Image: katacarix / Shutterstock.com
In October 2005 the Australian hip-hop band The Herd had a hit with their live cover version of an Australian folk song ‘I was only 19’. Over the following Australian summer the twang of Australian accented hip-hop thumped out from passing cars:
So please can you tell me doctor why I can't get to sleep
the scar's left in me?
Night time's just a jungle
dark and a barking M16 that keeps saying
‘rest in peace’
And what's this rash that comes and goes
I don't suppose you can tell me what that means?
God help me, I was only nineteen
The song was originally released in 1983 by Redgum. It's a first-person description of an Australian soldier's experiences in the Vietnam war, based on the memories of two veterans: song-writer John Schumann 's brother-in-law, Mick Storen, and Frankie Hunt (who is mentioned in the song). And yet, nearly 40 years after the war, that specific set of memories had been transposed into another idiom and was becoming part of a ‘shared memory’ of a generation that had no direct connection with the events.
The Herd's version of the song climaxes with a sample of Schumann singing the Redgum version, but the verse immediately before goes further than the original in drawing out the implications of this Vietnam experience for Australia's national identity myth:
You see the ANZAC legend
neglected to mention
didn't seem quite real until we were sent in
The chaos and confusion
the fire and steel
hot shrapnel in my back
I didn't even feel it
God help me, I was only nineteen
The Redgum song refers to 'Anzac legends' in the final verse, but when The Herd recorded the cover version they shifted the lyrics to refer to the 'Anzac legend'. The shift is a little indication of the ongoing evolution of Anzac commemorations and the work they do in Australian cultural life: as the personal interaction with veterans of the First World War fades further into the past, the differentiated individual agents of heroic war stories have been submerged into a national 'legend'. The Herd’s sampling sharpens the edge of a perception of the horror of war that is perhaps in danger of growing dull as the personal testimonies of combatants recede from individual recollections.
Memory can be a blessing and a burden. The evolving shared memory of ANZAC is an instance of the complex work of memory constantly going on around us. Memory-work is an intrinsic feature in the flow of recognition between us that enables us to maintain personal and corporate identity. It’s as basic as the nod you give a neighbour on the way to work, and as elaborate as an Anzac Day dawn service. We gain our sense of who we are through the kinds of recognition that others grant us. Memory, both at an individual and a corporate level, allows this recognition to be stable over time. Lest we forget.
But it can also be a burden. Some memories can lead to an irruption of conflict generations later. The shared memory of mass violence may become a focal moment in social self-conception, passed on through processes of shared memory—a song, a monument, an annual commemoration—until the performance of a personal or political identity becomes entwined with seeking revenge against another, and the original wrong issues in a further act of violence. Tragically, the original harm appears to trap and constrain the future of the community and individual who were its victims. Never forget.
The Herd’s song is an attempt to do a particular kind of memory-work, one that reshapes and transmits the memories of a conflict in a way that makes future conflict less likely. It’s a good song—there’s a kind of righteousness to it that thrills me. But Christians have something deeper: a table, a broken loaf, a blood-red cup, and the words, ‘Do this’.
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