Growing up, I knew well the ANZAC stories of Australian men and women serving overseas.
My maternal grandfather saw active service in New Guinea, Palestine and Egypt during World War II.
My maternal great-grandfather was a Prisoner of War, along with his brother-in-law (my great-great uncle), for several years in Germany in World War I. He lost an eye and had his faced caved in for his troubles.
Another great-great uncle was awarded the Military Medal and received a handwritten letter from the King for his service in France, a letter which I remember reading in awe as a child. He took multiple gunshot wounds in the act of silencing a machine gun nest that was firing directly onto Australian troops.
My great-great aunts were also frontline nurses in France during World War I.
Although I am no fan of colonialism or of war, I cannot help but feel a level of pride for the sacrifices these people made for what they presumably believed was a righteous cause.
I have also long been aware of a stark reality when thinking about the history of some of these non-Indigenous family members – no one ever told them to ‘get over it’ when they recounted their stories.
They are awarded a place of honour in the annals of Australia’s history, along with the thousands of other men and women who served, that is denied to all those Aboriginal people who fought and died in wars that took place on their own lands. Or those Aboriginal people who never fought, but who died in massacres and murders all the same.
Nestled right in between the time my great-grandfather served in World War I and my grandfather served in World War II sits the last officially sanctioned massacre of Aboriginal people, the 1928 Coniston Massacres. According to the National Museum website, “Over a period of months and at a number of sites, more than 60 Aboriginal men, women and children were shot and killed. Collectively these incidents became known as the Coniston Massacre.”
1928 did not mark the end of atrocities though, in an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1933, a quote attributed to the then chairman of the Australian Board of Missions, Rev. J. S. Needham reads, “In the north of Australia, they do not regard the killing of aborigines as murder. In the north they boast of atrocities against the blacks, whom they regard as animals. In the north, public opinion is as callous as it can be.”
Indeed, one only needs to look to the many Facebook posts (and several racist fliers seen around the town) written by some of the white community members of Kalgoorlie in response to the killing of an Aboriginal youth, Elijah Doughty, to see the same sort of attitudes as can be found in any point in Australian history. That Elijah’s killer is already free tells us that while the state doesn’t overtly sanction these killings anymore, it also doesn’t do much to send the message that Aboriginal lives matter either.
It does not matter if the lives that are lost were 200 years ago or yesterday, the response is the same – get over it.
Two of the most popular phrases in Australia, that could not be further apart. One that implores us to honour our history and those who were a part of it, while the other not only ignores a comparable history but aggressively dismisses it and admonishes those who would honour it. Both relating to my own family, my own sense of self, and my understanding of our national identity.
Lest We Forget.
Get Over It.
The gap between them as wide as the infamous ‘Gap’ that signifies the different realities of the Australian experience for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.
Not only do Aboriginal people still live with the consequences of this past, but we live with the knowledge that there will continue to be senseless and preventable Aboriginal deaths that will not result in justice for the victims or for their family members. Be they at the hands of police or of vigilantes, we know that Australia’s inability to reconcile the past means that we will be forced to deal with the present and future it creates.
To have such hypocritical positions held simultaneously as defining elements of our national identity deserves scrutiny. It deserves to be held up in the light and seen for what it is.
The phrase itself, Lest We Forget’, does not originate in Australia, and its meaning goes well beyond the Australian experience of war. It is from a Rudyard Kipling Poem called ‘Recessional’, a poem that contains the stanza:
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Kipling was a big believer in the God given role of white people to invade the world, as made evident in both Recessional and the wider known poem ‘White Man’s Burden’, which begins:
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Yep, it’s a heavy and thankless burden that comes with brutally invading and colonising us ‘lesser breeds’.
But so sacred has Lest We Forget become in Australia that when a young Muslim women posted an entirely innocuous and legitimate usage of it on Facebook, “LEST. WE. FORGET (Manus, Naura, Syria, Palestine…)” she was met with a fury that is still hard to come to terms with.
Hell hath no fury like white people mildly inconvenienced…
— Pearson In The Wind (@LukeLPearson) December 10, 2014
This was probably just an excuse to unleash the hell that many were happy to set on a young woman who was strong and successful within the terms set by the Australian tone policing of non-white public expressions and then dared to step outside of them.
In many ways though, it was not too dissimilar to the hatred unleashed against Adam Goodes, or against countless other Aboriginal people. It seems as though creating a sense of patriotism necessitates regular sacrifices upon the alter of ‘true Australian values’, just as it did during the era of the White Australia Policy, under which both World Wars were fought.
Even if the justification was flimsy though, it was sufficient to evoke the very worst elements of Australian pride; unbridled racism and hatred in the name of patriotism. The very things we like to imagine that the ANZACs were fighting against, particularly in World War II. We like to imagine that they were fighting for our freedoms, for our free speech, for a dream of a future without wars.
However, we learnt very quickly that there is a significant difference in our national imagination between the perceived free speech rights of Andrew Bolt to write fundamentally untrue statements about Aboriginal people for the express purpose of racial vilification than there is for the free speech rights of Yassmin Abdel-Magied to attempt to evoke compassion for others who have experienced the harsh realities of war, many of whom who are now under Australia’s ‘care’.
Even this article, if it gets published on a slow news day, or evokes the wrath of any of a number of self-righteous commentators who are proficient in evoking outrage and self-victimisation from the more racist elements of our community could be enough to unleash a flood of attacks of ‘unAustralian-ness’ against its humble author.
I am not so bold as to suggest what we should be using the saying ‘Lest We Forget’ for in our current age, or whether or not the spirit of what we like to claim it represents should be strong enough to encompass both the experience of Aboriginal people in our Frontier Wars, or the experiences of others who still live daily with the fear of bombs dropping over their heads… Well, I probably am bold enough, but I simply do not like the idea of exploiting the ANZAC memory to promote a single vision of ‘Australian-ness’, even if it is a far more positive one than the racist jingoism others seem so eager to use it to evoke.
Instead, I will have to settle for the knowledge that there are those who do understand that Aboriginal people will never ‘get over it’ any more than Australia will simply get over its ANZAC history – and nor should either. Or that the respect we show our ANZACs remains an important part of how many who lived through those wars got on with it, although they too never got over it.
Similarly, Australia will remain incapable of getting on with job of closing the gap, of reconciling our past, of embracing Aboriginal peoples and culture into our national identity, or living up to the claim many politicians like to use to dismiss any claims of racism within Australia, that of the ‘successful multicultural nation’, so long as the gap remains between the symbolism and intent represented by the sayings ‘Lest We Forget’ and ‘Get Over It’.
Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man, and is the founder and CEO of IndigenousX.