Anzac day is when Australians and New Zealanders remember their casualties of the first World War and other conflicts. It has become a defining event for the sense of nationhood of the Australians and solemn commemorations are held all over the country. Sharing the same background (some ancestors on the English side of my family fought alongside the Anzacs on the Western front), I find it a great tradition to remember the horrors of that war. It is also an event that is fascinating as a social scientist. Some observations:
- A lot of the commemorations are state-sponsored via the Department of Veteran affairs. This department is running out of veterans to take care of, but has over the years increased its budget for commemorative services. It is actually quite hard to figure out just how many of the various ‘budget posts’ should be counted as commemorative, but at best guess we’re talking about half a billion dollars and rising. One of the reasons why Anzac day appears to become a bigger and bigger event as time goes by might quite simply be that it is a way for an existing ministry to spend surplus resources on its budget.
- The ‘message of Anzac day’ has changed within Australia over the decades to suit the morals of the day. I was at the Anzac celebration of the school of my kids, with military commanders giving the assembled quiet and disciplined kids the supposed reasons for why so many young men died in WWI. The story these kids were told was that the Anzacs died ‘for tolerance’, ‘mateship’, ‘standing up to bullies’, and more of those values we hold dear today. The kids were basically told to follow the social norms of current day Australia as a means of honouring the memory of the fallen of previous wars. I don’t have an inherent problem with this, but do note as a social scientist that such statements take liberties with the truth. At the time of WWI, appeals were made on the basis of ‘God, King, and Country’. In the intervening century, God and King have been axed from the moral appeal, but ‘the Country’ is still there. Also, tolerance and anti-bullying were not really a big thing in the 1910s when Australia was still a very ethnically ‘pure’ country and bullying was an institutionalised accepted reality in schools. Anzac day is hence a bit like going to church on a Sunday: every generation reinterprets the book of yesterday to suit the moral code of today.
- The ability of kids to imagine themselves part of a group that extends over the centuries but that they are not objectively part of is quite remarkable. At a guess, maybe 25% of the kids at the school commemoration will have had actual Australian ancestors involved in WWI, but they all somehow identified with ‘the Australians that went to war’, even if both parents were Chinese or African. It is simply an amazing thing how easily kids adopt stories of cultural continuity as their own even if that story has no real bearing on their actual personal histories. This imaginative capacity is not in any economic model I know, but clearly underlies our sense of identity and hence underlies important economic variables too, such as our willingness to pay taxes for ‘this country’.
- The ‘message of Anzac day’ is different in different countries. Where I grew up, i.e. Western Europe, a big message of similar commemorations was the pacifist spirit of ‘J’accuse!’, which was the historic quote from Emile Zola that was also the title of a French film in 1919. It means ‘I accuse’ and one of the characters in that film explains it to mean ‘accusing the war… accusing men… accusing universal stupidity’. We were told as kids that WWI was one of history’s most stupid mistakes started by leaders who get themselves into a mess because their pride wouldn’t allow them to back down, and fought by gullible enthousiastic populations who thought of war as something exciting. The message we were told was that people should not blindly follow their leaders, but should think for themselves and question the logic of going into conflicts just because the conflict exists. Interestingly, there is almost none of this pacifist message left in Australia, though perhaps it was there and has simply been lost over the decades. Indeed, the kids at the school I went to for Anzac day were told to be silent, obedient, and to take it on faith that Australian men lost their lives in droves for a good cause. There is hardly any mention in Australian commemorations that it lost the flower of its nation to a pointless mistake on the other side of the world, lead by foreign commanders (such as Winston Churchill) and not even by one of their own. I must say that I find it curious that Australians are not far more critical about the leaders they blindly followed into WWI (as well as later on) but make excuses to exonerate the mistakes of those leaders and allies, even when the populations of those allies themselves are far less forgiving.
I hence like the idea of Anzac day, but miss the pacifist message that WWI was one of the biggest f-ups of the last century and that we should think for ourselves and question the wisdom of following leaders blindly into battle.