BY FREEK COLOMBIJN
More than two decades ago I published an article on the urban symbolism of Canberra, the national capital of Australia. When Australian states federated to become an independent state in 1901, it was a nation in search of a national identity. The exploits of Australian troops in the First World War, and in particular the ill-fated landing at Gallipoli in the Bosporus, formed a source of inspiration and the result is that monuments that commemorate the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) loom large in the formation of Australian national identity. The martial imaginary was reinforced by ANZAC’s participation in later wars, like the Second World War and the Vietnam War. Invariably, the Australian national type is tough, heroic, male, and white. At least, that was my conclusion in my 1998 study of the war memorial and many statues in the country’s capital. I found similarly heroic monuments in Melbourne and Sydney. A closer look at these monuments now, however, seem to reveal a slightly different story.
“Monuments that commemorate the ANZAC loom large in the formation of Australiannational identity. “
Last year I had the chance to visit Adelaide, the fifth largest city of the country with 1.3 million residents. Like all major Australian cities, Adelaide has an ANZAC boulevard with at first sight the usual elements. At the beginning stands a monument with a male guardian angel with a sword in his hands and the text “to perpetuate the courage, loyalty, and sacrifice of those who served in the Great War, 1914-1918” at its pedestal. From here a boulevard only accessible for pedestrians goes along a wall with images etched in black marble. Names of places where Australian forces had fought were engraved in the pavement.
Most of the scenes on the marble wall were reminiscent of what I had studied in Canberra. One scene, for instance depicts fully packed soldiers with a gun in their hand disembarking from a helicopter in the Vietnam War. Such heroic war monuments are far removed from war memorials in the Netherlands, which tell foremost a story of suffering and enduring, but are in line with the heroic, belligerent sphere of Australian memorials. Another scene shows a man behind a machine gun, accompanied by a dog. The image could be read as a sign of destruction and death, but must have been meant to be interpreted as a story of alertness (in the eyes of man and beast) and comradery between human and dog, and by extension comradery among the troops. Animals also figure prominently in another scene of desert troops using horses and a camel, but the subtext is identical: loyalty and comradery.
A rare scene with women confirms the hegemonic masculine message. One woman is a nurse and another woman is supposedly a mother reading out a letter from daddy at the front to two children (of course two children, an older boy and younger sister). In this nationalist narrative, these women support practically or morally the “real” fighting of the men.
Another scene, however, struck me as more unusual. It shows an Australian private sharing candies with two young Vietnamese girls, while a Vietnamese man watches smilingly. The soldier has a friendly appearance. He still has his gun with him, but does not hold it in his hand and the weapon rests on the ground; the soldier has nothing to protect his head and he has rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. The careful observer can easily puncture the message that Australian soldiers were sent to Vietnam to do good and to be friends with the Vietnamese people. What is striking, though, is the image of a soft male, which contradicts the usual image of sturdy, tough soldiers focused on their fighting task.
I should not jump to conclusions, but the national imaginary might have changed a little into the direction of a more nuanced and less masculine imaginary. Also the scenes with the animals and the supportive women, while still shoring up the image of the Australian tough soldier, at least tell this masculine story in a more nuanced manner. Let’s consider this a change for the better, “to perpetuate the sacrifice of those who served”.
Freek Colombijn is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.