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Wednesday, 25 April 2018

What we should celebrate on Anzac Day

Watching the program on Monash hosted by journalist Peter Greste last night reminded me that there are things that can be celebrated when we think of war. War itself is terrible and should be avoided at all costs, but there is no escaping the fact that it has played a role in our country’s history. The stories surrounding Monash are salutary. Greste, whose family also has German roots, was a sympathetic but intelligent participant in the story.

How Monash was treated by the war historian Charles Bean, who didn’t like him because he was a Jew, and by Keith Murdoch, father of today’s media mogul Rupert, is worth reflecting on when we consider how we treat people from other countries. The two men got in the ear of the prime minister, Billy Hughes, who even went so far as to visit France with the aim of dismissing Monash. But Monash refused to go voluntarily, and Hughes talked with the general's subordinates to gauge their opinion of their commander. Monash stayed and helped to win the war by using the resources at his disposal in innovative and decisive ways.

The feelings that the French people who live in the north of that country have even today when they think of Australia, are also salutary.

On this day in 2012 I wrote a blogpost about my grandmother’s brother, William Robert Ralph Caldicott, who had served in WWII and had been captured at Tobruk. When he returned he was in frail health but there was something else wrong with him as well. He would hardly speak, and granny never spoke of her brother to us when she was alive, even though she lived with us in our house in Vaucluse, having left her husband who remained in Melbourne. Dad had given her a secure place to live in Sydney and granny worked alongside mum in the gift shop they operated for decades. I can’t account for her silence on the matter of her brother except to reflect that she must have had felt something like shame in relation to him. I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of it but what is incontrovertible is that participation in the war was highly traumatic for him and ultimately shortened his life.

Not all my relatives ended up so badly off as a result of war. Granny’s father William Henry Caldicott had fought in WWI, as had mum’s father’s brother, Arthur Dean. William Henry returned from France and remarried, his first wife having died in childbirth, and he named a son he had with his new wife, Jack Anzac. Arthur returned to Melbourne and studied law, eventually becoming a justice of the Victorian Supreme Court and the chancellor of Melbourne University. He was knighted in 1944.

Many Australian families have stories like this to tell. The other important thing to keep in mind is our relative geopolitical isolation. Our habit of going to war with the US – Australia is the only country in the world to have joined with them in every war they have fought since WWII – can be viewed as something like periodic payments on an insurance policy. It sounds rather brutal to frame it like this, but the continued service of our military personnel in conflicts around the world does have this to recommend it, especially in light of China’s continued reluctance to move toward a political settlement more in line with global standards.

When it comes down to it the dawn service is a fitting way, once a year, to remember the war dead and to reflect on the meaning of war. It should never be used by politicians to justify harsh foreign policy but it will always be difficult to predict what people will do in the future if circumstances change. It certainly has one thing to recommend it: Anzac Day tends to bring people together. Some might reject what they perceive as a glorification of militarism, but in the main, like with other important Australian institutions (the ABC for example), people come together on Anzac Day. On this day they create meaning in a generous spirit animated by the sort of lofty feelings that should be encouraged in any polity. And it happens all over the place, in small communities up and down the country where memorial monuments are found dotting the landscape like dressings on wounds in the body politic that can never entirely heal.

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