Anzac Day: We’ve Already Said Thanks, It’s Time To Move On

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Aboriginal people got one national apology. But Anzacs have had more than 100 thank you’s, writes Chris Graham.

At the outset, I should say that my Grandfather fought in the Second World War. He did so to protect the liberties and freedoms that I enjoy today. I’m grateful for that.

But I think the sense of gratefulness which motivated the establishment of Anzac Day all those years back ought not to be as intense today, and that’s why I think it’s time to move on.

The Great War was 100 years ago. How many times do we have to say thank you?

I can understand why Anzac Day was established. But I think a lot has changed for the better since then.

We’ve had the 100-year commemorations of the landing at Gallipoli. We’ve had the historic apology to Vietnam Veterans who were treated so appallingly on their return, one of the genuine achievements of John Howard as Prime Minister.

I think our returned servicemen and women can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian, and so I think it probably is time to move on.

Every Anzac Day the ‘shame game’ starts and the same old arguments are tossed up by the same old suspects in a bid to make Australians like me who do not embrace the spirit of Anzac Day feel guilty.

Which I understand is very upsetting. Indeed, it’s highly offensive.

In my defence, they’re not actually views I hold. They’re views that have been expressed to Aboriginal people by Australian political leaders and shock jocks on issues like the celebration of January 26 as Australia Day, the National Apology, and the continuing existence of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

ADV - Domestic Violence - BoyThe headline of this story is based on something routinely said to Aboriginal people – why do we have to have an annual ‘sorry day’. We said sorry once, how many apologies do you want.

As for the story itself, in the paragraphs italicised above, all I did was replace ‘Australia Day’ for Anzac Day, and rejig the context slightly.

The first comments about ‘gratefulness’ and John Howard’s ‘apology’ were actually lifted (and reworked) directly from Tony Abbott’s statement on January 26, 2012, when he was asked about the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

The ‘shame game’ comment is a direct lift from a column written by shock jock Steve Price earlier this year about Australia Day.

It’s obviously deeply offensive, but that’s what we dish up to Aboriginal people every year. And while you may think April 25 provides an opportunity for a national day that we can all embrace – after all, our soldiers saved Aboriginal people from the Germans and Japanese as well – Anzac Day is as noninclusive as Australia Day.

Here’s why.

An official Anzac Day ceremony in Melbourne. (IMAGE: Peter Myers, Flickr)
An official Anzac Day ceremony in Melbourne. (IMAGE: Peter Myers, Flickr)

For more than 100 years, Australia has rushed to involve itself in almost every major international conflict. Unofficially, we sent men to fight the Maori Wars in New Zealand. We sent men to fight the Boer War in South Africa. We even participated in the Boxer Rebellion in China.

A decade and a half later, we marched off to the Great War in Europe. We were back there a few decades later for World War II.

We joined the attack on North Korea. We joined the attack on Vietnam. We’ve attacked Iraq twice since then, and we’ve attacked Afghanistan.

Regardless of the merits of those wars – and our involvement in them – our participation in each is acknowledged and celebrated in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Australia has one of the largest war memorials on earth, testament to our national fondness for slaughter. It also helps explain why Anzac Day has become an occasion of chest-thumping national pride, with a bit of drinking and gambling thrown in to add to the solemnity of the occasion.

I find our obsession as a nation with our role in foreign wars confronting, and while I think it’s important to acknowledge the sacrifice of those who’ve fought to keep us free, I don’t think our involvement in all wars had that noble goal at its core.

Even so, there’s one conflict not recognised in our national memorial, and it happens to be the only conflict fought on Australian soil – the Frontier Wars. For a nation with a lust for war, our refusal to acknowledge one staged within our borders is curious.

Worse still, not only does our national memorial ignore the Frontier Wars, but it also seeks to whitewash our real military history.

There’s passing reference to the contribution of Indigenous soldiers – a small exhibit honouring the efforts of the first Aboriginal pilot (Len Waters) and a portrait of Captain Reg Saunders (inside his own gallery). There’s the occasional reference to other Indigenous soldiers, but no acknowledgement of what was done to them on their return. On the upside, the AWM features stone gargoyles on the walls of the main courtyard, alongside Australian flora and fauna.

There’s a deep irony in that, of course, because as a nation we continue to gloss over the reality that the Aboriginal contribution to our various war efforts – and there were tens of thousands of blackfellas who served – was offered at a time when First Nations people were literally classed as ‘Flora and Fauna’, under an act of parliament that considered them no more valuable to the nation than scrub and wildlife.

A screenshot from the film Utopia which shows the Aboriginal gargoyles at the Australian War Memorial.
A screenshot from the film Utopia which shows the Aboriginal gargoyles at the Australian War Memorial.

That helps explain why, when Aboriginal soldiers returned home from overseas, they were denied pensions and land grants gifted to other servicemen. They were even denied entry into RSL Clubs around the nation, save for some which allowed ‘the blacks’ a drink on Anzac Day, provided they stayed outside the building and the beer was handed out through a window.

None of this you read in the Australian War Memorial.

Outside Canberra, there are monuments across the nation to the Frontier Wars, but they celebrate the slaughter. Precious few of them acknowledge the slaughtered.

We name towns, rivers, roads, mountains and political electorates after the men who oversaw – or participated – in the massacres. Men like Arthur Phillip, Governor Macquarie and John Batman. The Stuart Highway through the centre of Australia is named after John McDouall Stuart, an explorer who killed Aboriginal people as he made his way north to claim lands he was never entitled to.

These are the people we lionise, the men who did the dirty work that built a nation on stolen land. We remain determined to honour the sacrifice of people like us, and remain indifferent to the suffering of the people we displaced.

We have more respect and admiration for the Turks – a nation that defeated us in a bloody war – than we do for the people our forebears killed and dispossessed.

So while I remain grateful that my Grandfather travelled to another side of the world to fight for the freedoms that I enjoy today, on Anzac Day, at the front of my mind are the brave Aboriginal men and women who also fought to protect their country for their future generations.

The descendants of these people are still fighting today, against a country determined to deny its true history.

The truth is, our nation does owe a great debt to the men and women who sacrificed their lives for what they believed were our national interests. But our nation owes a greater debt to the people from whom that national interest was stolen, and whose freedoms were denied, and are still denied, so that all of us can enjoy privileged lives in the lucky country.

We will remember them only when we finally acknowledge them.

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Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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