I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, so I was pleased to see it at the library.
What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History begins with an Introduction by Marilyn Lake, titled: What have you done for your country? It covers the reaction to her public lecture which was reprinted in The Age as an ‘Opinion’ piece, and subsequently broadcast on ABC Radio National. There was, she says, an avalanche of correspondence … much of it in the form of personal abuse and accusations of disloyalty. (p.1.) What was most interesting was that many of the most angry respondents said that she had no right to write on this topic (p.4) and she noted that many felt the need to preface whatever they said with their own Anzac credentials, i.e. that they themselves had relatives who had gone to war and therefore did have the right to speak about it.
Well, by marriage, I have relatives who went to war (including some who died there) and the same is true on my own side of the family – but of course they were British (including some who died there) so perhaps they don’t count. However, I find the mere idea that having an Anzac in the family confers some kind of privileged access to the discourse deeply offensive. By definition, it excludes most of the Australians descended from non-British emigrants, and – given the racist policies about the enlistment of Aborigines, it excludes most of them as well (unless they broke the law and enlisted anyway, which at least 400 of them did, much good it did them when it came to accessing any post-war benefits that all the other Anzacs received). There is a nasty little undercurrent in this divisive pseudo-patriotic exclusion, some horrid idea to do with people who are ‘real Australians’ and those who are not.
So you might think that I would be well-disposed towards this book, but actually, it made me feel uneasy. The title is, I think, unduly provocative. And for all that it is authored by venerable historians, I don’t think it is particularly well-written. Much of it is repetitive, a good deal of it is boring, and at the end of the day, while it has some valid points to make, it doesn’t make a very convincing case for an alternative. The argument that there are other aspects of history that ‘made’ Australia seems like more of an afterthought.
To summarise their arguments:
- There is some spectacular ignorance about what actually happened at Anzac Cove in 1915. They quote a correspondent wondering what would have happened if we had not won at Gallipoli (!) and others who overlook the uncomfortable truth that the allies were invading Turkey. The belief that Australians were fighting for freedom and defending democracy in WW1 is something that I see parroted year after year by earnest school children at Anzac Day ceremonies, presumably because the journalists reporting it think it is true too. (Lake and Reynolds say that the invasion of Turkey wasn’t anything to do with defending democracy, it took place to assist our ally Britain to support Russia, then the world’s greatest autocracy).
- Australia was not under threat at all. We could have chosen to remain neutral, but Australia has a habit of following its allies into wars on foreign soil. (Geoffrey Blainey rebuts the possibility of neutrality in his review, because the Germans were lurking about in German New Guinea and that is where the first Australian WW1 casualties were. Unfortunately the article is on The Australian’s website so it may be paywalled).
- Military history has been transformed into family history, made possible by online genealogical resources at the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
- Australia became more dependant on Britain after WW1, not less, and this contradicts the notion that Anzac is what made us a nation. Not only that, they say, but WW1 and Vietnam were wars that divided the nation because of the issue of conscription.
- Other events before and after Anzac made us a nation: the peaceful Federation of the colonies; the peaceful, prosperous, innovative pre-war period which introduced women’s rights, a living wage, old age pensions and kindred measures which pioneered the welfare state. (p.26)
- The focus on a war so long ago has stifled debate about Australia’s expeditions to Iraq and Afghanistan. This has led to an unwillingness to solve conflicts with diplomacy rather than war. (I think it’s depressing that there is no debate about our recent wars, and shameful that our politicians can commit us to them with less fuss than negotiating a free trade agreement, but still, this argument seems incoherent to me. If as they say, Australia always blindly follows its powerful allies into war anyway, what Australian efforts at diplomacy would there be?)
- The qualities associated with Anzac are not unique: courage, mateship, sacrifice and determination are characteristics of other nations too.
- Australia does not acknowledge the one war that did take place on Australian soil, that is, the frontier wars. There are no memorials to Aboriginal resistance fighters and the Australian War Memorial refuses to countenance building any.
The authors believe that it was
democratic equality and the fair go, the demand for justice and the assertion of rights that were once central to Australians ‘sense of themselves’. At the heart of Australian nationalism, was a belief in equality of opportunity, but ‘equality of opportunity’ is not a value invoked by the ‘spirit of Anzac.’ (p9)
This argument, however, is diminished somewhat by their claim that conservative politics lies behind the promotion of national pride in Anzac as a substitute for our limp efforts to celebrate Australia Day. Of course it’s true that January 26th is problematic because our indigenous people regard it as Invasion Day, but it’s always been a sad and sorry day to celebrate anyway. Who wants to celebrate the nation’s birth as a penal colony when the people who came here didn’t have what we Aussies cherish most of all – freedom? (The Americans have airbrushed their convicts right out of their history!) No, I’d love to have a national day that all Australians felt happy to celebrate, our indigenous Australians most of all, and that’s never going to be January 26th. It seems to me that the reason most people don’t want to change the date is just because it marks a convenient end to our long, lazy summer holidays. But whatever about that, the authors have not made a convincing case that Australians are submitting to a sort of conspiracy to make us forget about our awkward national day by making us get enthusiastic about Anzac Day instead.
It seems to me that there are other reasons why Australians go a bit overboard with commemorations, not just of Anzac but of a proliferating number of other battles from other wars as well. Young people (according to plenty of research) think our history is boring, and for generations raised on X-box war games and aggro-movies from Hollywood, war looks exciting.
And people just like to have heroes. Especially if they can claim one in their own family. I think that Reynolds and Lake have got it right when they suggest that the rebadging of WW1 and Ww2 soldiers as heroic victims rather than as killers makes them more heroic and less open to any of the sort of angst that arose over Vietnam. They acknowledge that there is a longing for a proud national history and they say that The Broken Years (1974) by Bill Gammage and The Anzacs (1978) by Patsy Adam-Smith played a crucial role in establishing the innocent young soldier as the face of Anzac, the beautiful boys in the film Gallipoli (p. 21) But I don’t think this is a bad thing. Yes, the Anzacs were aggressive and skilled wielders of the bayonet, they were killers as all soldiers are. But if some of the Anzacs enlisted of their own volition, many of them were bullied into it with white feathers, and I should think that all of them were very quickly disillusioned by the reality of war. If books and films showing the waste of young lives made their elders hesitate about sending them off to war, that would be a fine thing.
While I don’t share the authors’ concern about DVA itself developing curriculum materials for use in schools, I have been uneasy for a while about the amount of money that they have to spend compared to other government departments. I don’t understand why, when literacy, numeracy and science are supposed to be a very high priority, that – under both Liberal and Labor governments – there is never any money for curriculum materials to support the teaching of those areas, but there are literally millions of dollars available to produce multiple copies of kits about diverse aspects of war, every single year, for every single school in Australia. (My school, with about 400 students, always gets two sets. How many does a secondary school with 2000 students get? Do the maths and it’s a lot of money).
The pity is that this could have been a much better book than it is. I think James Brown’s book, Anzac’s Long Shadow is a much better, more thoughtful and less biased book than this one.
Principal authors: Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds
Contributors: Joy Damousi, Carina Donaldson and Mark McKenna
Title: What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History
Publisher: New South, 2010
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library