Lake and Reynold’s book was published in 2010. I wish it weren’t as relevant today, or even moreso, as it was then.
Like the many Australians who are concerned with the homage paid to the Anzac spirit and associated militarisation of our history, we are concerned about the ways in which history is used to define 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 idea of a living wage and 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 a hundred years ago. Is it not now time for Australia to cast it aside?
Lake, Marilyn, and Henry Reynolds. 2010. What’s Wrong with ANZAC?: The Militarisation of Australian History. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press. (p. 185)
We’ve just had our Anzac Day ceremonies here. Attendance at the dawn services and veteran marches is growing by the year, they say. This year something new emerged on one of my favorite radio shows, Late Night Live with Phillip Adams — an interview with Hugh Dolan author of 36 Days: The Untold Story of the Anzac Assault, 25 April 1915. The program is headed Dispelling the Gallipoli ANZAC myths. I subsequently watched the related TV program, Gallipoli From Above: The Untold Story. And of course I’ve ordered the book! One more to read, damn it.
There are many facets of the Anzac myth that will continue to be discussed and one of them is the perennial question: Why do Australians celebrate a military defeat as “the moment” that supposedly defined us as “a nation” or cast in bronze what we call our “national identity”?
Commentators are forever discussing the irony of our nation apparently “taking pride” in a military defeat.
How does that jell with what New Testament historians use as criteria of historical authenticity? So we celebrate a defeat. Does this not conform well with the criterion of embarrassment? Nobody would choose to celebrate a defeat unless it really happened, would they? And the story has been sustained by multiple independently attested sources, hasn’t it, over the years. So here we surely see in this event at least two criterion of authenticity found to be entirely validated.
But the Anzac story gets into more detail. The landing itself was a bloodbath. At dawn, under heavy fire. The Australians were victims of British incompetence and were landed at the wrong beach for starters.
No-one would make up a story in which they were the victims of such incompetence and disaster, would they?
Well, 36 Days suggests that that’s exactly what “we” have done now for almost 100 years.
Why is my grief mingled with anger and not pride? And why am I continually haunted every Anzac day by the recollection of a very different Anzac day service tone so many years ago? Continue reading “myths of war, grapes of wrath”
My childhood memories of school Anzac services are still very strong. I have never forgotten the grim tones of dark-suited men standing beside canon and soldier-statues in the park opposite our school warn us of the horrors of war. Their message was “Lest We Forget” but what was not to be forgotten was the horror of the battles that had brought us together that day.
It is not the same today. Or maybe my childhood experience or memory was limited. Today the government invests huge budgets in funding Anzac memorial services. The message is “Lest We Forget” but there has been a slight detour of direction. Today we are admonished never to forget the sacrifices that bought us our freedoms. Today, the message is that war is a necessary sacrifice to maintain our freedoms. In this way Anzac Day is used to justify with political spin the government’s current wars.
Anzac Day is being used to perpetuate and even increase national lies. No-one died at Gallipoli to protect our freedoms. No-one died in Vietnam to protect our way of life either. Wars have mostly been part of imperial ventures, not desperate acts to save our nation.
Is this also why there is so much emphasis now on “character”, “mateship”, “heroism”? Is this focus meant to ameliorate the horror of the reality? To justify war as an everpresent necessary act of government policy?
I can’t think of a better time than Anzac Day to ask Why our governments sent anyone to their murderous deaths and maimings. That, of course, would be sacriligious in today’s climate. But it would also surely do a lot more for reminding the nation to put a break on their government’s war policies whitewashed by their political spin.
Beside the wreaths and medals on the monuments, let’s start to place images of severed limbs and heads with their brains and eyesockets falling out and bring out for “show” some living victims from the less public institutions. “Lest We Forget”.