Reinvigoration of Anzac Day celebrations while Aboriginal resistance leaders are hidden under the carpet

Myth over what matters

Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake Sydney Morning Herald April 3, 2010

'What's Wrong With Anzac?' The Militarisation Of Australian History
by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds
New South Books, $29.95

The notion of the Anzac legend as the nation's ultimate test is misplaced, write Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake in a critique of another armband of our history.

Why do we accord the Anzac story priority over all other aspects of our history?

The contemporary focus on Anzac has not been a constant feature of Australian historical thinking. There has been opposition to the militarism inherent in Anzac Day celebrations at various times since the 1920s and it intensified after the late 1950s.

Most of the general histories written in the middle decades of the 20th century paid little attention to Anzac even though many of those historians had served in World War II. War history was seen as a specialist sub-discipline with little relevance to the mainstream of history. Australian history focused on what had happened here, not on what our soldiers had done overseas. The emphasis of history was, as we show, on political and social reform, on the egalitarian Australian ethos and the shaping of a vision of a new society.

What we find remarkable is the sudden reinvigoration of Anzac and its effect on the writing of Australian history, contributing to its militarisation.

Recently government has promoted the celebration of Anzac Day and the more general history of this country's many and ongoing military engagements. Federal government departments and instrumentalities have been involved in unprecedented ways in the creation and dissemination of curriculum materials relating to war in a direct attempt to influence the content of classroom teaching.

The upsurge of interest has also swept the wider community. Replanting of memorial avenues, expansion and refurbishment of old and almost forgotten monuments and building of new ones have resulted from close partnerships between government, municipalities and local enthusiasts.

While decaying monuments have been restored, antiquated rhetoric has also been called back into service and put to new uses. But the Anzac legend cannot be extracted from the values of the time of its birth and the attitudes that prevailed in 1915. It has thus become the vehicle by which the ideas of the Edwardian militarists are preserved and passed on to a new generation.

At the centre of their creed was the conviction that war was the ultimate test for nations and men. It was the beckoning threshold to individual heroism and national maturity. The central claim that Australia became a nation at Anzac Cove is the product of these ideas. The Anzac legend perpetuates an attitude to war in general and to World War I in particular.

Yet the belief that it was a source of unique and positive national virtue sails directly into the winds of contemporary global interpretations, which portray the conflict as the prime source of the brutalisation of the 20th century that fuelled vast and terrible violence.

It is essential to look again at the overbearing idea that the spirit of the nation was born among members of the Australian Imperial Force on active service on the other side of the world. A significant problem with this proposition is the very uniqueness of their experience. The soldiers were far removed from normal life and its complex web of kinship, affections and responsibilities. They were in the distinctive situation of being in all-male company for years on end and even then their associates were drawn from a very narrow male age cohort.

We might well ask how such an unnatural society could give birth to a spirit of general relevance. Despite their anti-authoritarianism, the soldiers were also governed by military laws that compelled obedience and punished mutiny or insubordination. They had to do as they were told and, even if grudgingly so, obey their senior officers. Their experience was far removed from civil society norms.

And then there is the inescapable matter of violence. It shadowed the experience of soldiers in a way unthinkable in ordinary life. The fear of cowardice was not unknown at home, but at the front it assumed compelling importance.

The conflict at Gallipoli, in particular, was often conducted at close quarters, accompanied by vicious hand-to-hand fighting with direct, personal experience of killing. Respect, admiration and decoration accrued to those who could do it without flinching or even with dark, triumphant elation.

But even so it is hard to prove that courage in the face of the enemy or close comradeship were distinctive characteristics of the Anzacs. Every army had its own brave, bold men, and the nature and outcome of the fighting were determined more by external factors such as terrain, numbers, logistics and weaponry, rather than by national characteristics.

In any case Charles Bean, the pre-eminent founder and celebrant of the Anzac legend, did not suggest that it emerged on the Anzac Peninsula. Rather, he believed, it was something that was born in the bush and carried into battle. It came from the experience of pioneering the country and above all from the resilience and toughness needed to settle the outback.

He believed that Australian democracy, universal education and an open, meritocratic society shaped the specific qualities of the diggers. The source of the Anzac spirit, according to Bean, was not to be found in military battle, but in the distinctive character of outback life in the colonies. The diggers were citizen soldiers.

A further complication for the current apotheosis of the spirit of the Anzacs is that they were men of their time and therefore convinced white supremacists. They were the proud representatives of the White Australia Policy, which promoted racial purity at home and abroad. Indeed much of their self-confidence came from their belief in their racial superiority. They embodied it in their swagger, proud bearing and well-nourished physiques.

