Two years ago I wrote an anti-ANZAC piece for Junkee. Here’s a coda of sorts.
Two years ago Junkee published a piece I wrote on the legacies of ANZAC. Although Junkee reposted it, my timeline was blissfully free of Anzackery this year. Perhaps it bombasitcally burned itself out during the centenary of 1914, and, just like in 1918, everyone is just exhausted now.
Two years on, I’ve noticed a few subtle signs that the anti-ANZAC sentiment is maturing, and the backlash from conservatives is losing steam.
The first signs that the debate is shifting was this list of Aboriginal massacres that a friend shared on Facebook. Another friend later shared a Guardian piece from July last year that contained a map of massacre sites. It’s markedly different, and I think more useful, than the attempt in 2017 to commemorate “Black Diggers” — that is, to try and stake out space in the positive narrative of soldier-citizenship for Aboriginal men. Instead of trying to make black men unthreatening by dressing them up in the trappings of the loyal citizen-soldier, the listing of black massacres tries to capitalise on the white appetite for sympathetic suffering on April 25th. When better to mark Aboriginal lives lost during the violent colonisation of the continent that on a day where we’re all told constantly not to forget the impacts of war?
It works well because settler colonialism is in part a practice of deliberate forgetting, summed up in the legal fiction of “Terra Nullius”. We’re ultimately not too far removed from Keith Windschuttle’s claim that this history was “fabricated”. These assumptions inform a political climate where a powerful conservative commentator can ask a researcher of the Stolen Generation to “name ten” Aboriginal people separated from their families as part of refusing his claim. If I can’t remember them, he’s saying, they can’t have suffered too much.
In a strange coincidence, another friend posted a link today to a story about the first ever lynching memorial that will shortly open in Montgomery, Alabama. Based on the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, it’s about recognising a campaign of white supremacist violence perpetrated by US citizens on their most marginalised neighbours. According to the article, the sheer number of lynchings where the victim remains unidentified — forgotten — is “harrowing”. Given some citizens of Montgomery were still defying pressure to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee in July 2017, and that the city still has a high school named for the Confederate hero, it seems all the more fitting that the lynching memorial will open there.
This sort of monument owes much to #BlackLivesMatter. But both the lynching memorial and efforts to remember masscres of Indigenous people argue that black deaths matter, too. By insisting on the memorialisation of settler colonialism on ANZAC Day, or the acknowledgement of slavery and its consequences in the Confederate South, the authors of these memories and monuments are marking out previously ungrievable lives as grievable, and pointing out the unequal distribution of suffering that has made white people comfortable for many, many centuries.
Making white soldiers — the perpetrators and beneficiaries of violence on non-white bodies — into its victims instead helps to short-circuit historical inquiry, and foreclose empathy with the real victims of white violence. To erect a counter-monument is to not only bring other suffering to light, it’s to expose the continued mythologisation of white suffering from the past as trite and chauvinist.
Ifollowed the public profile of David Morrison, ex Chief of the Army, with some interest, because of his commitment to critiquing the mythologised soldier. His successor, Angus Campbell, has been trying something similar, but he doesn’t have Morrison’s radical zest. Campbell sent a memo on the 17th of April asking that “‘death’ symbology/iconography” be removed from formal or informal use by Australia troops. It was picked up by the News Corp papers on ANZAC Day in lieu of a proper controversy. The memo singled out the Skull and Crossbones as symbolising “martime outlaws and murderers,” the comic book characters the Punisher and the Phantom as “vigilantes,” and the Grim Reaper as the “bringer of death”.
Campbell argued that such symbology may not be “ill-intentioned,” but that it is “always ill-considered and implicitly encourages the inculcation of an arrogant hubris and general disregard for the most serious responsibility of our profession; the legitimate and discriminate taking of life.” The army, he reasons, should “serve the state, employing violence with humility always and compassion wherever possible.” One could be forgiven for thinking he’s talking about euthanasia, not war.
The outrage is all in the News corp papers, locked carefully behind paywalls. Conservative clickbait. The Cairns Post’s measured headline (I couldn’t read the article) was “Banning Army ‘death’ symbols is an attack on traditional masculinity”. I suspect the Cairns Post probably thinks “traditional masculinity” is a thing worth preserving, but as I’ll discuss later, I’m glad it’s under attack.
Weirdly, I also found myself agreeing with the headline of Miranda Divine’s column, which stated that “An Army Should not be Coy about its Purpose” — armies are, after all, dealers of death. It went downhill after that, becoming a homophobic mess decrying rainbow pins in the infantry for some reason. Probably “traditional masculinity”.
The Daily Mail reported on an open letter written in response by an Afghanistan war vet and winner of the Army’s medal of gallantry. He argued that most of the army’s symbols are openly violent, but also that they are important to the thousands of servicemen who are attached to them as symbols of their unit — and it’s an article of faith that the bonds within the ‘band of brothers’ are stronger than any outside the forces.
I am torn here. On the one hand, it’s great that the incoming Chief of the Defence Forces preaches restraint in the use of violence. On the other hand, maybe Campbell needs to remove these insignia because it’s uncomfortable to be reminded of what the army does — it kills people. The problem is that one can’t really put lipstick on a pig. Or, perhaps, a rainbow wig on a Punisher mask.
