The Mixed Feelings of ANZAC Day

As the nation stops today to commemorate the service and sacrifice of many Australian and New Zealander men and women across a century of international conflicts, I find myself with mixed feelings.

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I am sympathetic to and even supportive of a special time for remembering and honouring both the fallen and returned service-people who gave or risked their lives in the wars our nation has fought in. No one should belittle or disparage these men and women and what they have done for the protection of the lives and dignity of others.

I am saddened when I hear of men whose remains have lay in unmarked graves for a hundred years, without any of the official recognition they were promised by the governments of the day. Saddened by the stories of those who never found their footing again in society upon returning from the battlefields and who received little help with the trauma they were left to struggle with. Saddened by the offensive scorn and open disrespect that veterans of the Vietnam war were greeted with upon their return by so-called anti-war protesters who self-righteously attacked soldiers who were simply doing what they’d been ordered (and perhaps even conscripted) to do. Saddened by the number of returned soldiers from more recent conflicts who take their own lives in Australia each year.

Everyone who lives in this country and enjoys its freedoms owes at least some basic gratitude to those who have defended it against the threat of invasion and the aggressive advances of tyrannous ideologies. One does not need to agree with the reasons that every conflict was fought or with every action taken by Australian governments or commanders during conflicts to appreciate this simple fact: we needed (and continue to need) the service of men and women in the armed forces to preserve our nation in the face of those who would do it harm or annex it for their own use.

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Watching both the new television adaptation of John Marsden’s classic Tomorrow When the War Began and the 2004 German film Downfall on Saturday night, served as a timely reminder of sorts for me this Anzac weekend. That young men and women really did fight with all they had, when Australia faced a real prospect of invasion and subjugation just over 70 years ago. That Australian men and women contributed to the war effort in Europe that prevented the United Kingdom from falling to the tyranny of National Socialism, which had already conquered much of continental Europe. That the ANZACs didn’t stop fighting until the architects of the Holocaust were crippled and forced into surrender.

John L SmithLt. John L. Smith (1884-1916), Brisbane 1915

I attended the parade in Sydney last year, marking the centenary of the Gallipoli landing. I went mainly out of a sense of history, but was very moved by the occasion. This year is also significant for me on a personal level, in that in July, it’s the 100th anniversary of the death of Lt. John L. Smith, my grandfather’s uncle (pictured above).
He was cut down by machine-gun fire on the fields of Pozieres, France, as he directed his troops through a hellish maze of barbed-wire and was posthumously awarded a Military Cross. Helen and I visited the memorial in his home town of Ayr in North Queensland last year. Lest we forget.

On the other hand, I am cynical and even rejecting of the Anzac legend as a national myth or a form of civic religion. I don’t accept that the nation was born at Gallipoli. I dislike the way that war memorials and remembrance services utilise the forms of Christianity and other religions, but replace the substance with a different focus and message. I don’t accord this day the same place of importance that Christmas and Easter have for me as a Christian.

In short, I think the memory of the fallen soldiers would be better served by honouring them for who they were and what they did, while steering clear of the temptation to make them the objects of mystical veneration. And the church would be better served by thinking carefully about how to honour and care for returned servicemen and women, rather than uncritically allowing our culture to govern how we think about military service; or ignoring the people and the issues completely.

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The church is not served well by attempting to Christianise the Anzac myth, as some have attempted to do. Certain popular books that attempt to lionise Australian and New Zealander soldiers by portraying them as holy liberators of Jerusalem in WWI are based on a poor grasp of biblical prophecy and its fulfilment in Jesus and an unhelpful approach to the relationship between the Church and Australian nationalism.
The Diggers of WWI deserve recognition for fighting on behalf of all Australians, but it is misguided to canonise them as military saints simply because they fought in a conflict in Palestine. The part they played in God’s providential plan to allow Britain and her allies to triumph over Germany and hers was no more special than any other soldier on any other battlefront, from any other home nation.

Anzac Day provides the church with an opportunity to affirm the positive element in Australian culture of gratitude towards those who have served their country, at great personal cost. But at the same time we must be very careful what narratives we accept and promote about each specific war and about war in general. History testifies that we are on a learning curve in this area. In my university days, I did a special project on the attitude of Australian churches towards Australia’s involvement in military conflicts from WWI to Iraq. Christians in this nation (or at least their official church representatives) have undergone a significant shift in this period. In WWI, most evangelical churches supported war against Germany and co. as a righteous endeavour. Since the Vietnam war, most churches (including most evangelical churches) have been very cautious about endorsing Australia’s role in military conflicts. Many have outright rejected the legitimacy of our involvement in the wars since Vietnam and the political narratives that have been used to justify our involvement.

We must also, I believe, challenge any use of the Anzac myth as fuel for unbridled patriotism and nationalism. I say this because such understandings of our identity, loyalties and place in the world very easily mutate into stances that are incompatible with biblical Christianity. I also say it because it is easy to see how disastrous it is for churches to uncritically adopt nationalistic assumptions when we look at what happened when churches in the countries we went to war with did just that. ‘German Christians’ became little more than relay stations for broadcasting National Socialism to the German public. They syncretised Christianity with the Aryan myth of the Nazis. In Japan, the United Church of Christ (a forced merger of all Protestant churches in Japan) compromised Christianity with State Shintoism (Japan’s native religion) and supported the Japanese government’s actions in the Pacific War.

German Christians[2]
                    Flag of the German Christians

While the Anzac myth is far more benign than the nationalism present in these extreme cases, Christians the world over must be careful never to swallow the pill of inordinate patriotism – lest we risk committing spiritual suicide. We ought to be humbly grateful that God permitted the successful defence of Australia and New Zealand from our enemies and that those nations we fought against are now by and large friendly countries to us in the 21st century. And we must reject any idea that we are superior to the other nations of the world, so that we may never become the kind of monstrous aggressor our brave countrymen fought to defeat.

[1] Tourism Victoria “Anzac Day 2015, Melbourne” (CC BY 2.0) flickr
[2] RsVe “Deutsche Christen Flagge” CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia commons

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