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ANZAC Day: Communicating experiences across generations

Each year, on the 25th of April, Australia pauses to remember the sacrifices of our service men and women in war and peacetime. This momentous day evokes the enduring mythology of the first ANZACs, those hardy diggers pinned under machine gun fire on a beach in Turkey, thousands of kilometers from their homes and their families. But just what is it that makes this story so powerful and enduring? And what can learn from the ANZAC story about the challenges of communicating across generations?

It has been more than 100 years since the ANZACs landed at Gallipoli, and during that time many more Australians have fought and died in war. How do we, our governments, our schools, our communities, continue to communicate the horrors of war to generations so divorced from the events of the First World War?

Sharing values

The narrative of ANZAC is about so much more than a single battle, the facts of which are complex, contested and debated by some, yet ultimately absolutely horrifying. The enduring character of the ANZAC story comes in the values which it exemplifies. Courage, determination and mateship – these elements of the ANZAC spirit are what make the narrative so powerful.

While it is important to preserve and communicate the details of the past, the stories that connect the young with the old are based on values that they can share, rather than the specific detail of the story. This is an important lesson for anyone trying to use storytelling to bridge the generation gap. Shared values provide common ground, and a common narrative is an essential vehicle for shared understanding.

Simple stories, human stories

To meet the challenge of communicating a complex history to generations who have very different experiences, the ANZAC narrative must rest on simple stories. While much of the history of Australia’s involvement in war is complex, and should be reflected on with complexity, a simple tale is what’s required to meet the challenge of engaging with young people and involving them in remembrance of the military sacrifice.

Stories like Simpson and his donkey, provide a narrative for understanding sacrifice that can be communicated again and again. Personal stories like this help to breach the gap between those who lived through the horrors of war, and those who have never, and probably will never, experience anything like it. A simple human story can connect people across time, across geography and even across cultural divides.

Condemn controversy

The biggest challenge for the ANZAC story today is the controversy which surround it. Commentators and politicians are locked in a culture war and in doing so co-opt the narrative, complexities around the history of Australia’s involvement in foreign wars, and more.

While controversy is a great tactic if you are looking to grab headlines, the difficult task of connecting people across generations requires a more nuanced approach. The most successful invocations of the ANZAC story are those that avoid the controversy and focus on the aspects of the narrative that bring people together. Connecting people across generations relies on an uncontroversial message that can be owned by people of all ages, and from all backgrounds.

There is a lot to learn from the success of, and the challenges faced by, the ANZAC story. Communicating across generations is a challenge which reaches across our society, and understanding ways to meet this challenge is important in politics, in business and in the community.

Now that the bunting has come down again, the plastic poppies have been unpinned from lapels, and the culture warriors have moved on to the next skirmish, perhaps we can reflect on a powerful story, told simply, that has united Australians young and old.