One of the enduring traits of the human psyche is the inclination to believe that, at certain critical moments, the welfare of a tribe or society is best served by shedding the lives of some of its individuals. As trees let their leaves die and fall to the ground to become humus for the plant to thrive, so we are prepared to allow—and even compel—a number of our fellow citizens to die for our greater good.
It happens in times of war. It can be seen in some religious belief and practices.
And, if you burrow below the surface of your own personal psyche, you might find the same impulse operating. When we watch the news and see scenes of disaster, we may exclaim: ‘Oh, those poor people—how awful for them!’ The overt expression of compassion is sometimes exaggerated to disguise our sense of relief that others suffered instead of us.
Or we might intone clever, quasi-religious turns of phrase like: ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ Yes, even behind that innocent little utterance we may be unconsciously offering the lives of the victims to purchase our own safety. Just as often, of course, we say such things covertly, in the refuge of unvoiced thought.
Consider it from the other end. Could there be circumstances when dying is the best thing you could do for other people? Or for your god or conscience? Blood sacrifice, vicarious atonement—primitive superstition or valid ethical position?
Australia tries to build its sense of national identity on a narrative of sacrificed lives. Every year since 1916 Australians have engaged in a commemorative ritual called ANZAC Day, on 25th April. That was the day in 1915 when the troops of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps made the landing at Gallipoli. It was in the early months of the First World War and in military terms it was a disaster for them.
World War 1 and national identity
The battle that followed lasted months and was lost. Yet the national and community leaders of the time spun the story that little Australia—a nation born only fourteen years before—had shown that it was the equal of any other on earth. Moreover, they claimed, the way Aussie diggers handled the Gallipoli campaign and other battles during the war showed that the Australian character was unique.
In later years ANZAC Day has ostensibly commemorated the service of Australians and New Zealanders in all wars, but the Gallipoli landing still dominates as the foundation. If you examine participation in ANZAC Day in terms of numbers, organisation and public enthusiasm you will probably agree that it rivals Australia Day as the major national occasion of any year. And the numbers and enthusiasm for ANZAC Day have actually been growing in recent years—especially among younger people. Why?
Coming: Song of Australia
I’ll probably return to all of this in a future blog post. The main point of raising the topic now is that it’s a central theme in my book, Song of Australia. This work of historical fiction will be released within the next few days! If you like stories that spark your imagination with powerful characters while stimulating thought about the human condition, you will enjoy Song of Australia. Watch this space for the coming announcement.