Anzac day: it’s complicated.

Dawn service gnangarra 03.jpg

Dawn service gnangarra 03” by Photographs by Gnangarra… Licensed under CC BY 2.5 au via Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday was Anzac day, and like most Australian public holidays it’s interesting to explain to people here. It seems the explanation has to either be very short, or very long.

Take Australia Day for example. Short version: it’s our national day. Long version:

“Well… it’s the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet.”

“First fleet?”

“Yeah, um, a fleet of ships full of prisoners.”


“And we take this to be the start of “Australia”, except awkardly enough there were people living there for thousands of years prior, but, y’know, we don’t count that… Now that I say that out loud, it sounds kinda racist, doesn’t it? Um… I dunno. Can we just forget about it and have a beer and yell ‘Aussie aussie aussie, oi oi oi’ for a bit?”

And then we get to Anzac day. It comes up every year here in Italy, since here April 25 is a public holiday, to commemorate liberation from fascism.

“Oh hey, it’s a public holiday in Australia too!” I say. “Anzac day. It’s our war memorial day.” But gosh that feels oversimplified.

On the one hand, Anzac day feels subversive, making a national holiday on the anniversary of a badly-planned landing in which the Australian and New Zealand forces got trounced. And I think that’s healthy for a country to remember: war has costs, even when things go “well” people die, and things don’t go well very often. This is the part that I like to explain to people.

But what war is like is an uncomfortable thing to remember, and it would be wishful thinking for me to describe Anzac day as purely the day we all pause and say, “Let’s never do that again.”

I’d be skipping over the rhetoric and mythology and something that looks an awful lot like patriotism-as-national-religion — politicians invoking the “Anzac spirit” in service of whatever they’re promoting that day, stories about “the coming of age of the nation”, the Anzac day dawn service as a kind of sacred ritual. And that’s where it gets hard to explain.

Like a conversation I had the other day:

“So, the simplified version is that the landing at Gallipoli was the last time Australia went off to war just because Britain said so.”

“And Iraq was…?”

“Yeah, ok, it’s a simplified version.”

But part of the difficulty is that the mythology has a pull on me, too. Part of me wants to believe that things did fundamentally change after WW1 and Australia joining in the Iraq invasion was, somehow, different. Part of me feels guilty for not doing anything to commemorate Anzac day here in Italy, as if “lest we forget” were a moral obligation on me as an Australian. For all that I cringe about Anzac day in Australia, I kinda miss it.

So, in the end, I muddle along. I suppose every historical commemoration is a bit murky beneath the surface, because history doesn’t consist of Our Country (The Good Guys) Nobly Defeating Their Country (The Bad Guys). And there’s always a short explanation to use when you just want to say why a day is a public holiday, without making a full examination of your country’s spirit.

PS: Better writing on Anzac day than I’ll ever produce: Lest We Remember (illustrated!) and a very good essay hidden behind a less-good title: Anzac Day should be quarantined from politicians.


4 thoughts on “Anzac day: it’s complicated.

  1. Amanda Afield

    It’s good to remember the meaning behind these holidays, even when it isn’t a particularly proud moment in the country’s history. I am a little worried about feeling uncomfortable on the 4 of July here (Americas Independence Day) in the country we became independent from…



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