In explaining the historic return to Anzac in the past decade we have seen a clear relationship between the militarisation of Australian history and the controversy over Aboriginal history known as the History Wars. The same political leaders who emphasise the importance of our military heritage have been demonstrably uncomfortable when asked to deal with the century-long conflict on the frontiers of settlement.

Thus we show no embarrassment, indeed even feel pride, in our invasion of Turkey at the behest of the British, but great reluctance to acknowledge the British invasion of Australia. Many resist the idea that an invasion ever took place. And while we restore old monuments and construct new ones to commemorate military conflict overseas, there are still no official memorials to those who died on the frontier.

The leadership of the Australian War Memorial stoutly resist any suggestion that they should give recognition to domestic warfare. Like their partners at the Department of Veterans Affairs they seem to think they have fulfilled their responsibility by celebrating the contribution of Aboriginal and Islander servicemen abroad.

And what of the leaders of Aboriginal resistance? Though known to history, they are not known to the general community and, as a corollary, not appreciated. Many Australians seem quite incapable of recognising them as patriots who were defending their homelands and their way of life against superior weapons and ever increasing numbers of Europeans.

Heroism, it seems, is a quality best displayed overseas. Just like our artists, our warriors had to go abroad to achieve recognition. And while we go to great expense to find and recover the bodies of fallen servicemen wherever they are in the world, no official attempt has ever been made to find, mark and commemorate the sites where Aborigines were shot down by settlers, soldiers and police.

There is no doubt that many Australians found the public discussion of frontier violence deeply disturbing and adopted the pejorative term ''Black armband history'' as a way of discrediting the new critical history. It was time then to open up a new front in the History Wars.

The vigorous official promotion of the history of Australian engagement in overseas wars was at one level a response to those histories that had complicated a once simple story of heroic explorers and noble, albeit tough, frontiersmen. The bushman overseas, glorified by Bean in the creation of the Anzac legend, outshone his stay-at-home cousins whose ancestors had dispossessed the Aborigines.

Thus we show pride in our engagement in overseas wars as willing assistants to our great and powerful friends, while feeling embarrassment over the one war that was ours and ours alone, the long and sporadic conflict over the control of the continent and the exploitation of its resources.

The contemporary cult of the warrior stands in the way of critical appraisal of Australian engagement in overseas wars. Many people feel constrained in criticising Australian involvement when our personnel are in the field. When they return, a clear-eyed assessment of the engagement is discouraged. Anti-Vietnam War protesters are, as we have seen, routinely disparaged. Admiration, not analysis, is what is now expected from historians.

The recent return of the last troops to serve in Iraq was particularly instructive. Twenty thousand Australians had served in the country or its territorial waters. The engagement had lasted for six years. Reporting the return of the last contingent, the local papers observed that it was a ''quiet end to a six-year invasion''.

There was very little of the intense debate, once the troops were on the ground, about the wisdom or the morality of the war, of the sort that occurred in the United States, with a constant stream of critical, well-informed books and articles. In Britain, concern about the war forced the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to set up a high-level committee to examine the reasons for the commitment and senior jurists seriously speculated as to whether Tony Blair should be charged with war crimes.

But in Australia there was just a quiet end to the six-year war. There has been almost no serious discussion about how or why our country became involved in Iraq and there is very little serious analysis of the reason we have troops in Afghanistan and how long they will stay there. Indeed, the present government has discouraged any serious assessment of what, if anything, Australia is likely to gain from either venture.

Why write a critique of the celebration of the Anzac spirit when so many people treat it with reverence, and wonder, like the Governor-General, if we can ''do it justice'' as a nation. It is a fair question and a sensitive subject. There is great depth of feeling invested in the Anzac story. We are aware of the recent upsurge of interest, we note the proliferation of war books and the popularity of pilgrimages to Gallipoli, the battlefields of France and the Kokoda Track.

But we also know that many Australians are deeply disturbed by and recoil from the relentless militarisation of our history. And they feel that their concerns are overwhelmed by well-funded, much-publicised, official rhetoric. They are disturbed that criticism of the myth of Anzac is often seen as tantamount to disloyalty.

With Australians positioned as either for or against the Anzacs, the digger has again become a divisive figure as much as a unifying one. Like those who are concerned with the homage paid to the Anzac spirit and the militarisation of our history, we are concerned about the ways in which history is used to define and distort our national heritage and national values.

We suggest that Australians might look to alternative national traditions that gave pride of place to equality of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice: the ideals of a living wage and decent working conditions, the long struggle for sexual and racial equality.

In the myth of Anzac military achievements are exalted above civilian ones; events overseas are given priority over Australian developments; slow and patient nation-building is eclipsed by the bloody drama of battle; action is exalted above contemplation. The key premise of the Anzac legend is that nations and men are made in war. It is an idea that had currency 100 years ago. Is it not now time to cast it aside?

What's Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds (New South Books, $29.95).

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