Monday, 1 May 2017

ANZAC - Myth & Reality

First Op - March 1970 - Yours truly standing (R)

Thailand is a beautiful and tolerant land, but watch that tolerance evaporate if you criticise the royal family.

A few visiting Australians have discovered that.

This country also has a reputation for easy going tolerance, but there are some mythologies that are so powerful, that challenging them is not for the faint-hearted. The Anzac Myth is one of those.

Just ask Yassmin Abdel-Magied. 

She had the temerity (or perhaps the effrontery) to use the phrase ‘lest we forget’ in reference to asylum seekers and Syrians on Anzac Day.

That was nearly a week ago, and the howls of outrage continue to reverberate. What she posted was at most insensitive, and at least careless, but it created such a tidal wave of offence taken, that something more than bizarre has been revealed in our national psyche. 

We heard (in quick succession), calls for her to be sacked and/or deported, and the abusive pile-on was taken up by shock jocks and opinionistas all over the place. Apparently, it caused deep offence. It did not offend me. Nor as far as I can tell did it offend the ex-service personnel I marched with on the One Day of the Year.

The conversation in the ranks when I marched on Anzac Day was not about Abdel-Magied. We put shit on each other as we usually do, inquired about the health of those not fit enough to march, and made comment about the flyover.

It was a very good flyover in our provincial city this this year, nine choppers (Kiowas, Tigers and MRH-90s) in groups of three flew over the memorial during the service. There weren’t any Iroquois – they’re all decommissioned, but the Kiowas with their two-blade rotors do pretty good Huey impressions if you close your eyes and listen to the sound.

But I digress….

I shouldn’t have been surprised – about the reaction to Abdel-Magied’s post, that is.

Let me say up front that Anzac Day is for me, very important. 

For a hiatus of fifteen years post-Vietnam, like many other Nashos, I ignored the commemoration. Somehow, marching with the other returned service men and women (including my father) didn’t seem right, when both the war and those who fought in it were treated with disregard because it culminated in a defeat for the side we supported. We were, for a while, airbrushed out of the history.

The “Welcome Home” march in 1987 seemed to change that.

These days I always march, and have traveled as far as Sydney to do so with members of my rifle platoon. There are no members of my unit living in home city, so marching here lacks something. I did, however, encounter an ex-Nasho who marched for the first time last week. For him and his family, this crossing of the threshold of grief and bitterness was very important.

I would be the first to admonish anyone whom I believed was dishonouring the memory of the people I served with, but Abdel-Magied’s brain snap wasn’t doing that.

She was, like many Australians including myself, expressing shame at the cruelty inflicted on asylum-seekers (or country shoppers if you like) who are locked up offshore without any real future. She was also referring to the millions in Syria who have been dispossessed by the conflict there, a conflict whose roots lie in serious historical miscalculations by our allies and our governments in 2003.

What I find much more offensive than an ill-considered Facebook post, are the many venues, holiday accommodations and sporting clubs who exploit Anzac Day to improve their bottom line. One motel in Brisbane was running an  “Anzac Weekend” accommodation campaign with intensive TV ads for about a week during the lead up. 

Much of this exploitation seems to be tolerated. If I was cynical I’d assume that gender and religion had something to do with the pile-on directed at Abdel-Magied.

But I’m not cynical. What set the hounds baying here was a perceived attack on the myth.

By way of explanation, I’ll recount a personal encounter with the mythology that is happening as I write.

I was invited to give a talk on Anzac Day at my old school, Downlands College. I prepared diligently, researching the Anzac Day commemoration website.

On that page I came across the statement - "But there were probably few, if any, who were actually forced to go to Vietnam".  I found this passing strange, given that my experience and that of most of the men in my intake was very different.

As a teacher, what is on that website is not good enough for me. If we are developing resources to be used in schools, (and that is the purpose of the website) those resources need to be accurate. Anything else is indoctrination.

I began to do some research of my own through the Australian War Memorial. The anecdote trotted out most frequently to support the “every Nasho was a volunteer” narrative talks about “opt-out parades”. 

It goes like this – prior to embarkation, a unit parade of National Servicemen would be called and those who did not want to serve in Vietnam would be asked to take one pace forward. If they did so, they would be marched out to join a unit not warned for Vietnam service.

I had no memory of this, and the Nashos I served with, although they had heard the story, vowed that it had never happened to them. I then began the arduous task of ploughing through the battalion records held on-line at the AWM. Every parade, including those held prior to embarkation, was recorded for every infantry unit.

Nowhere was there a record of such a parade. I gave up after looking through the parade records of four of the nine battalions in existence at the time. It was an entirely fruitless search.

This is hardly surprising. If these parades had been held, the Commanding Officer of the unit in question would have been in breach of the National Service Act. Perhaps there were “unofficial” parades mounted by some units – but to say that “every” Nasho was a volunteer is simply not truthful.

“Every” means “without exception”.

Armed with this evidence, I wrote to the secretary of the commemoration committee and inquired as to the source of that information.

As this is written, I have an email acknowledgement which reads - 

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Our researchers are looking into it and appropriate action will be taken.

I'll keep you posted.

The reason for this variation from the reality and the insertion of it in a resource intended for school use is, I believe, caught up in the Anzac myth. The notion of noble sacrifice doesn’t sit well with conscription, so conscripts become “volunteers”. It adds a layer of sweetening to help the harsh medicine go down. 

Until we embrace the reality of our history, warts and all, our nation will not develop beyond its adolescence. That reality saw Australian conscripts killed in Vietnam.

To deny that truth dishonours those men. It assumes that there was a distinction in the field between Nashos and volunteers, and that the service of Nashos was somehow less honourable because they did not volunteer.

Why else would the myth seek to convert us to volunteers?

When it come to the Anzac myth, it’s time we grew up and confronted the reality of war in all its ugliness. Truth and remembrance go hand in hand.

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