Transforming Anzac Day. On Anzac Day 6

German and British soldier sharing cig 1914
fraternisation German Russian soldiers ww1
Soldiers Truce Xmas 14

[Last section of The Pure Bugle essay on Anzac Day. The great photos are from the First World War: German and British soldiers sharing a cigarette, German and Russian soldiers dancing, German and British soldiers at the Christmas truce-from-below in 1914]

6. Transforming Anzac Day: The Need for Mature Mourning and a Global Spiritual Vision

It is a truism, often better understood by the right and ignored by the vulgar materialism of capitalist economics and orthodox Marxism alike, that man and woman lives not by bread alone. Beneath all the grinding daily occupation with surviving in the capitalist rat race, there is a deep need for group belonging and collective structures of meaning (i.e. ‘religions’ in the widest sense of the term) that lend some greater sense of significance to exhausting, humdrum work and mere existence in industrial mass society.

With the considerable weakening of religion in most modern consumer societies, the demise of socialist movements as a secular religion and the cold, isolating hegemony of the commodity fetish and the money god in consumer capitalism, many withdraw into the ephemeral bonding of the football club, the gang or religious fundamentalism. Positive collective visions are few and far between. This poses great dangers.

On the basis of their traumatic experiences both with the mass appeals of classical fascism and modern advanced consumer capitalism, humanist socialists and psychoanalysts, like here Erich Fromm, have shown that

If people are not given a chance to fight for a rational, humanist vision, they will – crushed by the weight of their daily boredom ‒ in the end fall victim to the irrational, diabolical visions of dictators and demagogues. The weakness of our modern society is that it has no more ideals to offer, that it demands no belief in anything, that it has no more vision except that of wanting-to-have-more.

In other words, if there is no progressive vision, no encompassing, and above all inspiring, humanist ideals and beliefs, the social vacuum of meaning will at some point be filled by regressive, right-wing visions and constructions that further cement ruling class cultural hegemony. It has been our argument in this essay that Anzac Day in its current hyper-nationalist forms is an expression of just such a populist, and successful, right-wing vision.

Is a humanist, non-right-wing version of Anzac Day even theoretically feasible? How could regressive forms of mourning be replaced by more psychologically developed ones? How could the self-contradictory Anzac ‘obedient larrikin’ spirit be replaced by an equally energetic but more coherent anti-authoritarian spirit of ‘democratic and informed disobedience’? And how could both the phoney bugles and ‘pure bugles’ of an overcompensating, narcissistic nationalism be replaced by what was once called ‘brotherhood’ (fraternite) and is now a humanist, trans-national and cosmopolitan spiritual vision of One World and the Human Family? We can only sketch the barest outlines of a tentative answer.

Mature mourning could start with a ‘reality check’, i.e. a rational, adult-mode review and psychological integration of the brutal facts of Australia’s imperial wars ‒ including the atrocities, war crimes and human rights violations ‒ rather than with an infantile regression into pseudo-comforting and dangerously over-compensating mythologies of national grandeur. It would refuse, as was the Anzacs’ own wish, any ‘superhuman’ mythologizing of the soldiers themselves, a mythologizing which simply furthers right-wing agendas and ideological hegemony, or, more specifically, creates ‘a monocultural, masculine, obedient Australian identity’ and bolsters ‘this constructed identity against challenges from multiculturalism, feminism, Aboriginal land rights and pacifism.’ (R. Buchanan)

It is noteworthy that soldiers’ diaries and statements, jokes and songs usually differ markedly from the generalising and simplifying constructions of professional ideology-makers like Bean and Moorehead, those early Australian versions of the then nascent PR industry. A mature version of Anzac Day could do worse than make the complex, often contradictory words and feelings of the soldiers themselves, as expressed in their diaries, statements and letters, jokes and songs, the main textual basis of remembrance rather than any nationalist PR constructions.

After actual engagement, these soldiers’ thoughts and feelings often mention a certain respect or even empathy for their enemies. The latters’ thoughts and feelings, as well as those of their families, could then also be read out. The thoughts, feelings, songs and stories of Boer, Turkish, German, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Afghan and Iraqi soldiers and civilians would make for an essential widening of human empathies beyond the national tribe.

In this way the innocent women, children and men, the civilian dead and maimed of all nations, would finally be lifted from the forgotten scrapheap of militarist ‘collateral damage’ to the place on centre stage they deserve as the majority victims of modern industrialised warfare.

Going further, the traumatised, often put-down or ridiculed soldier victims of ‘shell shock’, the so-called ‘traitors’ on all sides (deserters from and mutineers against the organised madness on all sides), could also be commemorated for their prescience and contributions to shortening the duration of the carnage. The often disgraceful treatment of these and other injured and returned soldiers by the very governments they fought for could be noted.

Beyond any specific wars, attention would be focussed on the fact ‒ usually swept under the carpet at Anzac Day and in the military histories so strangely popular in this country ‒ that ‘the characteristic act of man at war is not dying, it is killing; and on how the very structure of war itself ‘encourages pleasure in killing and that perfectly ordinary, gentle human beings, rather than sociopaths, can become the most enthusiastic, efficient killers’ (British historian Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing, 1999). Anzacs gained quite a reputation as ‘efficient killers’, something Anzac Day does not stress but, I think it’s fair to say, most Australian military are still very proud of as more or less amoral ‘professionals’ just doing their ‘job’ today.

Finally, those rare moments of sanity and outright rebellion against the carnage ordered by their superiors such as the Christmas truce and football match between British and German soldiers of December 1914, the mass desertions and refusals to fight by Russian soldiers after February 1917, the mass refusal of German soldiers to fight any more in November 1918, the war resisters against the Vietnam war or the contemporary Israeli ‘refusenik’ soldiers ‒ all these would figure as prominently as would the courageous nurses, anti-militarist truth-tellers, pacifists and conscientious objectors of all countries, as inspiring examples of the common brother- and sisterhood of the human race, as reminders of its essential sanity and deep desire for peace.

All these soldiers, rebels and victims could be mourned, their ordinary human heroism, resilience and suffering acknowledged as a central legacy in the ongoing human struggle for the future utopia of a world free of the scourge of war, militarism and xenophobic tribalism. Suitably presented, ritualised and ‘owned’, first by a minority and then by a growing majority of people, this could be the inspiring vision of a mature, alternative Anzac Day.

Australia’s soldiers and their victims could finally rest in a reconciled peace open to a better future, together. Not suppressing or denying national collective experience but rather lifting it up to a higher spiritual plane, the One World we now need to survive and prosper as a species would be an important step closer.



~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 23, 2015.

One Response to “Transforming Anzac Day. On Anzac Day 6”

  1. beautifully said as usual peter…now how can we get conscientious objection to “go viral”…

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