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Australia Looks Back For National Identity

Youths question the tradition of honoring veterans from long-past wars - a letter from Sydney

AS Australian men and women duck bullets as part of the United Nations peacekeeping missions in Cambodia and Somalia, back at home their countrymen waved at a handful of uniformed World War I veterans in their 90s.

The occasion was ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) Day. The national holiday commemorates the men who fought in the landing of Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. It now includes veterans of other battles in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. But as the country changes, this holiday, which is so bound up with Australia's sense of national identity, is changing too.

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For a country with such a small population, Australia has always sent more than its share of men to war - usually to help Britain or the United States.

Capital cities and small towns had ANZAC parades, and many held memorial services at 4:30 a.m., the time of the landing. The Sun-Herald, based in Sydney, had a page called "Where to Meet Your Mates Today," which listed 99 reunions for groups such as the Combined Biscuit Bombers Assn., the HMAS Indefatigable, and the Squadron Royal Australian Air Force Assn.

"World War I represents the coming-of-age of our nation on the world scene," says Melford Roe, a retired Army officer and Vietnam veteran. "We only became a federation in 1901. By the time World War I started, we still had the trappings of a British colony. The defense forces were commanded by British officers. As the war started, it was the first opportunity for Australia to stand on its own feet militarily."

The soldiers, as the myth goes, embodied Australian virtues of innovation, contempt for authority, and laconic courage.

IN recent years there has been a growing recognition of the contributions by women and non-whites; Aborigines, Torres Straits Islanders, and Papua New Guineans. This year, being the UN Year of Indigenous Peoples, there was a particular focus on their contributions.

One East Timorese man, who had been pressed into service during World War II by the Australians because he knew the East Timor coastline, protested that despite his service, Australia will not let him live here with his children.

Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) radio aired programs about the contribution Aborigines made to the services. One man said that Aborigine soldiers did not receive the paternity allowances, pensions, or settlers blocks of land that returning white soldiers did. Renowed Aborigine poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly known as Kath Walker), talked about her work as a Morse code operator, and how her brother was a POW.

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This year, politics entered into the occasion. Prime Minister Paul Keating, who wants to see the country become a republic, used the opportunity of a release of a book on the building of the Burma-Thailand railroad by Australian POWs during World War II to put across his theme. The British abandoned Australians, he said, a remark that caused ripples in England.

While ANZAC Day is extremely important to older Australians, younger ones wonder if it will diminish in importance as a symbol.

Each year there are fewer World War I vets in the parades.

As the country searches to establish its national identity and seeks to separate from the British monarchy, some feel World War I, which was fought for the British, may become the war they don't want to acknowledge.

And while the country is still predominantly Anglo-Celtic, Asian faces are many, some of them from the same countries Australia fought against.

These new residents may not have heartstrings waiting to be plucked by thoughts of brave countrymen rowing to shore on a chilly April dawn to be met with a murderous machine-gun barrage at Gallipoli while trying to help save an empire.

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