The Moral Equivalent of Anzac?

A century on from the Gallipoli landing, perhaps it is time to consider whether Anzac Day still serves moral purposes in the way that it once did. Does our relationship to Anzac Day and the Anzac legend need to change? Is it still an effective form of thanks to our warriors? How useful is the Anzac role model as a tool in the development of moral character?

As former Australian Army Officer James Brown’s book Anzac’s Long Shadow argues, civilians, ADF personnel, and war itself have all changed since the Gallipoli landing, and yet our rituals have remained more or less the same. If April 25th is to feature on the national calendar in another century’s time, perhaps our relationship Anzac needs to develop further.

We celebrate Anzac Day for a multitude of reasons. From a moral perspective there seem to be at least two arguments for the centrality of Anzac Day in the Australian national consciousness: the moral appropriateness of showing thanks for the sacrifices of those who died in our name, and the recognition that Australian military personnel are not only worthy of thanks, but embody virtues that it would behove all citizens to possess.

Foremost among these virtues (although there are many more, beautifully etched in stained-glass in the Australian War Memorial’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) are courage, loyalty, patriotism, common sense, and – highest of all – self-sacrifice. Although these characteristics play a vital function as martial virtues, it’s clear that the traits are virtuous not only for the warrior, but the citizen as well. We need citizens who have the courage to stand up for their beliefs, to commit reasonably to the improvement of the nation, and are willing to sacrifice some of their own comforts for the benefit of the community.

The Anzacs matter to us because, as the Prime Minister explained, “we hope that in striving to emulate their values, we might rise to the challenges of our time as they did to theirs.”

We gather at the cenotaphs for two reasons: to show our thanks and respect to those who have died in our name – whatever we think of the justice of the cause – and to respect the character of those who died. It is not merely that they died, but that they died well. Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett – the journalist whose report of the Gallipoli landing set the tone for the Anzac legend that followed – tells us this: the Australian troops at Gallipoli “were not found wanting”.

American philosopher and psychologist William James describes the military character, which he calls a “pure piece of perfection” as a crucial element of humanity’s moral development. The best aspect of war, he argues, is that it develops virtues that guard against a “pleasure economy” in which individual self-interest leads us to forget tradition, civic duty, and a moral project that we share with the broader community. These are characteristics that describe large parts of our current community, as ABC Religion and Ethics commentator Scott Stephens explains:

We have cut ourselves free of what traditionally has defined us: our family and communities, our moral and civic duties, our obligations to the past and the future, and even our biological inheritance and gender.

The sacrificial, hardy, sacred image of the Anzac arrests our tendency to focus inwardly. On this day, perhaps more than any other, we are reminded of just how crucial it is for individuals to be willing to forgo self-interest in exchange for communal goods.

However, the prevalence of Anzac, as a military role model, can be problematic as well. William James, whilst recognising the benefits of the military character, was concerned about militarism ­– a view in which war’s formative qualities are seen to justify the horror, injustice, and tragedy that usually accompanies it. Militarism, rather than encouraging a morally discerning attitude toward war, glorifies it in the belief that war is the ultimate test of character, and the greatest possible cultivator of virtue. Militarised societies don’t merely accept war; they relish in it.

A study compiled by McCrindle Research reveals that 34% of males, and 42% of Gen Y males would enlist in a war that mirrored that of WWI if it occurred today. If, despite the plethora of historical discussion of WWI and Australia’s role within a conflict which, measured by military success or by objective justice, was futile and unjustified, if despite the horror that men and women suffered, and the rampant disregard for human life that defined that war, over a third of men would re-engage in that conflict today, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the military aspects of our moral role models. Perhaps we’ve gone beyond military imagery and become militarised.

Perhaps it’s time for us to look, as James suggested we do of war, for a moral equivalent, or even multiple equivalents of Anzac – ones that make us “hardy” and virtuous by requiring us to sacrifice some of our own comforts for some higher, collective goal. Many of these already exist, but aren’t afforded the same space in the national ethos. We’ve often turned to sport – and there are wonderful role models within sport, but many modern athletes actively reject the status of role model.

Where to now? Some hope lies, I believe, in Australian art, literature, religion, in religious tradition, and in our national history; in particular, openness to and integration of Aboriginal literature, culture, art and tradition has great promise (and, not unlike Anzac Day, some pain) as a nationally unifying practice. Here, too, virtues of community, of courage, practicality, and what James values most, “hardiness” are clearly on display. Imagine, in years to come, the Wallabies performing a Dreamtime dance in response to the haka – a new imagery to join Anzac in informing our national consciousness.

Yet Anzac must remain. Not only as a teaching tool, but because gratitude for sacrifice is morally right and just. But in terms of gratitude, more must be done to translate Anzac Day’s ritual and ceremony into practical, sustained, and widespread support for Australian veterans all year round. It worries me that, by giving thanks on April 25th, our civic duty to the military community might be deemed to have been fulfilled despite the continuing plight suffered by today’s veterans.

The post-war experience for many veterans is a silent struggle, as they have been left alone to try to re-engage with a society that they fought to defend, but in which they no longer feel at home. War changes people’s characters and re-integrating veterans into the community is a project that has, until now, been left to veterans and veterans’ support groups, who are dramatically under-supported. Our veterans, who suffer from PTSD, moral and physical injuries, increased risk of homelessness and other psychological disorders, need – and deserve – more than ceremonial gratitude. They need mental health support, reintegration programs, income support, and the persistent community empathy that will aid their recovery.

Age shall not weary those men and women we have already lost. Lest we forget those who are still with us, and who still need us. It’s time we repaid that debt.

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