Wednesday, April 25, 2012

ANZAC Day, Toynbee & impermanence

Here in Australia today is ANZAC Day. I could tell that it was coming for last year's ANZAC Day post, ANZAC Day, national identity & the power of images, suddenly reappeared as a top post in my blog stats.

This is the seventh ANZAC Day since I started writing this blog. Looking back, I have largely ignored the celebration. In my one and only post on ANZAC Day prior to last year, I wrote:

"I have very mixed feelings about ANZAC Day

As I wrote in an earlier post written on Remembrance Day (11 November), 416, 809 Australians enlisted for service during the First World War, representing 38.7 per cent of the total male population aged between 18 to 44. At almost 65 per cent, the Australian casualty rate (deaths, wounds, illness) proportionate to total embarkations was the highest of the war.

All Australian families were affected.

Uncle Will's Christian beliefs would not allow him to take life, but he felt that he must do his duty. His solution was to join as a stretcher bearer. On the day of the Gallipoli landing he wrote to brother Morris:
"I have tried to play the game and to live up to the ideas Jesus has set before me."
Will survived the War, Morris did not.

Morris did not enlist immediately. Then on 7 August 1915 he wrote to brother David (my grandfather):
"Perhaps you will not be altogether surprised but I have felt it coming on - like a bad cold .... while I have the conviction that men are really required I cannot hang back and let someone else carry my bundle... I've taken the step and hope it won't be labour in vain, but at any rate I've no delusions about the fun and glory of it."
Morris was offered an immediate commission but declined it. Officer training would have delayed his passage, and he also wanted to know first something about the men he would command.

In May 1917 came the news that Lieutenant Morris Drummond MC had been killed in brave but futile attempt to force the German lines in front of Reincourt. Lt. Jim Harrison, a fellow officer, wrote to Will Drummond on 6 May:
"Maurice was ... the most fearless officer in the Batallion, he was exceeding his duty at the time, very typical of him."
Many in my generation, that affected by the Vietnam War, had reservations about ANZAC Day because we saw it as a celebration of war. While my own views have changed over time, I still have mixed feelings.

All nations require symbols to unify their peoples. I find it a little sad that a military event, that Australia's military tradition, should become so dominant in symbolic terms. Still, in typical wry Australian fashion, we celebrate a defeat!"

This is a personal blog. The title I chose for it, Personal Reflections, accurately reflects its intent. Those who know me personally will know that my personal moods and experiences drive my writing. In it's own way, this blog is a personal diary.

Unlike previous years, ANZAC Day had a special meaning for me last year. P1020333
In September and October 2010 we visited Greece and especially the Greek Islands. This is a photo of Denise, Clare and I taken at our hotel in Athens.

It was a happy time. It was also a time that allowed me to indulge my love of history. As I walked the cobbled streets, looked at the buildings, gazed at the seas that Homer had recorded, some of the history that was interested in had a new visual and geographic expression.

As Australian soldier John Learmouth travelled on the troop ship towards his still unseen death on Crete, he wrote:
I have forgotten what little ancient history I ever read; but I fancy Ulysses must have sailed in the04_acropolis_225se seas. I wonder did the Sirens live on one of those little islands over there, now slumbering so peacefully in the warm laughing sea; and do those rocks hide the caves of Cyclops, the one-eyed giant? What history has been made among these seas; what sagas of the human race have had their setting here. Thousands of years ago men have sailed these seas to go to war, and we sail them today for the same purpose.
I had not heard of John Learmouth When I visited Crete. However, I was aware of the deaths of New Zealand and Australian soldiers in the Battle of Crete. They were just the latest in a long line of deaths in this contested arena.

This led me to visit the war memorial museum at Iraklion.
I saw last year's ANZAC Day through the prism set by these experiences. It led me to write a number of posts linked in some way to ANZAC Day. This year, I find that my mind is running on a different track.

My historical research and writing means that I am constantly aware of the fragility of the human condition. I have no especial expectation that anything that I love or am just familiar with can survive. History shows that the  reality is different. This does not make me a pessimist.

If we start from the premise of impermanence, we also find that individual action defers the dire day, that it can lead to longer term improvement. We can do things, but we must have realistic expectations.      
The recent discussion thread on this blog has centred on civilisation and progress. Train Reading - introducing Toynbee's Civilization on Trial introduced the work of Arnold Toynbee. I don't want to say a lot further on Toynbee here, just a few notes relevant to this post.

Civilisation on Trial was published in 1949. The collected essays in the book were written over a twenty year period from the 1920s to the immediate post second world war period. The cold war had begun, although the USSR had yet to get the bomb. Europe was exhausted, drained by the two great wars that form the centre piece of ANZAC Day. The first war had seen the collapse of the old dynastic order, the second had begun the dismemberment of the European empires. The western centre of gravity had shifted to the United States.

Much of Toynbee's writing focused on the rise and fall of civilisations. Civilisation on Trial addresses one of Toynbee's concerns, could western civilisation itself avoid the decline experienced by all previous civilisations? The key audiences addressed are the middle classes in western countries. Despite the wars, this globally tiny elite still believed that, for them, history had ended. The comfortable assurance that their systems and values were right and enduring survived. Not so, said Toynbee. The world is different now.

I will look at Toynbee's reasoning in a later post. My present point is that the comfortable assurance that Toynbee refers to is still there. It pays us to remember that in considering ANZAC Day. After all, it is a celebration based on a defeat!


Anonymous said...

That was a lovely piece on Anzac Day Jim.

For myself I was quietly proud to see my brother in law as the guest speaker at the Martin Place Dawn Service. His sister, and mother and father would all have been 'chuffed' - as my father in law used to say.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, kvd. That was a lovely comment! I still use chuffed.