Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 21, 2014

What’s Wrong with Anzac? (2010) by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds

8076148I’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.

See also Janine’s review at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.

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
ISBN: 9781742231518
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


Fishpond: What’s Wrong with Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History


  1. I read this book quickly and was similarly disappointed. I would like a more subtle, nuanced argument. There was a stridency of tone in the book that turned me off. The James Brown book sounds interesting.

    I agree with your concerns about so much money pouring into WWI history via DVA compared to other curriculum areas. There is also concern WWI history is getting a disproportionate amount of funding compared to other important areas of our history.

    I agree with you about the subtle undertone of exclusivity that is in much of the discussion about WWI. There are many, many Australians who did not have relations fighting in the Australian forces in WWI. It concerns me that Australia’s WWI history is being presented as the history of only a proportion of Australians. It reminds me of being at school in Tasmania and being taught Tasmanian history ad nauseum. A lot of our class including me were not born in Tasmania, but the way it was taught made it seem that it had no relevance to us.

    I have written, then deleted a lot of my comment – it was too much of a rant. There was a reason I didn’t review this book.


    • Oh, I have done that so often too – deleting a rant is often rather therapeutic:)
      How are you enjoying your first days in Singapore?


      • Busy finding accommodation. We found something which is good so I can now relax and write a blog post. Hopefully will have something up this morning.


        • I look forward to the photos:)


  2. Such a thoughtful response to this book, thank you and here’s to diplomacy.


    • Amen to that!
      (And thank you for your kind remarks too.)


  3. What a shame, because their point about the lack of recognition through some form of memorial for Aboriginal lives lost in the colonial-era frontier wars is valid and something we should as a nation be acting on.


  4. Great review, thank you. I too tend to arc up at the automatic sanctification of the Anzac tradition and the idea that it “made us a nation” and you’re probably right to say it grabs younger people because it looks more interesting than what I learned at school, which as I remember it, was mostly Macquarie, Macarthur and his blasted sheep. But the idea that any war can be seen as anything but a horrible disaster is troubling especially in this age when we seem to have so little else to unite us in this country.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that is the dilemma isn’t it? How do we get young people interested in the not very exciting real story of Australia? My memories of Australian history are about explorers and the union movement, and while I now think that the story of exploration can be made interesting (especially with digital reimagining of the more exciting bits) I don’t there’s much to appeal in the development of the arbitration commission etc! Part of the problem is that Australia (and the world) has shifted to the right and so the history of the emerging welfare state is now a political no-no. Nowadays The Powers That Be want us to despise the welfare state, so they certainly don’t want that celebrated, not even if it’s rebadged as a safety net. Because I get the impression that they want to get rid of that too,


      • Couldn’t agree more. The real story that could be made interesting is the genuinely radical establishment of a fair and tolerant society, but as you say that isn’t the zeitgeist and politicians aren’t keen to talk about that any more. And we don;t have it anymore.


        • I so agree with this. I was watching ‘The war that changed us’ on ABC the other night, which talked about how the rest of the world looked to Australia, pre-1914, as a leader in progressive politics. We were so far ahead of the rest of the world in promoting fairness. I’d love to see more focus on that. But fat chance in the current climate.


          • I meant to watch that … but I forgot and went to bed with a book!
            I am actually quite hopeful about the current state of affairs. I think that people voted out a good government because they were sick of the infighting, and they didn’t pay enough attention to what the alternative was. Most people I know are genuinely horrified by the unfairness of what the new government is doing and they realise that they’ve been taking for granted some aspects of the way we do things here. When you see people like Heather Ridout calling the proposals to leave young unemployed with no source of income at all ‘unfair’, then that’s a clear sign that it’s not just the Left making a predictable response, it’s a heartfelt sense of unease about the damage that might be done to the fabric of our society.
            I think that it’s actually making people reflect on what kind of Australia they want to have.


            • I do so hope you’re right that this govt’s extreme agenda is making people ask that question. People say it doesn’t matter who’s in govt, they’re all the same, but there’s a very clear choice here. If only Labor were better at making that argument.
              As for the “Team Australia” nonsense – I hear so many people joking about it that I’m hoping that too will blow up in the govt’s face.


              • There is a hilarious article in this weekend’s Saturday paper called The Privilege Idiots which goes some way to explaining why this lot are so out of touch.


        • LOL You just can’t quite imagine people ‘liking’ it on Facebook, can you?!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. A wonderful, thoughtful review – thank you. I read Reynold’s ‘Forgotten War’ about a year or so ago. The points it raises (including for memorials to the wars between white colonists and Aborigines) are extraordinarily valid but the writing and structure is a bit weak. Much like ‘What’s Wrong with Anzac’ by the sound of things. As for young people learning Australian history? I dutifully turned up to school assembly to see the 8yo in a short play about the white settlement of Sydney Cove. Happily surprised to discover the emphasis of the play (with a narrative that included convicts and soldiers) was on the dispossession of the Aborigines. At the end a soundtrack of Rudd’s Apology was played. Fantastic. And this at a little state government school in the country! 8yo played an Aborigine, thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing and didn’t think history was boring at all. 8yo also knows all about the Macarthurs but that’s probably my doing… ;-)


    • Hello, and welcome to chatting about books here:) I haven’t read Forgotten War yet, though I’ve got it somewhere on the TBR. I’ve read This Whispering in Our Hearts, and something else too, that I can’t remember the name of now. But it’s so long ago I can’t remember if I thought it was well-written, it ‘spoke to me’ in other ways. Reynolds is a marvellous speaker, I heard him for the first time at a Summer School in History, and his passion for his subject was a joy to witness. Maybe this book was written in haste for some reason…
      You know, I’m almost certainly biased because I’m a primary teacher, but I think we do a reasonably good job of getting the kids interested in history, but it fizzles out in secondary school. It may be because we can do the fun stuff, dressing up in colonial gear, staging pageants, jazzy excursions, interesting topics like the discovery of gold and toys of long ago and so forth. Federation is a bit of a tough gig, but we usually link it to elections and voting and the kids love all that:)
      It’s when the kids get to secondary school and the topics necessarily become more serious that it gets difficult. They need to learn about some of the same topics in more detail and they get cranky because they think they’ve heard it all before. And the kids are less tolerant of being ‘bored’. I reckon secondary teachers deserve a medal just for turning up each day!
      BTW I love your current post about mapping our lives on your blog. When I was a classroom teacher I used to do that with my students: instead of writing ‘What I did on my weekend’ I would get them to map their weekend, it was an idea I got from a marvellous book called ‘I See What You Mean’ by Steven Moline. It’s actually quite hard to do, but they became expert at it over the course of the year, and their mapping skills were excellent.


  6. Maps are interesting in all sorts of ways beyond the obvious, aren’t they. I’ll see if I can get my hands on that Steven Moline book – thanks for the recommendation.


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