May 2008

Essays

Don Watson

Digging

Anzac Day match, April 2010. © Gavin Anderson/Flickr
A moral equivalent to Anzac Day

Broadcasting from the MCG on Anzac Day a few years back, as the din that always follows the minute's silence and reveille died away, a football commentator remarked with great reverence upon the sacrifices made to defend "our lifestyle". Greater love hath no man than this, that he would lay down his lifestyle for his friends.

In a world as virtual as it is real, where choice seems almost infinite and valued above all things and gratification is never more than a few keystrokes away, the words ‘life' and ‘lifestyle' have become all but interchangeable. Lifestyle is life accented with dreams, aspirations and entitlements, life with multitudes of choices, life going forward - enhanced life. A minute's searching on the web reveals the extent of it: there are lifestyle condoms, lifestyle butchers, lifestyle shops, lifestyle properties and even lifestyle funerals. There is a lifestyle TV channel, a Lifestyle Navy and an Army lifestyle. The food and drink, clothing, health, sex, security and shelter that all previous generations considered the necessities of life are today necessities of lifestyle.

In countries like our own it seems possible that, relative to lifestyle, life has less meaning than it used to. Life is for people accustomed to scarcity, risk and struggle - for losers, if you like; lifestyle is for those who live in apparent perennial abundance and are determined to have a slice of it.

In the midst of lifestyle we are, nonetheless, still in death. We love our fallen with unbending devotion. Bookshops devote whole stands to new books on Australians in the Great War and others since. Thousands of young Australians gather every year at Gallipoli to observe the Anzac rituals with the solemnity of an age much more dutiful than their own. While some trek to the Dardenelles, thousands more attend Anzac Day services at home. Our leaders, who have never fired a shot or had one fired at them, fashion platitudes to suit the task of tying sacrifice and slaughter to a prescriptive set of contemporary Australian values. "We are fighting now for the same values the Anzacs fought for in 1915," John Howard said at the funeral of the last Gallipoli veteran, in 2002. These values he named as "courage, valour, mateship, decency ... a willingness as a nation to do the right thing, whatever the cost".

He may as well have emptied his old sock drawer on the cenotaph - but war always did encourage vapouring in non-combatants. To be sure, every good Australian soldier holds with courage, valour, mateship, decency and doing the right thing. But, had they been asked, good Turkish and German soldiers would have held with them too. Sitting in his trench in Belgium, Corporal Hitler would have held with them, along with all the good British, French, Russian and American soldiers fighting on our side. If the meaning of Anzac is to be found in these values, our legend has hardly an original feather to fly with.

In truth, the soldiers went to the Great War much as soldiers always have: for all manner of reasons, personal as well as patriotic. And, as always, as much as they fought for something, they fought against what they took the other to be. They were for Australia and the British race and the British Empire, and they were against Germany and the German race and German imperial ambitions. As Bill Gammage found in his classic study of their letters, The Broken Years, "By 1914 most young Australians had thoroughly learnt an adherence to war, race, and glory ..." They knew where their duty lay because they had been taught it, and they looked forward to getting the can-opener into the Turk and the Hun.

Forty years or so ago, Australians' relationship with Anzac was less assured. Whatever spirit had possessed the old soldiers on the battlefields of Gallipoli, Belgium and France, on Anzac Days it seemed to consist in roughly equal measure of sad reflection and even sadder jingoism; of men haunted by the experience of war and men bent on crushing any deviation from the nation's xenophobic norms. Anzac was a great day in the nation's life. It was also the day when tensions in the nation's (male) psyche bared themselves a little, and it was this that attracted the playwrights.

Now the original Anzacs are dead and the survivors of World War II are all in a mellower stage of life, this ambivalence has faded. The old soldiers have reached from the grave and regained their grip on the country. Schoolchildren learn flag-flying and "positive" Australian history. They are told what the modern military is told when it departs for foreign wars: that the values of the Anzacs are the eternal values of Australia (and its alliances), that we fight in Iraq and elsewhere against terror for these values and that to deviate from them is to be less than Australian.

Yet if we take seriously the many soldiers who have written memorably on war, values seem to have nothing to do with it. The seminal French historian Marc Bloch knew a lot about war and not only because he had made intensive studies of it. He led a platoon on the Western Front in World War I; aged 53, he fought against the invading Germans in 1940; and until his capture, torture and execution by the Gestapo in 1944, he was a leader of the French Resistance. It is recorded that his last words were "Vive la France!" Yet in his memoir of the Great War, he wrote: "I believe that few soldiers, except the most noble or intelligent, think of their country while conducting themselves bravely; they are much more often guided by a sense of personal honour, which is very strong when it is reinforced by the group."

