Around this time of year, there is always a stirring in the Australian mind, a remembrance of the legends we were told surrounding the ANZAC spirit and sacrifice. This year, paired with the century of mythology that confronts us on the 25th of April, will the narratives of 'Australianness' being co-opted by political candidates in a quest of their own, as they hurdle towards the election day finish line. In this post, J.A. Penrose's poem 'Sometimes I Envy Icarus' reminds us of the place of myth, and the need for us to interrogate its relevance to our modern day lives.
Along with January 26th, there's no denying that April 25th is one of the most politically charged days on the Australian calendar. Those who advocate for the continuation of the rituals surrounding commemoration of the ANZAC legend, do so through the rhetoric of national identity; these young men, sacrificial lambs of larger world powers, formed unbreakable bonds of mateship, showed courage, loyalty and resilience in the face of certain defeat. And these are the values we cherish today. Politicians use it as an excuse to wax lyrical about the ANZACs giving rise to our Australian values that are the foundation of our country, admitting to the fact that the values we are all supposed to aspire and live to in our country are in fact those of white men, formed from their experiences laden with their own privilege and at the expense of the women, First Nations people and People of Colour.
And no, that's not me being a precious feminist, women had only secured voting rights a decade before and had only been allowed to own property for 30 years. The picture for First Nations people at this time was even more grim, they wouldn't even be considered human for another 50 years. This was the milieu in which our Australian values were formed, these are the exclusive values (by which I mean only one group in Australia was responsible for forming them) that we champion every April, that we defend with online vitriol if someone dare question the real purpose of ANZAC Day, that we accept, blindly, as being the standard to which we should aspire.
The values that protected Australia throughout the past, still protect us to this day. Scott Morrison, 2020
But what if we interrogated the ANZAC legend? A friend of Mona and experienced historian often remarks to me around this occasion, 'I don't know why we celebrate it, it was a defeat. How many countries celebrate a defeat in war?' And she has a point. So why have we dug our heels in so fervently around this ANZAC legend? Why have we built this mythology over time that is beyond examination, beyond reproach and that we have invested so much emotion in that any challenging of it results in people being vilified, called unAustralian or cast out as heartless and disrespectful to the memory of those who fought. The key is in our friendly historian's observation: How many countries celebrate a defeat in war? Yes, over time, ANZAC Day has come to also include tributes to soldiers who perished in other wars and hardships on military missions, but primarily, the legend was formed on that beach in Turkey in 1915. Then, we were a young country, we had federated in 1901 and European Australians were still heavily reliant on Britain for a sense of identity, but Britain did little for the country except to collect taxes and send a royal out every now and then. Sending troops to their death to support a country that didn't provide much in return must have been heart wrenching for the families who, too late, realised what had happened.
The sacrifice of a generation of Australian men would have been difficult to reconcile, difficult to accept that it was not in fact bravery, but ignorance of the circumstances they would face on the front, and difficult to know that, though their sacrifice had been a strategic one, it hadn't even led to victory in that battle (in fact, Turkey celebrate this victory as the defining moment of the formation of their nation state). And so, whilst it is senseless, the violence, the sacrifice, we make sense of it; we tell it as a tale of values, and not of preventable and futile loss. It becomes less about the concrete details of what happened (though we continue to teach these in our schools and read diary entries at ANZAC Day ceremonies) and more about the abstract as we wrap our brains around how and why this could have happened.
Could we, instead, memorialise these men, these soldiers, as individuals, and not immortalised heroes responsible for founding our nation's identity? Could we challenge the idea that one group of people should determine what it means to be Australian? Or could we at least acknowledge that this is the one day of the year that we actually tell the truth about this: that the values we are so proud of are those of young, white, able-bodied, Christian men. When do we celebrate inclusiveness, peace, curiousity, equality, as fundamental Australian values? Or when do we celebrate the values of the real Australian fighters, our First Nations people, who, if warring is our benchmark, have been engaged in battles for over 65 000 years, but most of all, who managed to defeat while settlers time and time again through ingenuity, patience and intelligence?
This year, we have the added layer of the election campaigning period spanning over ANZAC Day. It's a prime opportunity for candidates to frame ANZAC Day as a reminder of the horrific nature of war and violence and pledge that it won't happen again on their watch (commence perfect segue into their defence plan...). It's always interesting to hear this, given that, at least at the moment, we are spending roughly 48 billion dollars on defence and on International Peace Keeping (and Peace Enforcing) missions, our ADF personnel are armed (we are currently peace keeping and peace enforcing in Sudan and Darfur).
