Yesterday I was asked whether I observe Anzac Day. I don’t.
I never have.
In my childhood, it was the day when my father came home drunker than usual. In my teens I marched against Vietnam and in my twenties I visited Gallipoli (long before it was upgraded to its current status as a shrine). I was on a bus tour from Kathmandu to London; it was part of the itinerary. It didn’t mean much.
Then, like most of my generation, I just ignored it.
But when Australia became involved in modern wars – Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria – politicians decided that reviving Anzac Day was a great PR opportunity. Suddenly, young boys who’d joined the army for a chance of adventure when jobs were hard to find became self-sacrificing heroes. But the Indigenous men who fought alongside them continued to be overlooked, just as they had been when returned soldiers received land grants and other benefits.
Those who came home with shattered bodies and broken minds were also sidelined, as were the professionals who nursed them. There was scant mention of the wives and children who suffered bullying and domestic violence by men who couldn’t fit in to life after the horror they had seen. Vietnam veterans continued to be ignored and no-one talked about how women who had taken on vital work during the war were sent back to their kitchens.
Anzac Day became a civil religion, with more people attending dawn services and marches. But while we heard more and more about mateship and sacrifice, as a nation we became less compassionate, demonising the victims of today’s wars as they desperately sought safe refuge on our shores. We locked them up in hot, soulless conditions, called them queue-jumpers and let their physical and mental health deteriorate.
When I began thinking about this, I thought it might be time to put my cynicism aside and consider joining the ranks of Anzac observers. These days, Indigenous diggers are acknowledged, PTSD is taken seriously and Vietnam veterans are no longer pilloried.
But the story of Anzac, mateship and sacrifice remains a boys’ only adventure. The sight of politicians grandstanding at dawn services, and further reflection on how we treat today’s victims of war have left me with no choice but to remain a non-observer.
Lest we forget the wounded, the broken, frail and the lonely.