THE Anzac Day silly season is throwing up its usual list of casualties. The first this year are Labor’s federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd (not that it seems to have hurt his poll ratings) and his Sunrise mate, the Liberals’ federal Workplace Minister Joe Hockey. How dare they, protested the RSL, be a party to the finagling of David Koch and Melissa Doyle to beat the clock with a false-dawn service from Long Tan. So, no longer are these odd bedfellows the life and soul of Sunrise once a week.
Closer to home, Vietnam veterans’ bleatings over the Burnie branch’s decision to allow non-veterans to lead an Anzac Day march got me wondering about the maturity (or lack of it) of the organisation that proclaims itself guardian of the trivia that symbolises our nation’s heritage of violence abroad.
It would be reasonable to expect a fair degree of maturity considering the RSL was founded 90 years ago, but its spokesmen (I cannot remember there ever having been a woman speaking for the RSL) have long come across as day-before-yesterday’s people out of touch with the reality that we are well advanced into an era when no one really gives a tinker’s cuss whether we have sound political or military leadership as long as our hip pockets are full and there’s petrol in the tank.
It’s difficult to decide whether the RSL’s constant harping is innate or whether it is more shrill these days because it is encouraged by a national political leader (who has never worn a uniform as far as I can glean) determined to revive this obsolete institution (along with lots of other empire rubbish) by trying to persuade young Australians to cherish so much of what is flawed in our national character.
The Burnie shemozzle surely has its origins in the Vietnam vets’ bitterness at not being welcomed home as heroes (certainly not conquering) from a stoush that should never have been fought and Australia should never have been involved in.
I cannot recall, when they were brought home in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that we felt any animosity toward our returning warriors (regular or conscript). They had gone to a war not of their making; they had performed creditably and courageously; and they had done what every soldier is honour bound to do: obey superiors’ orders.
Our Vietnam vets had done nothing wrong in most people’s eyes. It was just that many Australians were feeling self-conscious that their country had got involved in a conflict that was none of their business and that the people of Vietnam should have been left to settle among themselves. (If, after General Giap defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, this had happened, several million Vietnamese might have been able to live peacefully into old age, even if under communist rule.)
The Vietnam fiasco was a war that an old soldier (President Dwight Eisenhower) would not have allowed to happen; a war that a philanderer (President John Kennedy) made inevitable by covertly providing American fire power in the guise of “advisers”; a war that the hubris of a political bully (President Lyndon Johnson) intensified; and a war that a political crook (Richard Nixon) brought, via de facto surrender, to an end.
Perhaps it’s unfair to blame PM John Howard for the RSL’s recurrent infantility. Even in the early 1960s, soon after arriving in Australia, I was surprised to find that this organisation fancied itself as much more than just an old-soldiers’ club. I had been used to England’s British Legion, a friendly, apolitical group whose main aim was to provide a comfortable club environment in which members could enjoy darts, dominoes, billiards, snooker and a few quiet ales.
In Sydney, I found a fiercely political organisation, constantly instructing the Menzies Liberal-Country Party coalition how to manage Defence matters and how to prepare against imminent Asian invasion. (I think “yellow peril” had just begun to fade from the colloquial, but the fear of Asia remained palpable.)
More out of curiosity than a desire for club comforts, sometime in 1961 I approached a Sydney RSL sub-branch — I think it was Rockdale, it could have been Kogarah — for membership forms. I told them I had just been demobbed, as a national servicemen, from the British army, in which I had served in Singapore and Malaya at the tail-end of the 1948-60 “emergency”’. ‘‘Sorry, you can’t be a member,’’ I was told. “Malay Emergency veterans aren’t recognised.’’ I’m not sure, but I seem to remember that, at the time, Korean War veterans were still not recognised — or had just been — by the RSL. In those days, of course, the RSL had no shortage of “real’’ vets, even from World War I.
I did not protest, and soon afterwards moved to then colonial Papua and New Guinea (that’s how it was termed at the time). And there I found the “state” (PNG) RSL branch waging a virulent verbal campaign against proselytising Jehovah’s Witnesses. It wanted them made a proscribed body because it regarded them as a subversive influence on “the natives’‘. (Fortunately for the Witnesses, RSL HQ back in Australia wouldn’t buy into this dangerous anti-religious push, and so it soon became history.)
Down the decades since, each year, especially as the hallowed dawn moment has approached, we have heard outrage from old RSL-ers protesting the sanctity of (and their proprietorial right to) Anzac Day.
Their annual indignation must have been music to the ears of our doughty warrior PM, who, despite the evidence, seems blind to the blood and broken bones that litter our nation’s path to a yet-to-be attained maturity.
At his urging, the RSL has campaigned vigorously to revive the Anzac spirit among the young. On April 25, we will see them again in their thousands, tiny flag in hand, paying solemn respect to survivors of events unknown, and which mean nothing, to them; events that — apart from World Wars I and II — we might easily have avoided had we had sensible, been-there-done-that, canny old soldiers leading our federal parliament rather than professional politicians.
Anzac Day, indelibly a part of Australian tradition, should be respected by all Australians. But, like Christmas Day, it should be marked only by those who genuinely feel the need to do so. For John Howard or the RSL to talk it up among people who have to be taught “the spirit of Anzac’’ is akin to the “guided democracy’’ Indonesians experienced for nearly 30 years under the dictator Suharto.
True tradition persists naturally; enforced tradition usually ends in its demise.
Anzac Day, indelibly a part of Australian tradition, should be respected by all Australians. But, like Christmas Day, it should be marked only by those who genuinely feel the need to do so. For John Howard or the RSL to talk it up among people who have to be taught “the spirit of Anzac” is akin to the “guided democracy” Indonesians experienced for nearly 30 years under the dictator Suharto.