The honouring of those lost in war is very different in Australia. Perhaps this ANZAC Day, it’s not who we remember, but rather those we forgot.
Last year, I went to a very special ANZAC Day commemoration. Imagine the trip: you get in your car in the middle of the night and drive into the Royal National Park. It is dark here: no streetlights and you are surrounded by trees. It has been raining and the road is wet, and because it is also very winding, you drive carefully. If something happens to you now, nobody will find you for a good couple of hours. But you are not alone. There are deer there, a whole herd of them. Mothers, fathers, young ones. You slowly inch through the pack while they look at you nervously. When you get closer to your destination, you get off the main road and onto a side track. You get out your torch and you start to walk. When you find the track, it is still pitch black. You feel rocks and boulders under your feet, hear the ocean to the left of you, sense the wall of the escarpment only metres away on the right. After twenty minutes or so there is a little creek with a plank across it. A big python lives here, so you tread carefully, and then walk up the hill again. There is light in the distance, but you know there are swamps too, so you let the torch guide you.
The light comes from a small community centre that the inhabitants of this tiny beachside village built themselves, like they constructed their shacks: out of discarded materials, brought here on foot or scavenged from the beach when a passing vessel shipwrecked off the coast. That happened a lot in the past, and from the 1920s, when people came here to escape the poverty of the Great Depression, the bits of flotsam helped to set up a life here. They could fish, trap some rabbits, grow vegetables and feed their children. Now their descendants come here every year to commemorate ANZAC Day. People are milling around, waiting. The Vietnam veteran who started this ceremony in the 1990s looks resplendent in his uniform. He is nervous. In normal life, he runs a farm and he is not used to giving speeches, not even to people he has known since he was a tiny toddler. The monument is home-made too, but that is what this is all about.
Although this event is as solemn and serious as the official commemorations, it is also far more personal and intimate. This community has lost many people over the years, to wars and to other forms of tragedy, and today we are remembering them all. The Vietnam veteran who organised it all those years ago wanted it that way. It was important to him that it was inclusive, a place and a moment to be quiet and together and think about everybody who was lost. Here, nobody is really forgotten. The dead are memorialised on little plaques that dot the landscape, marking where they used to fish or sit and read a book, or where their ashes were scattered. Today, on ANZAC Day, they are all gathered in our minds, while we offer them up to the universe and this amazing place, where nature and history come together. The men who went to war and never came back. The men who returned, but with mental and physical scars. The singer who was shot and killed in Vietnam when she was just 19 years old, the unsuspecting victim of a drunken US marine who was trying to kill his commanding officer. Her family had a shack here and so this is where she is remembered. But we also think about our friends who died from cancer, from a heart attack, an accident. Here, the ANZAC spirit is broad and all-encompassing, including migrants and people born here, men, women, children, friends and enemies. Here it is less about the nation and more about love and loss, and recognising that we are all in it together, as the song goes.
This ANZAC Day commemoration is the only one I can safely attend these days. From the moment I arrived in Australia, I have been to many others and they all confounded me and, later on, made me angry. In Holland, there are two days to remember our wars. The first one, on May 4, is dedicated to those who died. More than 200,000 Dutch people died in WWII alone, the highest per capita death rate of all Nazi-occupied countries in Western Europe. Half of them were Jews. Another 30,000 Dutch people died in what was then the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), mostly in Japanese camps. War had come to our soil and I grew up in a city that for the best part of my childhood was still partly in ruins because of bombardments during that conflict. In Holland, we did not remember soldiers on May 4, because most of the casualties were civilians. Men, women and children who had not volunteered to engage in violence, but had been confronted with it anyway. May 5, though, was a very different day: as children, we donned our orange hats, decorated schools with bunting and drank sweet orange lemonade. It was a celebration. Of liberation, of survival, of the fact that life had gone on and we were still here. Taken over by the Romans, the French, the English, the Spanish, the Germans, but still here. Human beings: aren’t they something? Whatever happens, they want to live.
So my first ANZAC Day confused me.
What was this event called Gallipoli, and why did the official speeches focus on that instead of remembering all the other conflicts? The Boer War, the rest of WWI, WWII, Malaya, Borneo, Korea, Vietnam, East-Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq; what had happened to the memory of those? I also did not understand why it was only about soldiers. Why did we not include the nurses, diplomats, war correspondents, civilians (from all sides), draft resisters, protesters, and – come to think of that – the children born from relationships between Australian soldiers and women “over there”? I started to ask questions, read some history, watch some movies, but that only made it more puzzling. It seemed to me we were not necessarily remembering people at all, but constructing a narrative about the nation, about Australia itself. Time and time again we were telling the same story, about a country “forged in war,” through mythic qualities like “mateship, heroism, self-sacrifice and duty to the nation,” as academic Matthew Allen once said. By playing two-up after the ceremonies, we were also celebrating another fabled characteristic of Australians: larrikinism. Forgetting that the men we inherited that practice from, the soldiers of the AIF in WWI, were also strong defenders of the White Australia Policy, or – even more confusing – migrants, and Aboriginals, and not men, but women.
It seemed to me that instead of remembering, we were actually trying to forget and rewrite parts of our history that did not fit the official version of who we are as a nation. It was all about patriotism and what looked to me like a warrior cult, conveniently skipping over the reality of war, which is that soldiers not only die, but kill too. That is their job description, whether it fits into the narrative of sacrifice or not. Then I read Ken Inglis’ book about Australian war memorials, which made me step away from the regular ANZAC Day commemorations altogether. In it, he wrote about WWI memorials which were constructed so people would not only know who had “offered his life,” but also, and more importantly, who did not. The missing names were as significant as the ones who were there, because they indicated “the shirkers,” the men who could have gone but stayed behind. It was a way of dishonouring and shaming them, of excluding them from the community. This, I realised, was not to a nation as a whole, but about certain, re-written parts of it.
For years, I stayed in bed on ANZAC Day and did not dare switch on the television either. Until I stumbled upon the commemorations at Little Garie beach. They healed the rift that had been opened up between me and my new country. Here, everybody had a place and a reason to belong.
This was the Australia I wanted to be part of: the chaotic, sometimes infuriating, but ultimately inclusive nation that exists alongside the one which tattoos the flag on its bum. This small community does not evict others from its beach because “they flew here” but embraces all comers. I even got a bit sentimental about it during the sausage sizzle afterwards. And grateful. I had found a home.