24 April 2007

ANZAC Day - 25 April 2007

Originally posted on The American Thinker website.

Today is ANZAC Day, and it’s my second since coming to Australia. It’s a singular day from an American point of view, and there are two aspects of it that I’d like to share which make this “holiday” so different from any other I’ve experienced.

For those who don’t know what ANZAC Day is, it is equivalent to Veteran’s Day in the States. It was first observed in 1916 and is held on the day when the first Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed at Gallipoli in 1915. Since then it has come to encompass all of Australia and New Zealand’s war veterans. More can be found at the Australian War Memorial website.

The first aspect of ANZAC Day is, appropriately, the first thing of the day. At places throughout the country, even in very small towns, ceremonies are held in the time just before the sun rises, commemorating the landings at Gallipoli. Unlike some might expect at 5 in the morning, the crowd is not sparse. During my two ANZAC Days in Newcaslte, it has been raining during the ceremony – this morning was exceptionally wet and windy. However, the crowd did not diminish; the traditions were not departed from. We all stood there in the wind and the rain, remembering the sacrifices made by Diggers throughout history. (I use the term “we” because, though not an Australian, I appreciate the fact that Australia has stood by the US in every conflict the US has fought…and I’m fairly certain it is the only country which can claim that.)

As I think about my own activities on 11 November in the States, I can’t say that (even though I am a veteran) I ever felt the kind of patriotism and bonding as I have during this morning ANZAC ceremony. There is sense of community during the ceremony, even if it only stems from the simple fact that so many people decided that the commemoration of ANZACs was important enough to wake up at 4:30 in the morning for, important enough to stand in the driving rain for.

The second aspect stems directly from that sense of community. Over and over again, I’ve been reminded that one aspect of Australian culture celebrated on ANZAC Day is the idea of “mateship”. To an American, that sounds like a very strange word. A very rough translation might be friendship, but that’s not really enough of an explanation. It actually has a definition: “a mode of conduct among Australian men that stresses equality, friendship, and solidarity.” That seems a little simplistic to me, but the point is probably adequately made by those few definitive words. It is a relationship in which, from what I can tell, social status and breeding fall by the wayside and looking after your mate, your true friend, is of utmost importance. And what’s more, you can expect them to do the same for you.

Perhaps it’s better for me to quote at length an Australian here. In a speech given in London, November 2003, Prime Minister John Howard said:

The two world wars exacted a terrible price from us - the full magnitude of that lost potential, of those unlived lives can never be measured. And yet, some of the most admirable aspects of Australia's national character were, if not conceived, then more fully ingrained within us by the searing experiences of those conflicts.

None more so than the concept of mateship - regarded as a particularly Australian virtue - a concept that encompasses unconditional acceptance, mutual and self respect, sharing whatever is available no matter how meagre, a concept based on trust and selflessness and absolute interdependence. In combat, men did live and die by its creed. 'Sticking by your mates' was sometimes the only reason for continuing on when all seemed hopeless.

I wonder what sort of examples will be around in America when I have a child. At the moment, it seems that the most “celebrated” (which, incidentally, is a word which I have no respect for any longer) forms of bonding belong to those in the thug world, the celebrity moronosphere and hip-hop “culture”. I hope these are replaced by something more akin to mateship. And I hope that in the US there can be something developed, some tradition built which echoes the sentiment of ANZAC Day, but in an American vein. These two things, I think, would go a way towards enhancing Americans’ national and personal identities.

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