country she’d grown up in. This changed after actually going to Italy and learning, explicitly, that she was not Italian. After that, she told me, if asked the question again she’d raise her hand. She’d come to the conclusion that she was an Aussie. It was not her whole identity, she was not a nationalist, just that she identified as Australian.
National myths, especially the ‘origin stories’ as I’ve heard them called, are often problematic. They’re often bloody. There is the mythos around first the Revolution and then the Reign of Terror from which Modern France was born. The long, bloody civil war in China against the Kuomingtang and Japanese invasion that ended with the Communist victory. The US Civil War which divided the nation then sort of united it. Kemal Ataturk’s successful defence of the Dardanelles against the Entente invaders, as I mentioned above, and the rise of the Young Turks as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Turkey we know and love emerged.
It seems you need a “baptism of blood” to inspire a nation’s existence, self-worth, values and purpose. Dumping a bunch of crooks onto a beach (guarded by another bunch of crooks) and telling them to build a city, or a bunch of old white men convincing other old white men that maybe life would be easier if everyone on the continent shared in a common defence, immigration laws, currency and rail gauge doesn’t exactly excite the popular imagination the same way that a brutal assault on an easily defined ‘other’ for politically malleable reasons, full of daring do and a healthy dose of sacrifice. As I said, we haven’t got much else well-known history that isn’t a dark stain on our national soul.
As far as these baptisms go though, the Gallipoli campaign and the legend of Anzac isn’t too bad. Yes, they don’t really provide us with the cast iron legal foundations upon which our nation is built in the same way that The Revolution gave France “Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité”. But the mythology also doesn’t carry around the same sort of baggage that many other nations and cultures have to (or refuse to). Not like the problematic aftermath of the US Civil War, where the courage, bravery, sacrifice and determination of the Confederate soldiers defending goddamn slavery is still honoured by Americans on both sides of the line. And, while definitely not all angels, the Anzacs certainly don’t carry the weight (or have to live in denial) of a genocide round their necks like the Young Turks do with their treatment of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Greeks and other ethnic groups. (Of course there is far, far too little official recognition of the Frontier Wars that plagued the Black Australia pre-and-immediately-post-Commonwealth during white settlement and expansion, something that needs to be fixed).
Both the strength and weakness of any mythology is that it is open to interpretation by the popular conscious. Anzac Day certainly has its problems, like the glorification of war, the often one-sided hagiography of our returned and fallen servicemen and women, the commercialisation of commemoration, and the militarisation of Australian culture far too frequently used to create, justify and enforce a dangerous attitude of ‘us versus them’. But we can also use it do great good as well. It’s taken us long enough to admit that there were probably a fair few Aboriginals in the ranks, and that when they returned they were probably treated almost universally like shit (taking us another fifty years before we stopped treating them as part of the local fauna), but whose general experience of army life was one of equality of pay and treatment. It’s a history that can push a simple message through the thick skulls of white Australia: if the Diggers didn’t have a problem with indigenous Australians, then how bloody dare you? Well, it should be simple. One day we’ll get there. Then one day it might not even be needed.
Deconstruction of the myth is a necessary thing, and there are many great examples floating around academia and journalism worth reading. But reconstruction should not be ruled out if it can be used to promote the best values of our culture. We learn from history, but we’re inspired by legends. We need to make sure we’re inspiring people in the right direction.
The non-Australians I’ve met and know are frequently surprised by how we act on Anzac Day. Yes, there is commemoration, as should be expected of the day but there’s just as much celebration. We mark Anzac Day with drinking and gambling, going to the pub to play two-up, punctuated by moments of contemplation. So different to the sombre ceremonies and minute of silence on Remembrance Day. I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. It might seem disrespectful, but isn’t a healthy irreverence one of those traits that we, ironically, revere about the legendary Anzac? We’re certainly quick to step in when someone comes off as overly disrespectful, and it keeps things in perspective. We celebrate the lives of those who went to war for us, still put the uniform and still go to war for us, rather than mourn the dead. It keeps the focus on those who fought for us and still fight for us, rather than on those we fought. War is hell, but peace is great, and most of us have been able to only enjoy the latter because a few have suffered through the former. Maybe it still sounds disrespectful, maybe I sound disrespectful, but I don’t believe that’s the intention. I think, at worst, it’s the only way we know how to do things.
Is that a problem? Maybe. I don’t think so. But I might be part of that problem.
I know the dangers of nationalism. I know the problems its caused. The wars it’s started. I’m not trying to excuse it. Simply trying to explain my own.
I didn’t get that tattoo. There were more than a few marking the skin of those draped in Aussie flags slinging racial slurs and informing the world that the Anzacs fought for Cronulla Beach, that the Lebanese had no right to come and interfere with an imagined social order. The Southern Cross tattoo, at least in Sydney, found a secure place on the uniform of the angry, discriminating Bogan. I’m not saying that everyone who bears that icon is a racist, they’re not, I know plenty who aren’t, it would be ridiculous to make that claim. But in my mind and those of plenty of others including the members of my Middle Eastern, dark-skinned dad’s family, it became part of the stereotype of the ignorant, racist bastards that make their presence known every so often in the worst possible ways. It’s not the worst part (the violence and abuse that makes people feel like outsiders is), but the fact that they try and legitimise the behaviour, legitimise the hate, with a claim of defending Australian culture, the Australian way of life, leaves me angry.
Because I’m an Aussie nationalist. I love the positive parts of that heritage, accept the bad, apologise and promise to always do better. To accept everyone who looked at Australia, or even arrived without knowing better, and decided it seemed like a decent place to live.
A decent place to live, which we can be proud of. That might not be what the original Anzacs fought for, that might not be what our current Diggers fight for. But it’s something I ascribe to the myth. That’s what I drink to on Anzac Day.
Hope that makes sense.
Thoughts and prayers with those currently serving, and those that have in the past.
Quick note: this is not an academic article or an extensively researched piece of writing. Mostly I’m just working off memory. There’s probably more than a few factual errors, and there are a definitely a few half-truths. This is a personal opinion piece, and no disrespect was intended towards most of the folk (live or dead) I mentioned in this post that I didn’t refer to with profanely. I have a sarcastic way of writing and talking.