Tuesday, April 28, 2015

FRANZAC!

Lest we develop a little perspective (2015) by Pants

This past weekend our cringeometer hit catastrophic. Seat of Pants has been on a media blackout for most of the week as Australia gorged on the banquet of bathos known as ANZAC* Day. It's a kind of la grande bouffe for the soul. Pretty gory for the uninitiated, I don't mind telling you. It's not that I haven't had time to get used to it. These last seven years should have been preparation enough. But somehow, it so wasn't.

In the brief moments when I charitably entertain the possibility that there just might be some sincerity and decorum to these garish proceedings, at least in intent, I am reminded that the Larrikin's End WWI memorial sculptures were hewn by chainsaw. That's right, chainsaw. No disrespect to John Brady, who did a great job. It's just that there is a very obvious disjunct between traditional mourning and well, you know, the unavoidable flashes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that seep into consciousness. There will be Aussies who will say something like our blokes were so tough they might easily have leapt fully gouged from the great hardwoods of our endangered wilderness forests by the magic of chainsaw midwifery. 

Now that the day has safely passed, TQW and I have settled in with a medicinal Chardonnay to approach the subject with our usual forensic zeal. Firstly, to the centenary events at Gallipoli itself. Apparently, there was 'less of the music festival atmosphere' than is typical for the traditional Gallipoli dawn service on this the centenary year of that disastrous allied campaign. Well, that's a positive. The less music-festivity at a day of significant solemnity, the better.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott cut his usual oafish dash. A few days earlier he'd been asked by reporters for his response to the tragic loss of life when a boat carrying refugees fleeing Libya sank in the Mediterranean. He dismissed the deaths of seven hundred or so men, women and children with a desultory, 'well I suppose we should grieve but...' Political considerations clearly prevented him from finishing that sentence to his ideological satisfaction. Nothing was going to stop him from offering up the wisdom of the Australian solution to those European softies before toddling off to shed some tears for people who stopped needing them a long time ago.

Whilst having no compassion at all for innocent families who died desperately fleeing murderous anarchy, he was suddenly brimful of sorrow for the eager young adventurers racing off to invade someone else's homeland for reasons that still aren't clear, even a hundred years later. In his speech at the dawn service, he opined,

We are here on Gallipoli because we believe that ANZACs represented Australians at our best.'

Include me out of that pile of hokum and the gratuitous dodgy grammar as well. Yes, I said hokum. I remember back to the sixties and seventies when ANZAC Day had all but faded away. Back then, there were still plenty of WW1 veterans living, often with the lifelong legacy of horrendous physical and mental injuries. Did we as a nation look after those veterans? Did we fuck! We waited until they were all safely dead to sentimentalise them and wrap tourism packages around their memory. And we're still at it. While the many and various dignitaries were busy misting up over those long passed diggers, stories like this one started appearing in the media. Stories of living veterans of more recent wars left without social or even financial support. Stories of (mostly) men returning damaged and dumped on families unprepared to deal with the trauma which often quickly turned to violence and/or self destruction. Stories of veterans left destitute and homeless. Lest we forget those poor buggers. The Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't even know how many veterans are currently homeless.

Obviously, to acknowledge the present-day suffering of veterans and their families would create a certain obligation to respond in some way. Ooo - messy and very costly. And there'd be thinking to do and, heaven forbid, a display of 'caring' that wasn't merely abstract! Where does one even start? To show some genuine compassion to real, living people who might not even be middle class! Fuck that for a game of soldiers. Our own prime minister couldn't find it within himself to express even a microbe of pity for drowned children whose parents rather arrogantly dared to interpret 'a better life' as one in which their toddlers were not forced to watch as their parents were beheaded.

I reject the ANZAC as my template for courage. I prefer to take as my role model someone like Muriel Matters, the Australian-born activist who devoted twenty years to the cause of women's suffrage in the UK. You want brave? Brave is a woman standing up to oppression alone and contributing to genuine social progress. I would prefer a day of commemoration for the pioneer Australian labour activists who brought the world the 8-hour working day. I would prefer to mourn symbolically the loss of those who fell defending their homelands in the frontier wars that aimed to and nearly succeeded at erasing the indigenous peoples of our conquered and colonised continent. Where, pray, are their memorials? Given the period of conservatism that immediately followed the First World War in Australia, it could be argued that social progress came to a grinding halt and didn't really pick up speed again until the late 1960s. Were we 'at our best' during all those years of the White Australia policy? I think not.