It isn't dissimilar to the pledges we've heard in the last year about committing to reducing and eliminating violence against women, it won't happen on their watch. Ultimately, though, it seems violence and conflict is all too much, it becomes too overwhelming, and our system just, gives in to it. We're yet to see, though, WWPKT Day. It doesn't roll off the tongue as easily, and it definitely isn't enshrined in Australian legend, even though it's been happening for centuries. We don't collectively memorialise all the women whose partners have killed them as a group, we don't talk about their personal traits as Australian values that we should all aspire to. Their deaths are just as senseless, just as violent, just as sacrificial; so why don't we seek to make sense of them as a group, rather than explain them away through their individual circumstances and behaviours? See them as defeated by a common enemy, and then demonise that enemy as we've done to, say, the Nazis?
We don't collectively memorialise all the women whose partners have killed them as a group. Their deaths are just as senseless, just as violent, just as sacrificial.
It's as simple as us not seeing women as nation builders, and us therefore not feeling guilt for their sacrifice, another iteration of not recognising the contribution that groups other than heterosexual, white, able-bodied, cis-gender men make to our society. This country is built off the back of women's unpaid labour, domestic and emotional, and their historical swallowing of unfair conditions for the betterment of men and capitalist institutions. ANZAC mythology relies on the guilt - it's why there are always so many collective pronouns in those speeches - of all of us who leave profitable and productive lives now, owing them to those who faced the guns at Gallipoli. But that narrative is just that: a myth.
As J. A. Penrose shows us in 'Sometimes I Envy Icarus', a myth is only as powerful as its blind acceptance. True, the mythology of Ancient Greece was often as violent and drenched in sacrifice as the ANZAC legend, and what Penrose shows us in her poem is how to climb inside these stories, look around and notice the cracks. Penrose proves there are ways out of the rigid roles and plots, that we aren't stuck in these narratives or their morals, that there is the opportunity to rewrite them for a modern world. Take heed this ANZAC Day Monas, when you listen to the rhetoric that dictates to you how you should be feeling and the values to which you should hold yourself accountable; there is an opportunity to rewrite the ANZAC myth for the modern world.
Sometimes I Envy Icarus
by J.A. Penrose
Sometimes I envy Icarus.
He flew so high that the sun felt threatened;
Cast him down from the foot of the throne without a hesitation.
Icarus, the reckless fool, he had been warned of the sun's jealousy, so why would he
Fly so high?
Why would he risk the fall?
Why climb to the height from which he would die?
Many talk of how he laughed as he fell;
How the wax searing across his back was a contrast to the
Cold, numbness from the labyrinth.
How the pain from the fire above made the fire within burn brighter
And how as he fell into the ocean's darkness his world became lighter.
However if Icarus was the son of the wisest then surely he knew he'd meet his death in this way.
Surely he knew that the price to pay to see the truth of the day was to be unmade
And surely the consequences were not met by hubris blinded eyes.
Icarus knew that to fly meant he would fall.
He only ventured to the sky that he might die.
Yes, the sun was jealous of Icarus for the heights he reached,
But I'm jealous also that he had the chance to feel the blazing heat across his skin
Knowing that life had only been cruel to him
And that in this one last attempt to mock him with freedom
Icarus could spit the offer back in Life's face.
Icarus, I'm jealous not because you flew to the foot of the gods,
But that you fell to be among them once and for all.
I don’t live where you did Icarus;
I’ve never set foot within the Labyrinth in which you were raised.
But never can I leave my own maze of red dirt and of
I don’t need to fly high to feel the burning sun on my back.
I don’t need to fly high in order to sink beneath the salty crash of the waves.
I don’t need to fly high I don’t need to die.
Icarus! hold my hand and fall no more.
For we don’t need another tragedy today
We simply need a chance to rewrite the past,
To rewrite lore.
We have enough stories of death.
Let us have one now of the new chance: The new breath.
Note: The myth of Icarus comes from Ancient Greece. Daedalus, a mythical inventor, created wings made of feathers and wax to escape from Crete where he and his son, Icarus, were held captive by the King. Icarus, however, ignored his father's warnings and flew too close to the sun. His wings melted and he fell into the sea, causing his death.