My daughter spent weeks practicing “Advance Australia Fair,” “Eternal Father,” “Victors’ March” and “Waltzing Matilda” for her band’s performance at her school’s ANZAC Day ceremony. However, she came away from the ceremony angry and disappointed. What angered her was the invited speaker’s account of the First World War. The invited speaker, the president of the local RSL, explained Gallipoli as follows: the ANZACs had stood up to “the awful Germans” because “the awful Germans” were bullies and “we Australians don’t like bullies, do we?”
The audience’s understanding of 20th century history is as yet rather hazy and somewhat simplistic. Furthermore, the audience included a number of patriotic little Australian kids of German and Japanese descent. In this context, an account of Australian military history as a series of fights against German and Japanese villains is insensitive and was bound to make them feel excluded. However, what struck me, as the adult observer, was how extraordinarily narrow and exclusive the ANZACs and all the men and women of the Australian Defense Forces are actually conceived. It’s a cast of characters that not only excludes Germans and Japanese but anyone with a migrant background. When the speaker asked “Hands up if you have fathers or grandfathers who served in times of conflict to defend our freedom?” most hands in the assembly went up. Guess whose hands didn’t go up? As far as I could tell, the fault line between hands up or not coincided quite neatly with being of Anglo-Celtic descent or not. Those with their hands up were then told how proud they must be of their families.
And where does that leave the kids who didn’t put their hands up (aka kids of migrant backgrounds)? NOT PROUD of their families, obviously. Making children feel ashamed of their families, loved ones and backgrounds is horrible. To do so under the guise of fostering a national sense of identity is pernicious.
The message of that ANZAC day ceremony was pernicious in another way, too. Presumably, to make it all more “relevant” for the children, the invited speaker then went on to tell the story of James Martin, the youngest Australian soldier known to have died in WWI at age 14. Only two years older than the oldest children in the audience, the speaker exhorted the audience to take pride in this boy who “died so that we could be free.” I thought the story of this misguided child-soldier who lost his life unnecessarily (he didn’t even die in battle but of typhoid) was an extremely sad one. That he should be held up as a role model for today’s children is outrageous.
Later that day, I took my daughter to look at a picture of my grandfather going to war for Germany in 1915, aged 16: another fresh-faced, innocent and misguided boy whose life was ruined by the war. There are many ways to honor the memory of the lost generation who became canon fodder in WWI. Blathering about pride in child soldiers and sowing a sense of exclusion and divisiveness in the next generation is not one of them.