Anzac as it is

It’s Anzac Day this Saturday. I always think of it as our true national day, the day that truly unites the nation. It wasn’t always the case. We went through a period when Anzac Day was less fashionable, and even had protestors demonstrating against the march a few years, highlighting violence against women in war. Times have radically changed since then, an interesting cultural tale in itself.

I’ve always been on-board with the day. My earliest memories of it are going to the footy and the pre-game ritual of the minute’s silence and the plaintive wail of the bugle. I’d watch occasionally the old diggers march by on TV on their way to the shrine (and even a few years back marched myself with my nephew). I was told stories by my grandfathers while they still lived of their war service. As a boy I was a military buff, so it was natural in any case for me to take an interest. I was also a proud Australian, and this was a day as a kid I felt an indefinable pride – in later years something I was better able to understand and articulate.

Eleven years ago I attended the dawn service at the place where it all started, Gallipoli – a holy place in the Australian culture. I have vivid memories of the day, and count it still as one of the great things I’ve done on my travels. The day means a lot to me.

I try not to be sentimental. Often it’s impossible not to be, but I like to think I cut through it with some intellectual rigour. Sentiment clouds issues. It makes them vague and rosy hued, beneath which the truth, the real meaning of it, is obscured. I want to see things as they are, not just because that is the truth, but also because it’s more rewarding to understand and appreciate the true meaning of something, and not just the rosy hue of it.

I was listening to the radio this morning as conversation turned to the meaning of Anzac Day. People called in to express their opinions, and all of them expressing their support of everything it entails.

I too am in support, but I felt some instinctive unease at some of the language used to describe the day and it’s import. The word that really lodged in me was ‘sacred’, repeated time and again.

I’m hesitant to use a word like that in any context. In a nation like Australia, generally dry in character and overwhelmingly secular, it’s an unusual term to be so easily invoked. It disturbs me in the sense that it seems to elevate Anzac, and all that it represents, beyond the everyday reach of common Australians. A lot of people might say yep, absolutely, that’s what it is – but I think it runs counter to the real Anzac ethos.

We run the risk of over-inflating such an occasion. Like so many things these days an occasion such as this is bloated by rhetoric, exploited and commercialised. I understand that’s the way of the world these days, with culture in large part attuned to it. That’s another discussion for another day, and I’ll accept it as a fact of life.

It’s an important date, and we rightly play tribute to the Anzacs. Is it sacred? It’s one of those words that slips from the tongue too easily. Sacred is personal. When we begin to pronounce it as a national virtue it just sounds over-precious. The Anzacs wouldn’t want that. Our appreciation of the occasion needs to be grounded in the earthy reality. It’s much more fitting to pay tribute to these men and women remembering that we are of them. They’re not saints, just people called upon to do great things in titanic times, in the service of their country. We honour that, but as soon as we begin describing it as sacred we put a barrier between us. Perhaps it’s the need in a secular nation for a spiritual belief. In any case, let us not lose sight of the common humanity of the day, the occasion, and the Anzacs themselves – something we are not separate from, but are inheritors of.

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