Honest History list: Remembrance Day analysed

These articles, some new, some already on our website, raise some important aspects of Remembrance Day, once Armistice Day, always ‘the eleventh day of the eleventh month – and at the eleventh hour’, one of the earliest mantras many of us can remember. A number of the articles compare Remembrance and Anzac Days:

  • Janna Thompson asked whether we have an obligation to remember and honour the dead. ‘The dead are dead. They can’t be gratified by our remembrance or insulted by a failure to honour them.’
  • Tom Gregory said ‘simply counting the bodies of those killed in war may not actually help us understand the death and destruction caused by war. Instead, my worry is that they end up erasing the violence inflicted on each of the bodies of those affected by war, and numbing our emotional responses to the deaths of others.’
  • Ben Wellings suggested Remembrance Day is overshadowed by Anzac Day because the latter has nation-building appeal, because Anzac falls in autumn, a season which (in our hemisphere) has a melancholy tinge to it, and because Anzac Day is a public holiday.
  • Peter Stanley talked to Max Opray about Day vs Day, noting that ‘[t]here is a very national focus to ANZAC Day, while for Remembrance Day the focus is increasingly on all those who died in wars, regardless of who they fought for’. Jim Prentis of the RSL has a different view.
  • Harry Leslie Smith said we should not let ‘sepia-tinted nostalgia get in the way of a real understanding of the costs of war’. He went on to say: ‘For every act of unique heroism we remember, we often forget or ignore all those who, because of post-traumatic stress disorder or moral or religious objections, were unwilling to put their lives on the line for king and country.’
  • Paul Daley drew upon the Monash University project, One Hundred Stories, to get beyond Remembrance Day official puffery, to the real stories of the men who bore the brunt.
    • ‘Lives like Naughton’s make it impossible for me to accept any notion that our soldiers’ life force somehow transformed into an enduring “spirit” of Anzac after they supposedly willingly sacrificed themselves in battle. No less ludicrous is the cultural acceptance that they are the “fallen”, not the killed or dead. The real stories of the men who died and survived are harrowing. The men themselves deserve more than to have their reality shrouded in distracting, quasi-religious hyperbole.’
  • Daley also wrote about Remembrance Day in 2010. He compared Australian attitudes to Remembrance and Anzac Days, suggesting they grew from the early attitudes of the Diggers, who felt the former day was more about commemoration of those who died, the latter more about the endurance of those who survived.
  • Damian Powell in a 2003 paper looked at many aspects of the history of Remembrance Day, particularly in comparison with Anzac Day.
  • Scott MacInnes also explored how Remembrance Day, with its emphasis on suffering, is different from Anzac Day.
  • Rowan Cahill on how a family’s military past does not necessarily echo down through the generations.
  • But former prime minister, John Howard, speaking at Remembrance Day 2014, used the occasion to harness the Anzac spirit in the cause of Australia’s latest military expedition. ‘[A]s we contemplate that mission [in Iraq] … let us remember that they stand on the shoulders of their Anzac forebears and they carry in their mission the same values of this country as did their forebears.’
  • Howard also made a notable point about equality of sacrifice, when referring to the death of the last Australian to die in Afghanistan, Lance Corporal Todd Chidgey. Stressing individual sacrifice rather than what was at stake underlines the point made by Hugh White that Australians have always been more concerned about how we fight (and die) than about why we fight. ‘Sacrifice’ is seen to be above the mundane consideration of rights and wrongs, a point which Elizabeth Samet explores.
    • ‘As we gather today [said Howard] we should also remember there is no hierarchy of sacrifice among Australia’s war dead … His [Chidgey’s] sacrifice and his contribution to the liberty of Australia stands equal to the contribution to every loss of Australian life that had gone before. Because we recognise in equal measure the contribution and the sacrifice no matter what the conflict may be.’

11 November 2014 and updated

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