Anzac and the bravery after
Illustration: David Rowe
The centenary of Australia's involvement in World War I is still a year and a half away. But politics - with its instinctive, reflexive appeal to national sentiment - is well and truly gearing up already.
Last week, the federal government announced it would give $100,000 to each electorate to commemorate Australia's participation in the war. Each electorate will determine by committee how it should be spent.
Considering the profound impact of the war on newly federated Australia (324,000 enlisted from a population of 5 million; almost 62,000 killed) it seems a worthy idea.
Today the names on the small town and suburban memorials may not mean that much to us unless we are related to them.
To understand the meaning, or meaninglessness, of their deaths, we really need to know who they were, what they did, who they left behind.
Politics and popular culture has awarded the disastrous Gallipoli campaign the status of Australia's nation-defining moment. You know - the Australian traits of mateship, loyalty, courage and adversity.
But the Germans and Turks were also loyal to their mates, courageous, showed great ingenuity and suffered hardships, not least in Palestine, that shocked even the hardiest of the Australian Light Horsemen. This is the flip side to the myth about the Australians' homogenous egalitarianism: yes, they were largely good men, but there were also ordinary men, among them - the racist, the cruel, the opportunistic and the criminal.
We could celebrate an alternative national narrative - that of Federation in 1901, when the colonies united behind a dream that together they could form a stronger, single entity through which they could pursue economic strength, security and equality - notions that still underpin our democracy.
Extraordinarily, it was born without cold steel, cordite and piles of bodies. We have no Bastille, Lexington or Gettysburg. And Eureka, cracking yarn though it is, is nothing of the sort.
We could celebrate it on January 1 each year. Instead, we nurse a collective hangover until late January, when we celebrate the First Fleet's arrival - never mind that divisive symbolism of when politics is earnestly working at closing ''the gap'' between white and indigenous Australia.
No - history assigned federation the dull but worthy status of a marathon Council of Australian Governments meeting, a practical resolution to cross-border inconsistencies in railway gauges, tariffs and water rights.
And so, as we move towards the centenary of Anzac, I hope our $15 million will be spent on telling the stories that really matter - the ones behind the names on the plaques. But just as importantly, the stories of those whose names never, actually, made it.
The former Defence Force chief Peter Cosgrove made one of the most astute observations I've heard about the significance of Anzac to Australian sentiment. It was, he said, the Diggers' postwar stoicism as much, perhaps, as the wartime hardships that accounts for our Anzac reverence.''Part of our reverence for them is that somehow they endured.''
In the decades that followed Gallipoli and the Western Front (where a staggering 50,000 Australians died), Australia internalised the terrible emotional and physical legacy of loss, stoically nation building while privately grieving.
Newspapers and politicians brushed over the thousands of suicides, the suburbs of bitter spinsters, the towns of closing sawmills and canneries, the untouched dinners behind tens of thousands of suburban doors, the blokes on street corners muttering profanities and crying at their shadows, and the terrified wives and children.
I understand why Anzac is so important to Australia. But to me it will always be as much about what happened here as there. Which is why we ought to be bemused/angry at Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who came to Australia last week to preach an anti-Muslim message to arguably a bigoted organisation - the Q Society. He said: ''We Europeans owe our freedom in part to the thousands of young and brave Australians who fought, and died, at Passchendaele and Gallipoli.''
Gallipoli, where 8709 Australians died, was a disaster. So, too, was Passchendaele, where 38,000 Australians were killed, went missing in the mud and viscera or were wounded. I wonder how many would like their deaths to be conflated with the ''courage'' of those who give voice to xenophobia.