Commentary · History · Reflection

Clio’s Clerk: Opening Pandora’s draw- my experience of developing empathy in association with Anzac Day commemorations.

In this post, I discuss how Anzac Day commemorations appear to someone with no direct experience with war.  Does Anzac Day develop national pride?  Do Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) institutions offer visitors a glorified sense of war?  What meaning do local displays of remembrance have?  Finally, does empathy matter to ANZAC Day commemorations?

Somewhere, my paternal grandfather’s medals, representing his service in the Korean war, exist.  Someone, amongst the members of my extended family, owns a draw that holds his medals. When I try to locate them, my dad, who hasn’t served, offers the opinion they aren’t “heroic” medals.  I, who also have not acted in a military capacity, state they are heroic because the person awarded these medals served in a war.  Like so many others, Grandad put his mental and physical health on the line for a nation and today, I find that was worth, at least, some metal and ribbon.

Those few lines were the most substantial conversation we have had about the meaning of war in our family for a very long time.

Somewhere, amongst various family members, there is also knowledge about wartime experiences.  A narrative exists, waiting to be patchworked together. I imagine the narrative would speak to what it is like to serve in the Australian armed forces.  But we don’t talk about that.  Nor do our conversations speak to our pride in Grandad serving the nation.  We do not speak of what it was for him to fight for Queen and country.  We don’t talk about the apparent sense of belonging that was supposed to come from enlisting.  Instead, we find ourselves focused on other narratives. As descendants of a woman who told stories in a captivating manner, and freely so we could learn, we have an understanding of women’s wartime experiences.  We learned from a young age about what it was to see a man’s haunted looks after he returned home. We carry with us knowledge about the experience of soothing a man after nightmares disrupted his dreams of a life, after the war.

How then can I celebrate Australia’s involvement in wars?

Honestly, I can’t celebrate it.

When it comes to Anzac Day, Remembrance Day, and all the other days on the Australian calendar that promote warfare as the means to demonstrate one’s Australian identity, I find myself questioning the value of such celebrations. I do try to understand the motivations of the people involved in such days.  Research shows the value of widescale public commemorations appears to be limited.  On Dr Anna Kent’s recommendation, I read the International and Political scholar Ned Dobos’ article, ‘Does commemorating the war really promote peace’, as it appeared in The Interpreter.  Drawing on US research, Dobos highlighted how commemorations brought about acknowledgments and regret from being involved in warfare. Still, typically the act of commemoration was more likely to prompt feelings of national pride and admiration.  I thought it was a good article.  The lengthy conversation I had with my colleagues- some with military ties, some without, all of us with strong opinions- showed me others appreciated the article too.  Our reasons for appreciation differed.  For me, commemorative events, or artefacts, prompt emotions such as empathy, not pride.  I asserted to my peers, that commemorative actions have more value than being a tool of government propaganda.

If Anzac Day, 25 April, is meant to be about “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served” why is the narrative focused on producing national pride?

The use of war as nationalistic propaganda is not a new discussion point for Australian historians.  With the unbridled passion of a person in their twenties, I loathed all things military in the 1990s.  I thought commemorative moments could only, and did only, glorify war.  In 1993, I perceived Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Funeral of the Unknown Australian Soldier on Remembrance Day cynically.  When war veterans were aging and the direct experience of serving faded it was a means to keep wartime commemoration an active element of Australian society. When, in 2005, the then Prime Minister, John Howard, used Anzac commemoration to push national values, I loathed ANZAC day for the masculine, heteronormative, xenophobic representations it created.  As far as I could see, the value of these actions was limited to a few in our society. 

As I have aged, I have learned there are numerous ways to commemorate wartime. Ways that are not solely focused on the heroic soldier narrative that is often the dominant narrative asserted by politicians and the media during yearly Anzac events.  In 2018, I met a historian, Dr Bart Ziino, who quietly listened to my diatribe about the limited value of military history. He then, ever so kindly and with much patience (more than I deserved, I think in hindsight), showed me there was more to wartime histories than stories of valour.  Ziino told me about histories concerning trauma, of domestic responses, children and literature.  This new knowledge was combined with my predilection to haunt museums and galleries, such as the Old Treasury Building in Melbourne, and view exhibitions like Women Work for Victory in World War II . There is contention over what should be achieved in such scenarios. Compassion, where you share the feelings of another or empathy, where you acknowledge the feelings of another but do not share them. Part of the reason I go to GLAM institutions is to learn–to evoke my empathy.  

Australians’ commemorating war experiences seem to lack focus on the important roles that galleries, archives, museums and libraries play in this debate.  The function of the Australian War Memorial is a particularly interesting organisation to consider.  The institution preserves various documents from the upper to lower classes, men and women, official and unofficial artworks, maps, photographs and diaries.  Historians and curators there produce exhibitions and essays for the Australian public, yet the incredible amount of funding this institution receives is done to the detriment of other historic record-keeping places.  This process has been well addressed in publications such as the Canberra Times (here).  The question of who supports the funding of AWM podcasts has also been brought to the Australian media’s attention. Yet, this line of questioning seems to exist away from discussions about the act of Anzac commemoration.  A factor I find perplexing.  How can we be proud of taking money from weapons manufacturers and seem to marking the horror of war at the same time?  How can there be pride when smaller historical societies, hosts for regional and local artefacts and records, need funding to ensure preservation is maintained?  Where is their support?  

I can’t walk the shores where wartime landings occurred, and I will not serve my country in the armed forces, but I can engage with archives, GLAM exhibitions and see how my local community view Anzac Day to better understand the diverse value of this day to other Australians.

In the past decade, my understanding of Australian war commemoration has changed thanks to local demonstrations of Anzac commemoration.  In 2018 I attended Anzac sunrise services with my child’s Scout troop.  Standing with others in front of the local war memorial, I heard stories that recognised Indigenous soldiers’ period of service and the poor mental health of returned soldiers. I saw the continuing impact these events had on older, local, religious leaders as they tried to address matters of the soul after irreversible harm was done to the body and mind.  I came away from these moments willing to acknowledge the experiences of fighting others as part of the armed forces, defending national values, will never be mine, and I may not truly understand why people enlist. Still, I no longer adhered to ignoring Anzac Day either.  Dr Kent’s blog post shows a very different response to a similar event.  Regardless of our differences, we both recognise Australia, as a nation, needs to partake in a more complex form of commemoration if it is to create a unified sense of nationhood.

In 2020, public, personal, displays of remembrance increased. The issue was, without contextualization, we can only guess to what their creators were trying to say. Image: Deborah Lee-Talbot.

When I walked my neighbourhood in the eastern suburbs of Victoria in 2020, I saw individual displays of Anzac remembrance.  These types of displays had not occurred prior to the travel restrictions and lockdowns of 2020-2021. Viewing these items I thought of the American Enola Gay exhibition controversy, where the intention to display complex narratives about the many participants in a war was shouted down, successfully, by nationalistic ambition.  I looked at these local displays (such as the image directly above) and asked what was their purpose?  Are they a display full of nationalistic pride?  An instance of remembering the trauma of war?  Without speaking to the creators, who remained hidden in the sprawl and privacy of suburban life, I could only impose my personal beliefs on what I saw.  These displays were a means of acknowledging the past publicly.  As an Australian-Pacific historian, I appreciate that, as I believe if the nation does not remember past events, then we do not recognise how the past shaped our social world and culture today.  And that complex understanding is something I can understand fighting for.

Deborah Lee-Talbot

[1] Mindfulness in Social Psychology. (2017). United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 52.