Bloch having been a short French-Jewish intellectual, the Australian World War I historian and Anzac auteur CEW Bean might have thought of him much as he thought of the German-Jewish general Sir John Monash - which is to say, not much. But Bloch knew at least as much about war - and patriotism - as Bean, and Bean could have no argument with his conclusion. For in describing what makes his beloved poilu, the common man, an uncommonly brave soldier and a member of a brave battalion, and how one depends upon the other, Bloch may as well be describing Bean's Anzacs. It was for the honour of their battalions that those brave Australian (and other) soldiers often said they fought; it was to their battalions that they felt the deepest loyalty; and it was in the battalion, "our father and our mother of unforgettable years", that the legend took shape.

In his memoirs, the Civil War general and American president Ulysses S Grant wrote in a vein similar to Bloch's. Grant did not believe the nation should celebrate the anniversaries of victory or mourn those of defeat. War was too complex a business, the behaviour of men too ambivalent and contradictory, and the reporting too unreliable to be reduced to anything that could be semaphored with a flag or a cliché. "Truthful history" was the best tribute a nation could pay: history that did "full credit to the courage, endurance and soldierly ability of the American citizen, no matter what section of the country he hailed from, or in what ranks he fought".

Grant's memoirs contain brilliant descriptions of battlefield strategy and, unlike Bean's, sudden, graphic accounts of men's heads and limbs being suddenly torn from their bodies. But in Grant you won't find any values beyond military values, unless you take his condemnation of those who whipped up the frenzy for war as a condemnation of their values. He fought in one war, the Mexican-American, for a cause he despised; and in another, the Civil War, against a cause he thought "one of the worst for which a people ever fought". But Grant was the least sanctimonious of memoirists. He did not dwell on causes, good or bad, but on what the situation required. As much he admired his own, he admired the Mexican and Rebel soldiers for the qualities that are admirable in all soldiers: for how well they fought, how well they faced death, what moral heights they rose to. From Homer on, all good writing about war shares this admiration and wonder: it is the outlook that allowed the expatriate Australian Frederic Manning to write in one of the very best novels to come out of World War I, Her Privates We, that the slaughter was "magnificent" - as a "moral effort".

There are many good reasons to be wary of military legends, especially those that have escaped the exploits from which they descend. They can be used, for instance, to propel a country into futile and destructive wars. They can do a lot to keep a population stupid, or encourage them to live in the belief that they possess unique values which are not in fact unique and which they do not in fact possess. They can create a collective consciousness bound by falsehood and even fantasy: such that new generations lose touch with the fact that people from other countries fought just as bravely and with equal effect and paid an equal price; or come to think, as John Howard appeared to, that the legend and truthful history are the same thing. In fact, any truthful history of the Anzacs would contain countless examples of men who went to war for reasons more mundane or self-interested than patriotic, along with ample evidence that they were notorious for killing prisoners and wounded enemy soldiers, for "ratting" the enemy and for "souveniring" from the enemy dead. As Gammage says - and Grandad's letters slyly reveal - "many of them" killed "brutally, savagely and unnecessarily". Great warriors frequently do.

No one would want the country to forget the wars or fail to honour those who died in them. No historian can think it possible that a war in which 60,000 of the 330,000 volunteers died and whose effects still wash down through families and communities could be forgotten, or begrudge Les Carlyon the hordes of readers his epic books attract. No one can read them and no one can stand on those battlefields and regret the fact of Anzac Day.

The feelings are no doubt sincere. The ceremonies continue to be moving, the rituals as rich in meaning as they were at the beginning. But what is being remembered on this day of remembrance? Anzac Day began as a day for the soldiers who returned to remember those who did not. This was a principle in keeping with what countless soldiers have written down the years: that only those who have been in battle can know what it is like, that the experience of war demands things of a human being that no other experience does and creates one who is different in certain ways. It creates bonds of a certain kind.

It is inevitable and no bad thing, necessarily, that Anzac Day has been taken up by people who don't have the soldiers' experience. But the day's been second-guessed. The more politicians and media commentators talk of the values of Anzac Day, traduce it for convenient contemporary instruction and daub themselves with the soldiers' moral courage, the more like a kitsch religion it becomes.

If we want to keep the pathos free of politics, the bravery unconfused with acts performed in a swimming pool or on a football field, the sacrifice kept sacred and not submerged in the narcissistic puddle of modern lifestyle, we need to take the Anzacs not for idealised images of ourselves, but for what they were. Which is to say, soldiers: colonial soldiers, educated to believe in the cause of the British Empire and trained to do their duty at any cost. They were not some pre-conscious version of us, and if they fought on behalf of our modern lifestyle or our national identity, it was only incidental. Study them and they will disappoint our vanity. Search for the heart of Anzac and we might not recognise it.


