Light Horse Regiment representatives, Warwick, Qld. Photo by Laurel Wilson
The firewood guy wanted to deliver a ute load to our house on Tuesday. “But it’s Anzac Day,” I said. He replied: “It’s just another day to me, mate.”
I was musing about this (while stacking firewood).
I’m guessing he would be a Millennial (born between 1982 and 1994). The oldest of this cohort would have been nine years old when George Bush Snr authorised the invasion of Iraq in 1990-1991 (the Gulf War). They’d have been 21 when George Jnr launched the immoral ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Millennials missed Vietnam by decades and have been raised in an era where conflicts and civil wars are daily fare on mainstream and social media. The post-Vietnam conflicts have given rise to an anti-war polemic, given voice to by songwriters including Jackson Browne (Lives in the Balance):
There’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who send the guns
To the wars that are fought in places
Where their business interests run.
Anzac Day was once solely to remember the fallen from World War 1 (1914-1918), which ended 108 years ago. It has been broadened to embrace the returned and fallen soldiers of all conflicts.
There were hundreds of school children among the thousands who attended Warwick’s Anzac Day parade and service in Leslie Park (photo above).
Their parents, we have to assume, are Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1980. Old enough to have been aware of Vietnam and the divisive nature of the war and our involvement in it.
I have no argument with schools sending delegates to the Anzac Day commemoration and the laying of wreaths. In many small towns, schools attend dawn services and a speech is given by a senior student.
Taking half a day once a year to think about the 103,021 Australians who have died in all armed conflicts is the least we can do. It’s also a day to honour the returned servicemen of WWII, who number fewer every year.
In 2014 songwriter Eric Bogle told his hometown newspaper AdelaideToday why he was no longer performing ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. In the 1970s, when Bogle wrote this song, Anzac Day looked as if it was on its way out. The song emerged at the time when anti-Vietnam war sentiment was at its peak and the RSL was on the nose. Hence one of the closing lines “Someday no-one will march there at all.”
I wasn’t around in the WWI era, so I can only rely on historical accounts to emphasise the nationalistic fervour of the times, when those who did not go to war had white feathers put in their letterboxes. There were conscientious objectors in WWI and WWII. They were society’s pariahs in those days and were often jailed for the duration of the war.
The jailing of conscientious objectors was less common during the Vietnam War, but there were those who, for personal reasons, chose not to engage in warfare and death. Vietnam instead gave rise to an emerging peace movement, particularly in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In short, the Woodstock generation did not want any part of a war where our troops were being sent on spurious grounds.
One of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s first policy decisions was to scrap conscription and complete the withdrawal of Australian troops in Vietnam. Subsequent to this decision, conscientious objectors were released from Australian jails.
I bring you this potted history only to make the point that Australia’s involvement in international conflicts since Vietnam (1955-1975) has been politically contentious. This was no more evident than when hundreds of thousands of Australians took to the street to protest PM John Howard’s decision to send troops to Iraq in 2003. Many people believed this was an illegal war and that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq had a despot for a leader, but special services could have taken care of that without involving Australia in an unpopular war that solved nothing.
Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan began in 2001 when Prime Minister John Howard committed military personnel after the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Howard invoked Article VI of the ANZUS Treaty – the only time the Treaty has been invoked, to justify our involvement.
That was by no means the end of it – from 2006 to 2013 Australian troops worked alongside Dutch and US soldiers in Uruzgan Province. 26,000 Australian military personnel were engaged in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021. By the end of the Uruzgan mission in 2013, Australia had lost 40 men in southern Afghanistan.
As diplomat and songwriter Fred Smith recounted in a song when leaving Afghanistan: “40 good men in the ground and we’re going home”.
Australia has spent $7.5 billion on the Afghanistan exercise, with, it must be said, ongoing support from both the ALP and the Coalition. The effort is looking wasted now, since the Taliban over-ran the country in August 2021. Fred Smith is currently touring a show, “The Sparrows of Kabul”, which updates the Afghanistan story and describes the tense days in August when Australia evacuated 4,100 Afghan civilians.
Anzac Day respects Australian soldiers, sailors, airforce and navy personnel who have been involved in 28 wars and conflicts, either as allies or peacekeepers. These include conflicts close to home – East Timor, Bougainville, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands.
This fascinating Wikipedia entry covers Australia’s military involvement from the Boer War (1899-1902) through to our debated involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and the ongoing war against ISIL. This entry is unique, in that it also covers the military involvement of Colonial troops in the ‘dispersal’ of Aborigines and dispossession of land from 1799 to 1901.
Professor Robin Prior of the University of South Australia, commenting on a survey, said the Australian public would decide upon Anzac Day’s relevance.
“Ordinary Australians made Anzac Day what it is, and public opinion will probably determine its demise sooner rather than later.”
A poll taken in 2021 showed that 58% of Australians intended to go to a ceremony or march on April 25, 2021. South Australia recorded the lowest number (44%). The research also showed a growing number believe the Anzac story is losing its relevance. The poll was taken while many Australians were avoiding crowded places while Covid was running rampant.
The survey of more than a thousand people found that although almost all agree Anzac Day is well respected, a third hold the view that its significance is being forgotten.
“What’s interesting is whether as we get further and further away from the world wars, that trend will continue,” Prof Prior said.
Romain Fathi of Flinders University found that the number of Australians attending Anzac Day dawn services fell by 70% between 2015 and 2019.
Anzac Day dawn services were cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19, but attendance had started to erode well before the pandemic, he wrote in ‘The Conversation’. Fathi’s research looked at changing patterns in the commemoration of Anzac Day overseas and at Australian dawn services. The biggest decline in crowd numbers was at Gallipoli itself, where numbers fell from 10,000 in 2015 (the centenary year) to 1,434 in 2019.
And yet 2023 commemoration services in Sydney and Melbourne reportedly drew big crowds, as well as in Brisbane, where rain did not deter people from attending.
I’m leaving the last word on this topic to the late great songwriter John Prine, from Hello in There:
“ We lost Davy in the Korean war
And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter any more.”