Observations on Anzac Day

Anzac day is when Australians and New Zealanders remember their casualties of the first World War and other conflicts. It has become a defining event for the sense of nationhood of the Australians and solemn commemorations are held all over the country. Sharing the same background (some ancestors on the English side of my family fought alongside the Anzacs on the Western front), I find it a great tradition to remember the horrors of that war. It is also an event that is fascinating as a social scientist. Some observations:

  1. A lot of the commemorations are state-sponsored via the Department of Veteran affairs. This department is running out of veterans to take care of, but has over the years increased its budget for commemorative services. It is actually quite hard to figure out just how many of the various ‘budget posts’ should be counted as commemorative, but at best guess we’re talking about half a billion dollars and rising. One of the reasons why Anzac day appears to become a bigger and bigger event as time goes by might quite simply be that it is a way for an existing ministry to spend surplus resources on its budget.
  2. The ‘message of Anzac day’ has changed within Australia over the decades to suit the morals of the day. I was at the Anzac celebration of the school of my kids, with military commanders giving the assembled quiet and disciplined kids the supposed reasons for why so many young men died in WWI. The story these kids were told was that the Anzacs died ‘for tolerance’, ‘mateship’, ‘standing up to bullies’, and more of those values we hold dear today. The kids were basically told to follow the social norms of current day Australia as a means of honouring the memory of the fallen of previous wars. I don’t have an inherent problem with this, but do note as a social scientist that such statements take liberties with the truth. At the time of WWI, appeals were made on the basis of ‘God, King, and Country’. In the intervening century, God and King have been axed from the moral appeal, but ‘the Country’ is still there. Also, tolerance and anti-bullying were not really a big thing in the 1910s when Australia was still a very ethnically ‘pure’ country and bullying was an institutionalised accepted reality in schools. Anzac day is hence a bit like going to church on a Sunday: the book of yesterday is reinterpreted to prop up the moral code of today.
  3. The ability of kids to imagine themselves part of a group that extends over the centuries but that they are not objectively part of is quite remarkable. At a guess, maybe 25% of the kids at the school commemoration will have had actual Australian ancestors involved in WWI, but they all somehow identified with ‘the Australians that went to war’, even if both parents were Chinese or African. It is simply an amazing thing how easily kids adopt stories of cultural continuity as their own even if that story has no real bearing on their actual personal histories. This imaginative capacity is not in any economic model I know, but clearly underlies our sense of identity and hence underlies important economic variables too, such as our willingness to pay taxes for ‘this country’.
  4. The ‘message of Anzac day’ is different in different countries. Where I grew up, i.e. Western Europe, a big message of similar commemorations was the pacifist spirit of ‘J’accuse!’, which was the historic quote from Emile Zola that was also the title of a French film in 1919. It means ‘I accuse’ and one of the characters in that film explains it to mean ‘accusing the war… accusing men… accusing universal stupidity’. We were told as kids that WWI was one of history’s most stupid mistakes started by leaders who get themselves into a mess because their pride wouldn’t allow them to back down, and fought by gullible enthousiastic populations who thought of war as something exciting. The message we were told was that people should not blindly follow their leaders, but should think for themselves and question the logic of going into conflicts just because the conflict exists. Interestingly, there is almost none of this pacifist message left in Australia, though perhaps it was there and has simply been lost over the decades. Indeed, the kids at the school I went to for Anzac day were told to be silent, obedient, and to take it on faith that Australian men lost their lives in droves for a good cause. There is hardly any mention in Australian commemorations that it lost the flower of its nation to a pointless mistake on the other side of the world, lead by foreign commanders (such as Winston Churchill) and not even by one of their own. I must say that I find it curious that Australians are not far more critical about the leaders they blindly followed into WWI (as well as later on) but make excuses to exonerate the mistakes of those leaders and allies, even when the populations of those allies themselves are far less forgiving.

I hence like the idea of Anzac day, but miss the pacifist message that WWI was one of the biggest f-ups of the last century and that we should think for ourselves and question the wisdom of following leaders blindly into battle.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

10 thoughts on “Observations on Anzac Day”

  1. I’m still trying to figure out how Australian soldiers ended up in Iraq. Obviously once the US requested our participation we probably couldn’t really say no. The WMD story never made sense to anyone who did even a cursory search for information and experts where able to explain why it was extremely unlikely if not practically impossible for Iraq to pose the kind of threat to Western countries that they were made out to be. So has anything much changed on the gullibility front? The difference is that the soldiers are professionals.