Lest we forget - and we will gladly, unless reminded - that the 'NZ' in ANZAC stands for New Zealand. The Kiwis were there too, apparently, but they rarely appear in the teary vignettes of derring-do that have filtered down through the mists of time to cloud our judgement. New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key appeared at Gallipoli fresh from a faux pas of his own, having been rumbled sexually harassing a minimum-wage female worker. All a big misunderstanding, of course. As he fondled a waitress's hair in full view of his wife and security detail, he is baffled as to how this could have caused the young woman any discomfort. It's grand to know that we have morons-in-chief on both sides of the ditch who'd have trouble distinguishing right from wrong on any day of the year.

PM Key's contribution to the solemn centenary was of an entirely different hue. He mentioned Australia with more than just a passing 'also appearing', which was magnanimous under the circumstances. He not only mentioned the Turkish people but even went so far as to honour them. Clearly, he had some vague sense that a people who had done no more wrong than to be a province in an empire that had foolishly picked the wrong side to be on in a very silly war, probably had some justification in shooting at people charging up their very steep hills in a distinctly warlike manner. He even thanked the Turkish people for putting up with the annual carnival of excess that is the ANZAC ritual. They really didn't deserve a hundred years of yahooing Antipodeans. Most years, Gallipoli is high on the list for tick-box tourists.

TQW - you're rambling again.

Pants - shut up and pour me another drink.

Okay, I'm rambling. Let's see if we can wind up by unpacking some of the beliefs that have sprung up around the supposed ANZAC esprit de corps.  It is widely held in our country that WW1 soldiers were fighting for 'freedom of speech.' Among the peripheral subplots to this year's ANZAC bonanza is the case of the young television presenter who got sacked for a series of tweets deemed 'inappropriate and disrespectful' (unlike the Australian PM's comments re drowned asylum seekers in the Mediterranean or the NZ PM's hair pulling escapades). Among the tweets - which at worst should be considered ill-advised, was one that suggested ANZAC Day was mostly being marked by 'poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers.' I seem to recall studying a highly acclaimed Australian play at school in the 1970s which is based on exactly that premise. If anything, it seems our 'freedom of speech' has been eroded since then. An official requirement to think in a specific way is the mark of a dictatorship, non?

And so to history studies and the web of confusion that seems to inform/inspire a lot of these commemoration/tourism packages. There have been reports, (okay, so we might have peeked), that some young visitors to Gallipoli believe that Australia secured a victory there. (We win everything physical, right?) The Pants household was living abroad in 1983 when Australia won the America's Cup and I've only recently learned that Alan Bond (disgraced businessman and a Brit), described the win as 'the greatest victory since Gallipoli'. We are all and always slaves to the limits of our education. Ma Pants recently related the story of a young person she'd heard of who'd been taught that there had been no victor in the Second World War. That young person took some convincing, by a survivor of the notorious Burma Railway no less, that the Allied forces had 'won' the war.

I get that modern teaching might be aiming for a more nuanced view of conflict but it does seem to me that a basic understanding of the bare facts of geopolitics might be useful if you're planning to stake an entire national ethos on one particular event. Having been around when ANZAC Day had almost gone the way of the crinoline, it seems obvious to me at least that its resurrection amounts to cynical political exploitation to serve a regressive agenda. The ignorant are easily controlled. There are any number of examples of the glaring hypocrisy that is the by-product of ANZAC obsession. The frightening thing is that Australians, on the whole, seem either incapable of recognising these or stubbornly refuse to examine them. Instead, we hound any and all dissidents. Self-delusional mythologising is like a cardiac arrest for the soul. Let's try to remember what it is we're really supposed to be not forgetting. Like oppression = bad for e.g.




* Please be advised that That's So Pants did not seek permission from the owners of this word, the Department of Veterans Affairs, for its use. You may be in violation of some law we don't know about by even reading it without official permission. Pants advises extreme caution.