COVER STORY: by Mark LopezNews Weekly
ANZAC DAY: A new dawn for Australian national pride
, May 12, 2007
Anzac Day has become the nation's choice as its pre-eminent national day, writes Mark Lopez.
When the last post sounded in the pre-dawn darkness, I discreetly looked around me. I saw solemn faces, and heads respectfully bowed. Family groups huddled closely together in contemplation.
|Children at Anzac Day dawn service,|
Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne,
April 25, 2007. (Photo by Mark Lopez).
Nearby, a young woman leaned back to nestle comfortably in the secure embrace of her boyfriend. Both were hushed, heads bowed. The old and the young stood side by side, although, at that quiet moment, each of them would have had their own private thoughts of commemoration and remembrance.
The presence of this massive silent congregation, of more than 30,000, had transformed the gardens around Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance into a colossal outdoor church. One could not help feeling that you were in the midst of something special.Immense crowd
After the service, the mood lifted, becoming more festive in the fresh dawn light. Many cheerfully posed for pictures in front of the shrine and the backdrop of the immense crowd that swarmed around it. Attentive fathers perched their toddlers on their shoulders to give them a grand view of the spectacle. Groups of teenagers, apparently there of their own accord, appeared to be in high sprits. Several had draped themselves in Australian flags, worn both as a cape and as a statement.
Families with a member in a crisply starched and polished military uniform seemed especially proud, and so did those who attended to frail grandfathers or great-grandfathers whose chests glittered with service medals.
Although the majority present appeared to be of Anglo-Celtic or of European descent, those of Asian or Middle-Eastern appearance who attended strolled in the carefree manner of people who felt completely welcome. They were.
The vandalisation with graffiti of a war memorial in Bathurst, New South Wales, by five teenage peace activists provided a stark reminder of the threats to ANZAC Day from the activist left during the 1960s and 1970s, when all things military were ridiculed and vilified in the over-confident belief that the ANZAC tradition was on the verge of extinction while these activists owned the future.
Notably, this recent act of disrespect did not provoke soul-searching over the national identity but rather a community effort in Bathurst to clean the memorial in time for the ceremony, as well as unanimous condemnation from mainstream politicians from the left and right. The times have indeed changed.
It is a paradox that the tiny nation of Australia, which is traditionally so unmilitaristic and unwarlike, has produced so many outstanding servicemen and women who are responsible for so many outstanding feats of arms. This is a distinguished military record that continues into the 21st century. This history has provided the stories that have been told and retold, or discovered and rediscovered, by a nation that is increasingly eager to reflect upon, learn from, or be moved by events like the Gallipoli campaign, the siege of Tobruk, the struggle for the Kokoda trail, or the battle of Long Tan.
One of the reasons why the dawn service is so significant as a barometer of national pride is because it is so difficult to attend. It involves a very early rise, which itself requires substantial commitment. In addition, the journey is difficult. In St Kilda that morning, I boarded the only tram scheduled that could get me to the shrine before dawn.
After two more stops, the tram was so full of pilgrims that the driver no longer stopped the vehicle as we hurtled down St Kilda Road to our destination. We passed scores of people waiting eagerly or dashing desperately to catch a tram that was no longer stopping for anyone. Many others were making their way on foot. By the time the tram reached the Toorak Road intersection, we could see shadowy flocks, hundreds strong, silently heading north.
Approaching the shrine, cars had been parked everywhere, on nature strips, on traffic islands, despite the risk of fines. When the tram stopped and emptied, the people excitedly made their way through the darkness, drawn towards the sombre amplified oration, which had already begun, until they were suddenly confronted by a great sea of humanity in which they took their place.
While thousands had made it there, there were additional thousands left in transit, attending in spirit only. Those gathered would have felt part of something extraordinary, a collective reverence for the nation's past that was serving to redefine its present.
Only by attending a dawn service or a veterans' commemorative march can you appreciate what Anzac Day is about. Anzac Day is about gratitude and loss, honour and humility, courage and forgiveness. It is about all of this - and more.
It is also about love - the enduring love of families and of old friends. When one attends a dawn service one can observe this plainly, and even feel it. That is why Anzac Day has modestly endured to become the nation's choice as its pre-eminent national day.- Dr Mark Lopez is an educational consultant, historian and the author of The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics (Melbourne University Press, 2000).