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  2. So, you seem to be saying – in a very respectful way – that ANZAC ceremonies have become government-funded propaganda to encourage today’s children to fight in future, pointless wars that they have no inherent stake in.
     
    And that’s a good thing?

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  3. My translation is that the bureacracry has taken on a life of its own. Reinterpreting national myths for successive generations seem to be expensive.

    It’s interesting to note that VA is a cabinet-level department. Maybe they can’t trust the Ministry of Defence to run veteran services well.

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  4. Dave,
     
    the good thing about the ANZAC propaganda is that it engenders a sense of national identity and propagates the idea that our kids ‘honour the memory of our fallen’ by following social norms I approve of (mateship, tolerance, etc.).  The bad thing is that it doesnt push the pacifist message that ‘our fallen’ died because of sheer stupidity and that we should be wary of similar stupidity in the future. Instead, the propaganda would seem to lead us into repeating the same mistake. I am not against using ANZAC day for propaganda per se, but want it to serve a better mix of outcomes.

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  5. Paul, the fallen did not all die out of pure stupidity, some did. The alliance system that existed in the run-up to World War 1 was complicated, but there is little doubt that of the major powers, Germany was the most aggressive proponent of war. It is also the case that had the UK not participated in the war, Germany in time would most likely have had a complete continental victory. While there were follies committed in Gallipolli, and more Australian died than necessary, Australians made a vital contribution to the war effort on the Western Front. Anzac Day is about more than just what happened on Anzac Cove. World War 1 may have been a “collective” mistake of the Great Powers, but once some countries were committed to war, it would have been an error for Britain (and Australia) to have stayed out.
    So, remember the collective folly in this instance, but also remember that wars are somtimes both necessary and just.

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  6. Paul
    Excellent post — really interesting.  I used to think that WWI was completely pointless.  More recently, I have joined the group who see a single conflict in Europe in 1914-1945, with a big break in the middle.  The 30 years war, 1618-48, Western Europe’s bloodiest war as a percentage of population, was two major periods of campaigning with a tense armistice in between and we think of that as a single conflict.
    The 1914-45 conflict put an end to Prussian militarism.  It is hard to know how the militarism that was at the centre of the new German state from 1866 onwards could otherwise be contained.
    The leaders of Germany from 1866-1945 were not just mis-understood nice guys.  I am not sure that a massive conflict could easily be avoided.  So, I am more reluctant to heavily criticise the leaders who took Australia into WWI.
    What should the British and Australian Governments have done in the years leading up to WWI to prevent the catastrophe?  I guess if we want to make the pacifist argument to our kids, the answer is that Britain and Australia should have disarmed in the face of Prussian aggression.  But pacificism aside, what should those governments have done?
    Cheers,   Sam Wylie

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  7. ANZAC day is fundamentally a pacifist day, although that message may be being diluted over time.  The day was effectively chosen by veterans and the population, and chosen particularly because it was the aniversary of a stupid mess and not a glorious victory.  For decades after WWI, state and national governements refused to make it a holiday because they thought it was not a worthy thing to remember, but the population increasingly started to observe it under the slogan “Lest we forget”.  The population didn’t want what happened to be forgotten.  Eventually governments had to give in.  If anyone wanted to make something patriotic from it they would have chose the anniversary of one of the victories later in the war.  Whenever I’ve explained to foreigners what happend on the day in 1915, they’ve all thought it a strange thing to comemorate.
    Everything I’ve ever been told or seen commemorating ANZAC day describes the pointless losses and horror of war.  I didn’t go to your child’s ceremony, and quite possibly there are peolpe who make something different than what I see out of it, but I also think there are a lot of generalist statements that can be interpretted lots of ways as there were when WWI started.
    I don’t see any glorifying of war on ANZAC day, but perhaps I see things more through the eyes of my Grandmother who’s father died in front of her as a three year old girl two weeks after he came home.
    However you interpret things, the fact remains that the day was chosen by unauthorised popular defacto observance, and it was on an anniversary of a day of pointless horror at the start of a campaign of pointless horror.  That will remain the case, and hopefully remind people of the facts.  Judge the day by what it is – not by some military man speaking at a school.

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  8. For the second time in two years I have come back from Gallipoli – not on a tour, but as an independent (and somewhat ageing (65) walker – just day after day through the scrub in this most amazing, hauting, national park – just one huge cemetery really.  I have also walked many areas of the Western Front.  I used to be a pacifist.  I demonstrated against the Vietnam War.  I am older, wiser, have opened my horizons rather wider than Australia and have walked and walked and studied the battlefields.  Can I suggest that you consider this before making judgements?  You just might change your mind (as I did).

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