A Brief Reflection
When it comes to ANZAC Day I’m always in a bind.
The deaths, the maimings and the huge disruptions to ordinary people’s lives should never be forgotten; but to ‘honour’ that suffering in ways that, ultimately, may help to justify that same suffering is deeply abhorrent to me.
For this reason I probably never feel as morally uncomfortable as I do on ANZAC Day.
I have never considered myself a pacifist but the strange thing is that when I discount all conflicts that are unjust, performed primarily in the service of elite interests or just God-awful messes that should never have happened I find few examples where going to war can be supported.
Worse still is that I know that with every ANZAC service – no matter what the intention of participants – the likelihood of popular support for, or compliance with, a future war increases rather than decreases.
And in this way I fear that the intergenerational cycle that created the suffering and sacrifice we commemorate is in danger of being reproduced yet again.
I’d love to think that these services made it less likely for people to support whatever war is promoted next. But I really can’t be sure of that. There’s a reason why there is widespread elite support for the construction of war memorials and enactment of memorial services – and that reason sends shivers down my spine.
In almost all cultures, the warrior spirit is honoured and, most often, encouraged. In fact, simply by elevating the practice of memorialising the deaths of the ‘fallen warriors’ the role of warrior becomes itself elevated in a self-reinforcing circle. In that dynamic, to criticise a warrior – or even to criticise the fighting they have performed – is to walk through a social minefield in which the threat of explosions of public antipathy and vitriol are ever-present dangers.
Militarism is closely related to the social status of the idea (or ideal) of the warrior. It is for this reason that empires have always prioritised and thrived on the commemoration of ‘campaigns’ – whether successful or not. They build statues to heroic military leaders, they commission paintings of battles and military heroism, they name streets and boulevards after the same.
Triumphalist arches, for example, are not just commemorations of metaphorical or abstract triumphs but of battles that established and entrenched geopolitical realities. By contrast, there will be no ‘Arch de Triomphe’ built at the conclusion of the War on Poverty – should it ever be ‘won’.
In small, traditional or even hunter-gatherer societies that self-reinforcing circle that elevated the warrior class was probably necessary to ensure the defence of the small group of homogeneous souls against other groups. But, today, nation states are hardly small groups of homogeneous souls. They are constructions, often forced upon diverse groups which have as much conflict of interest between them as they have interests in common. And, tellingly, armies are always disproportionately unrepresentative of those diverse groups (e.g., African Americans and poor whites dominate the US forces).
So how do I pay tribute to both of the ties that bind me, and put me in a bind? How do I reconcile my respect for those ordinary people who have suffered with my abhorrence at the power interests that generate the wars that have created the suffering?
Until I can work out an answer to that question I will not attend ANZAC Day services.
And whether or not others have attended such services today my one hope is that, at least, they feel the same ‘bind’, the same moral discomfort that I do.
Keeping true to that discomfort may in fact be the best way to ‘honour the fallen’.