Dear Readers, today there is no craft content. Make your own choices about reading on or coming back another day.
My country has quite a thing about a specific day in April. On 25 April, we commemorate the landing of troops from Australia and new Zealand at Gallipoli (on the coast of Turkey) during World War One. That day began a protracted period in which massive numbers of soldiers died on all sides and immense suffering was endured over a long period. Needless to say, it was not only soldiers who suffered. Eventually the Australian and NZ soldiers who remained were evacuated. As a feat of military strategy, the landing at Gallipoli was an unqualified failure. This year was the 125th anniversary of that awful day. I am not all that overjoyed with the idea of the nation, and I like the idea of war even less. One of the things I don’t like about nations (as a concept–nothing against my nation or yours) is that they have rather tended to go to war with one another.
I know there are other people who think that ANZAC day is an occasion for mourning. That makes sense to me. Lots of people I know, and members of my family went to the dawn service–the traditional event on this day. This is what I used to do as a girl guide in high school. I had a turning point in my understanding of the meaning of ANZAC day while I was still in school, when I first heard The Band Played Waltzing Matilda–written by Eric Bogle. It caused me to revise my understanding of ANZAC day and of nationalism. For non-Australian readers who want to listen to the song–it will help you to know that Eric Bogle is a Scottish Australian (he has a Scottish accent but he is writing about Australian experience, which is often also immigrant experience). It will also help you to know that ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is a folk song that many Australians think of as an unofficial national anthem. It references the experiences of swagmen–itinerant, male rural workers who had not even a donkey or horse and carried all their belongings on their backs.
Since I think the appropriate roles for ANZAC day are grieving and remembrance, I have been appalled by the way ANZAC day has been treated as an opportunity for marketing and the glorification of war, and this year it has been worse than ever. The number of special offers and steak knives involved has had me in mind of Manfred Mann’s song about what would happen if Jesus returned (I will summarise: HUGE marketing opportunity!) For those who wish more, I can’t believe that an album I acquired second hand at a time when I must have been a young outlier among fans of Manfred Mann is now available on youtube. So you can hear it yourself if you fancy it.
Some years we organise our own ANZAC day remembrance. Just the two of us. Sometimes we have invited friends along. We’ve made our own wreaths, sung songs we think are relevant, listened to the small folk among us speak about what they know of war and perhaps what older people in their family experienced. Then we walk to one of the local suburban war memorials and place our wreaths, take time to reflect, and head home.
I have been taking an(other) accounting of how I think about war. As a white Australian I have been checking in on whether I am still participating in dominant ideas about war in white culture, like the idea that Gallipoli is the template for what counts as ‘war’. I find it to be a persistent feature of racism in a colonial context like Australia that I can think two things on the same subject even though they cannot possibly be reconciled with one another. I think it is my responsibility to become aware of these places in my mind and address them. On ANZAC day I decided I wanted to think about all people who died in all wars, and that the invasion of Australia, and the subsequent genocide of Indigenous people through violence, starvation, introduced disease and mistreatment of so many kinds would be a good place for me personally to begin that process of reflection. I began at a sculpture that stands on Wirranendi (a Kaurna word ‘meaning “to become wirra”, which means grove or forest’) beside what is now Sir Donald Bradman Drive–an arterial road out of the city leading westward. It is called ‘The lie of the land’, in reference to the idea that grounded British claims to sovereignty and ownership over this continent: that it was ‘terra nullius’–land belonging to no one–when the British arrived. In spite of the people who were living in every part of the continent they went to. The artists are Aleks Danko and Jude Walton.
The dominant Australian account of ANZAC day is that those tragic events at Gallipoli speak in some profound way to our national character. I am not sure why this conclusion is obvious. Why do we not draw our national character from Indigenous conceptions? Or from the fact of colonisation, for those of us who are descendants of that process in some way? I can see that Gallipoli is seen as evidence of Australia as a fledgling nation independent of Britain. I can understand that people think courage, sacrifice and heroism might be virtues, and that they were in evidence at Gallipoli. It’s less obvious to me why we would select out this particular battle in this particular war, why we would choose a battle at all (and not peacetime examples of the virtues we aspire to). It isn’t obvious to me, either, what Indigenous people, or people who came in the many waves of immigration to Australia that didn’t come from the former empire of Great Britain can make of this, and it doesn’t offer a lot of purchase for women in the national character either.
I spent time thinking at Wirranendi, with a heavy heart. And decided that when contemplating genocide, a heavy heart is probably appropriate. Then I decided one constructive thing I could do was collect all the rubbish lying around. And replace the stones that have fallen or been pulled from the sculptures.
I rode back toward the West Terrace cemetery, past many native plantings and a poem by Kimberley Mann, an Indigenous poet. The line ‘swallow memory and learn/ The wind chases ghosts through here’ stayed with me.
Then I pedalled over to the Imperial War Graves Cemetery. I run through this cemetery and the imperial war graves form a rather striking part of it. This time I stopped. I passed through that entry you can see in the first picture above, with the flag at half mast. There are so many graves here. And yet these are only the graves of local soldiers who fought in the world wars, and women who served (as nurses, for the most part) and returned to Australia, later dying here. In almost every country town and in many suburbs there stand memorials for all those young men who died in these and other wars Australia has participated in.
I walked among the headstones, reading them, wondering about the lives of these men and women and their families. I hummed another Eric Bogle song (The Green Field of France)–which has the singer in a war cemetery in France similarly wondering about those who are buried there. I wondered about all the civilians who died because war took away the means for their survival–usually more people die from hunger and disease in the context of war than die on the battlefields, awful as battlefields are. Refugees, prisoners, all those who suffer when an entire country turns all its resources to war instead of the wellbeing of its people. I thought about women and children. I hummed Judy Small’s song Mothers, Daughters, Wives. I thought about all those who have tried to resist war from inside the army and from outside.
I placed the rosemary I had brought from our garden, thought about all those suffering through wars happening right now, and couldn’t quite believe it when this symbol of hope appeared.