The ‘death insignia’ conservative non-controversy troubles me, especially when read in relation to the publicisation of Aboriginal massacres. I am a radical pacifist who would like to see armies disbanded and outlawed. I think the mere existence of soldiers is enough to make all of us a little more accepting of violence, if not more violent ourselves. Campbell’s attempt to remind the army that killing shouldn’t be cause for exultation is worthy — but it might be doomed. How can the legal limits of battlefield killing ever survive critical interrogation? How can the use of violence ever be discriminate? How can battlefield killing of one’s enemy ever be compassionate? The memo is an attempt to sanitise and sanctify killing. It’s no different to the people who claim that “sombre reflection” is not the same thing as glorification. It’s just a different justification for the killing in the first place.
The massacre list and the lynching memorial try to strip away this air of sanitation and sanctity. They hope to reveal the effects of violence to the people who have historically done it. Campbell is trying to contain our discomfort at maintaining a force of professional killers, the activists behind the coutner-memorials want to stoke it. That’s project I can get behind. We should be uncomfortable at how central killing is to our daily lives. This is what history is for — to make us so uncomfortable that we have no choice but to be better people.
But most people, it seems, can’t be bothered. The myth of white male sacrifice is like a weed infesting our popular consciousness, nourished over thirty years by ever-increasing public celebration. It takes far more work to dispose of it than to simply convince yourself it’s not a weed, but a rose bush.
I’ve always wondered why it pisses people off so much when you take aim at ANZAC, and I feel like it’s related to the fact they can’t see it’s a weed. The myth clearly nourishes them in some way, makes them feel special, like they belong. Somewhere, deep down, most men seem to think that the nation can only exist because men know how and when to be violent, and that if we don’t preserve the position of male violence at the heart of our civic lives, the nation will crumble. You can see this in the men (and it’s always men) who comment on anti-ANZAC articles with phrases like “you can only write this bullshit because they fought for your freedom”. This idea is often summed up (and misattributed to Orwell) as “people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” In this interpretation, violence — the weed masquerading as a rose bush — becomes the foundation of democracy.
Marylin Lake published an article way back in 1992 with her tongue firmly planted in cheek. It was titled “Mission Impossible: How Men Gave Birth to the Australian Nation.” In it she articulated the now-common line, also trotted out by John Hirst, Joy Damousi, Mark McKenna and Henry Reynolds, that the apparent “birth” of the nation at Gallipoli eclipsed other more worthy civic achievements and doomed us all to a civic life of dreary militarism. Lake’s original article also pointed out that by using the metaphor of birth, men also supplanted women in the national story, and usurped their role as mothers.
Back in the US, Joanne Nagel made a similar point when she couldn’t figure out why men volunteered to fight in the Civil War. What she noticed first was her own husband’s “disinterest”:
That rank after rank of northern male cannon fodder lined up to die in massive battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam did not seem problematic to him at all. That I found this so inexplicable and that he found it so dull, suggested that the answer lay in a domain that was likely to be very gendered as well as very assumptive.
She concluded, as Lake did, that nationalism is irrevocably gendered, and that men’s attachment to nation is predicated on their identification with soldiers. The veneration of wartime violence, then, is a way to cement their tenuous position at the centre of civil life. To take aim at ANZAC is to take aim at all men. To quote Nagel again:
It has always seemed a mystery to me why the men in military and para-military institutions — men concerned with manly demeanour and strength of character — often seemed so agitated and afraid of the entry, first of blacks, then (still) of women, and now of homosexuals into military institutions and organizations. This unseemly, sometimes hysterical resistance to a diversity that clearly exists outside military boundaries makes more sense when it is understood that these men are not only defending tradition but are defending a particular racial, gendered and sexual conception of self: a white, male, heterosexual notion of masculine identity loaded with all the burdens and privileges that go along with hegemonic masculinity.
Angry responses to my article usually revealed a stubborn refusal to engage coupled with a deep masculine investment in soldier-sacrifice. Waves of burning anger radiated off the comments, and I can’t help but read it as a deep insecurity. Fragile masculinity, indeed.
To put it bluntly, another word for “the nation” is “man feelings”. It’s man feelings all the way down.
The most common criticism of my article has been that I misunderstood the point of ANZAC Day. “I don’t glorify war,” they say. “I quietly and reverently reflect on it”. As if that’s in any way a meaningful distinction. The fact you feel like you’re commemorating rather than glorifying a war a century old doesn’t matter to people killed by Australian soldiers yesterday. To commemorate battlefield sacrifice is to legitimise killing in war.
I firmly believe that anything other than the total expurgation of war from our public life will mean young men will continue to join the army while the men who don’t will continue to use wartime sacrifice as a foil to their own growing insecurity, and men of all kinds will always reach for violence as a legitimate problem-solving mechanism. As François Truffaut said, “there’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” Saying “I don’t glorify, I remember” is like saying “I’m not sexist, I was only joking”.
I rounded out my article by saying this:
Perhaps if we remember instead that war is historically men killing, with state sanction; perhaps if we reflect on the ways in which the ANZAC myth normalises the violence that permeates our society; perhaps if we call out the ways in which we excuse and enable the mostly male perpetrators of violence through myths of magnificent sacrifice, we might be able to have some solidarity with the victims of violence, too frequently women, instead of with its perpetrators. If war remains the cherished heart of our national myth, we will remain inured to violence perpetrated by men. After all, what else is war?
Two years on, I would add this:
Deliberately forgetting ANZAC would have many good consequences and no bad ones. It would push men to consider how insecure the basis of their hegemonic power is, and might help them make an accomodation with its end. It would make sexism, racism and homophobia harder. It would accelerate Reconciliation. It would make us more accepting of our responsibility to accept asylum seekers.
Killing might never be discriminate and should never be legal, but I still think we should kill ANZAC stone dead.