The American philosopher William James was a man of peace: not a pacifist but an opponent of the militarists who around the turn of the last century were as hyperactive in America as they were in Europe. By 1906 he had decided that the only way to win the argument with the warmongers was to "enter more deeply" into their point of view. We should begin, he said, by conceding the military virtues: discipline, duty, honour, "intrepidity", "contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command". "All the qualities of a man acquire dignity when he knows that the service of the collectivity that owns him needs him." This much of the militarists' point of view the anti-militarists should allow - and then they should propose, instead of war, its "moral equivalent".

This moral equivalent, in James's scheme, would be "a conscription of the whole youthful population, to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature." The rich no less than the poor would be sent to the mines, factories, fields, the fishing fleets; to build roads and tunnels and skyscrapers; to wash clothes and dishes and windows. Thus "the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would follow." Youth - gilded and ungilded - would "get the childishness knocked out of them", without having life knocked out of them as well. They would be made better citizens, society would prosper - and militarists would no longer be able to say that only war can bring out the best in humanity. It was a fair point then and an even fairer one now, when American administrations fight their wars with poor conscripts and private armies while the middle classes get on with their lifestyles.

We might think about it too. If we must see the Anzacs as our saviours, the wellspring of our identity and soul, let us enter into a more honest relationship with them. We may as well turn Amish as try to lead the lives they led; nor can we go to any kind of war resembling the one they fought. But we could recreate the civilian militias in which, after 1910, they had been obliged to serve - everyone from the age of 12 to 26. With a few modifications, we could do it again. Women and non-"British" residents must not be left out this time, and 50 is the new 30, after all. So let's say every Australian between the ages of 18 and 48 could be, for a time equal to the average tour in World War I, a civilian Anzac.

Let those who are suited to soldiering learn how to do it. Let those who are not engage in the moral equivalent, submitting to military rigour not in a war against Nature as James recommended, but for it. Let battalions of citizen soldiers answer the bugle calls of climate change and environmental degradation. They can fight erosion, salt and evaporation. Let rabbits, cane toads, water buffalo, mynah birds, carp and pigs be their enemy: arm them against every feral animal, and let them deal with the corpses. Send them to fight against blackberries and willows on the banks of the streams, the forests and gullies. Give them tanks, solar panels and recycling devices to install. Let them plant trees. By all these works they will be drawn closer to the land from which in legend the Anzacs came, the apotheosis of the bushman and the pioneer.

Formed into battalions and platoons, they can supplement the ranks of firefighters and other emergency services; they can be the coastguard; they can supply essential human care to the aged, the infirm, the lonely, addicted and homeless. In remote Indigenous communities they can meet the chronic need for well-motivated administrators, builders, plumbers, mechanics, health workers and horticulturalists, replace criminally neglectful bureaucrats and parasitic contractors, and teach such basic skills to the inhabitants. Let the citizen militias do it; and in doing so learn from Indigenous Australians some of their knowledge of the place. They can volunteer for their service abroad, especially among the underdeveloped countries of our region, and do wonders for the dispossessed and our country's reputation.

The deeds of such a citizen militia might transform environments and bring hope to despairing communities. But if the Anzac myth holds good, the more radical effect will be on the people serving. They will pick up skills, gain experience of discipline, lose weight, and learn something of duty and what it means to sacrifice; the chances are that few of them will face death and have to give up their lives, but they will all have to give up their lifestyles.

For at least two years every maturing Australian will be separated from the supports or dysfunction of family and enter into a situation where the fortunes of birth, and privileges of wealth and school, will count for nothing. Children will be liberated from the ambitions their parents have for them, and parents from their needful children. They will be cut off from shopping. All other lifestyle addictions, including career resumés, will be abandoned. Every draftee will be obliged to trade at least a portion of his or her narcissistic self-possession for the interests of the group and the common moral effort. And all the while they will be coming to more nearly know what they mean when they say "Lest We Forget."

Legends are never like the people who believe them, of course, or for that matter the people who made them. But a people truly devoted to a legend will be willing to prove the truth of it in experience. We could put the proposition to the vote: ‘Are you in favour of the government, in the spirit of Anzac and its values, having the power to compel all men and women between the ages of 18 and 48 to sacrifice their lifestyles and serve the commonwealth for a period of not less than two years?'

It's an outrageous idea, of course, and no one should take it seriously.  The cost alone is unthinkable. Then again, we might get a better return than we got on 60,000 dead from a population of 4 million. (That's not counting the wounded, those who died young and those who were traumatised for the rest of their lives, with consequences passed on to their children.) And weird though it is to think in these times that the country needs regimenting, it might not be as weird as taking into the twenty-first century a legend of warrior mates with which the society has about as much in common as Kevin Rudd has with Dad Rudd and Brendan Nelson with the vice-admiral of the same surname.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

Cover: May 2008

May 2008

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