Anzac Day: Best we forget?

Lest we forget. We say it so often that we forget that these three words together mean “With the intention of preventing forgetting” – in this case, forgetting the Anzacs.

Once, this actual meaning of the phrase might have seemed redundant; more poetic than a reflection of an actual struggle for remembrance. Sure enough, as we approach its centenary, Anzac day is remembered – although it’s been no small effort that the remembrance has (so far) prevailed.

These efforts speak to the “intention to prevent” part of our three-word Anzac chorus, and it was a point made by Marilyn Lake in a session at last year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, ‘Best We Forget.’

“In Australia, massive Federal Government investment has been necessary to shore up the memory of Anzac… what is the justification for this massive investment of millions of dollars in this moment?”

Days of remembrance are certainly important. But at what point does it become like a self-licking ice cream? And, at what point after that does it become a theatre of remembrance rather than remembrance itself? Is remembrance at the cost of large public investment the same as private remembrance?

Regardless of where you fall on that issue, Marilyn Lake’s biggest issue with Anzac day in her talk wasn’t with those efforts, but with the skewed weight it gives to the military in Australia’s history. And the face that we are essentially celebrating the invasion of a foreign land by Australian soldiers. (This, at a time when the word “invasion” is being used in association with asylum seekers).

Marilyn Lake’s opponent in the debate, Peter FitzSimons, doesn’t refute this point. But, as he notes: “it is not that you don’t agree with the war necessarily, that you don’t honour the people that fought and died there.”

Even if Anzac day is less about remembering specific events and more about honouring, are we even succeeding at that? In 2009, SMH opened a story about Anzac day with:

“ANZAC DAY has become a day of shame at the hands of young binge drinkers who are using it as an excuse to drink to excess rather than commemorate war veterans, police said yesterday, after recording a spate of violent crimes.”

The licensing restrictions that permit the sale of alcohol only after 1pm may have once seemed like a sign of respect. Now, it could easily be viewed as a means of crowd control.

“I hate… any part of the breast-beating. And there’s been an unhealthy tinge in recent times,” says FitzSimons. But ultimate: “I think it’s a great gathering of the community to look at our past and our generally proud past. That we have been fighting on the right side of the wars.”

You can revisit our debate below. And if questions still linger, then perhaps you can find answers at the upcoming IQ2 debate at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, which asks: Anzac Day – More Puff Than Substance?