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Tragic choice for a national myth

IT is heretical, I know. But, Australia’s nationhood, was not forged at Gallipoli. Neither was Australia’s identity. It was not a coming of age. Neither was it a baptism. Nor any of the other cliches we hear repeated at this time of the year. By Rade KipicIt was a moment of terrible tragedy, one particularly awful event in a war that changed the shape of the world and overturned the certainties upon which international relations and much domestic policy had hitherto been built.We can argue at length over what took place at Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915, and who should bear the blame. But, more important, we should ask ourselves what it means to turn this moment into our national myth a myth that is shaping our identity . It is especially disturbing to hear the myth repeated in the centenary of Federation. Yet Prime Minister John Howard had used centenary occasions to proclaim that our nationhood came about 14 years after Federation.Melbourne writer Barry Dickens wrote a book called Ordinary Heroes. He says he finds Anzac Day a strange day, full of myth and hypocrisy and ordinary people with stories worth listening to.“I think it is the most ambiguous day of the year,” he says. “Because there is so much nostalgia and there is so much history that wants to come out. It is truth and myth simultaneously.“There is a tribal thing about Anzac Day, but then again I hate all the propaganda. I’m not interested in the propaganda and the appearance of Anzac Day is disillusioning. I think it’s a dreary kind of spectacle. It’s what people say, and make sure they say, that gives me life. It’s the tumbling out of stories.“There is a tribal thing about Anzac Day, but then again I hate all the propaganda. I’m not interested in the propaganda and the appearance of Anzac Day is disillusioning”“In a way I think it’s changing for the worse because there is the insatiable desire for heroism now and that it is being described as Australia’s coming of age. They were ordinary people who fought in time of war and did their best, and that’s one of the reasons I love them.Neither man would deny that Gallipoli was a tragedy. Indeed, it is the tragic nature of the event that many regard as its qualification for Australia’s defining moment. But what are we saying to ourselves in embracing this view?That a peaceful process, as occurred with Federation – one in which elected delegates to a federal convention wrote a constitution and the people voted on it before it became law – is not good enough to make a nation? That a country cannot have a true national identity without spilling blood? That a political process, rather than a war, is a bit sissy, not suited to a nation of heroes? That men have to die and women suffer before we can be satisfied with history?Anzac Day is not, we hear, a glorification of war. Yet to link it with nationhood and to write of it, as The Australian’s editorial did on April 25th 2001, as “a reference point in the searching for identity”, pushes into the shadows the building of Australia’s federal democracy.There is a widespread related view that the centenary of Federation would be more exciting if the commonwealth had been created by a war of independence. If only Edmund Barton had led the charge against the English oppressors, tearing down the Union Jack, refusing at gunpoint to take the oath of allegiance, we would not have had to wait until 1915 for our moment of nationhood.Instead, Barton followed a peaceful path, one he anticipated in his maiden speech to the NSW parliament in 1879, quoting Homer: “That man is bound by no social, religious and domestic tie who would court civil war with all its horrors.”The one thing all the founders of the commonwealth shared was pride in having avoided bloodshed. They knew well the history of the American War of Independence. They had living memories of the Civil War. They took pains to ensure that Australia would not face such eventualities, through both the Federation process and the Constitution’s words. They did not, of course, avoid dreadful conflicts with Aborigines or in the Boer War. But these were not steps taken to achieve Federation.The federationists believed they were fulfilling Australia’s destiny by framing a constitution. But they did not fool themselves that they were framing a national identity. The attempt to make the Anzacs stand for all Australians is part of a disturbing cultural process – seeking moral certainties in our lives and our history, and finding them in the imaginary homogeneity of the past.THERE is no single identity for Australians. There never was, even in the pre-multicultural days. Longstanding Australian customs include the celebration of Anzac Day, but they include much more besides and can never be summed up in a single myth.Australia evolved during the 20th century from a self-governing dominion of the British Empire into a modern nation-state. Its people have lived through many defining moments. Our population mix has shifted dramatically and the variety of ways of being Australian has altered with it. The attempt to fix our identity in one historical moment or in a single mythologised individual – as we saw with the elevation of cricketer Don Bradman to the greatest Australian – denies the richness and complexity of modern Australian life.The only enduring identity all Australians share is that provided by our commitment to a democratic constitutional framework for resolving our differences. This was set down in 1901.To honour the memory of those who have died in the service of their country is a good thing. But it is another thing to say that this defines us as a nation. It is a myth that excludes many – not just women but all who are not personally nourished by its imagery. It is a myth that reinforces the regrettable view that law and democratic politics are not noble alternatives to war.Australia’s founders should be role models, not historical rejects. They were as robust, strong-minded and stout-hearted as any could want. Some of the men were virile indeed. But they would turn over in their graves to learn that in 2003 we find our moment of nationhood in war rather than in their work.

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