It's true our politicians exploit the Anzac legend, but that doesn't mean they're pushing a militaristic view of our history, says Graham Freudenberg.
Paul Keating characteristically set the cat among the pigeons when he launched my book Churchill and Australia in 2008. The idea, he said, that Australia “was born as a nation or was redeemed at Gallipoli was an utter and complete nonsense.” In her chapter in this timely book, Joy Damousi gives Keating’s version of what’s wrong with Anzac: “dragged into service by the Imperial Government in an ill-conceived and poorly executed campaign, we were cut to ribbons and dispatched – and none of it in the defence of Australia. This is why, Keating said, ‘I have never gone to Gallipoli and never will.’”
Kevin Rudd chose to respond: “Gallipoli is part of our national consciousness, it’s part of our national psyche, it’s part of our national identity and I for one, as prime minister of the country, am absolutely proud of it.”
This exchange encapsulates the debate for and against Anzac over the last 95 years, examined critically by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi in their book, subtitled “The Militarisation of Australian History”. The exchange also reminds us that the Anzac legend has been exploited and manipulated by politicians from the beginning, starting with Billy Hughes.
I wrote in Churchill and Australia:
From the beginning, the legend of Gallipoli was manipulated to strengthen Australia’s bonds of Empire. The political and military imperatives of the time, in both Australia and Britain, demanded it. Some Australians, like Banjo Paterson, tried to celebrate Gallipoli in national terms, as a coming of age of the six federated colonies, where “the old state jealousies of yore were dead as Pharaoh’s sow”.
Pushing his disastrous campaign for conscription – itself one of the great tragedies in Australian political history – Hughes said, “our soldiers have carved for Australia a niche in the Temple of the Immortals. Those who have died fell gloriously. But had the number of our forces been doubled, many brave lives would have been spared, the Australian armies would long ago have been camped in Constantinople and the world war would have been practically over.” (This was December 1915!)
This was the first example of the boast favoured by John Howard, that “Australia punches above her weight”. But we should be wary against saddling John Howard with too much of the burden of what has been the growth of nearly a century, particularly when it comes to a charge of ‘militarisation of Australian history’. After all, when John Curtin opened the War Memorial in Canberra on Armistice Day 1941, only 26 years after Gallipoli, he said:
It gives continuity to the Anzac tradition. It gives uninterruption to the basic impulses of this nation. It provides for all time to come to the generations that will inhabit this land, a place where they may have brought before them, in the most conspicuous way, the legends of their country, and come to know something of the deeds that kept their freedom unimpaired.
This was a month before Pearl Harbor and a year before El Alamein and Kokoda entered the Anzac tradition.
I should acknowledge my own contribution to the Anzac rhetoric. In his perceptive essay, Professor Mark McKenna correctly links Bob Hawke’s speeches for the Bicentenary in 1988 and his speeches on Gallipoli on 25 April 1990. Henry Reynolds in his introduction also dates “the extraordinary resurgence in books, newspaper articles, documentaries devoted to the history of Australians at war to 1990, when Bob Hawke became the first Australian prime minister to preside over the Dawn Service of Anzac Cove.”
It is true, as McKenna suggests, that our speeches for the Bicentenary had failed to resonate. Sometime in 1989, I wrote a memo to Hawke urging him to associate himself closely with the 75th Anzac anniversary. The fact that my father had been a stretcher bearer on Gallipoli from May 1915 until the evacuation gave me a personal interest, although certainly not any special entitlement in the matter. But with the original Anzacs rapidly dying off, it was clear that the 75th commemoration would take on special significance. The fumbling leadership of the RSL was no longer fit to hold the exclusive custodianship of Anzac Day; Vietnam ex-servicemen had found them so anachronistic that they had formed their own association. In particular I was anxious to break the conservative monopoly on the interpretation of Australian military history. I thought like John Wesley about hymns: “Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?”, so I myself had political motives in urging Hawke to go to Gallipoli.
My colleague as speechwriter, Stephen Mills, wrote Hawke’s beautiful speech for the Dawn Service, and I wrote the longer speech for the Lone Pine ceremony later in the morning. Neither speech could be remotely said to glorify war, any more than the Gettysburg Address, which is always the inspirational model for occasions of this kind.
At Lone Pine, Hawke said, “No place on earth more grimly symbolises the waste and futility of war – this scene of carnage in a campaign which failed… Its meaning can endure only as long as each new generation of Australians finds the will to re-interpret it; and in separating the truth from the legend, realises its relevance to a nation and people experiencing immense change over the past three quarters of a century.” So I suppose it can be said that John Howard took us at our word in interpreting Anzac to fit his particular narrative of Australian history.
I do not accept the main thrust of the argument of this book, that by choosing a military event as a pivotal point in Australia history, we necessarily militarise that history. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that war is absolutely central to Australian history in the 20th century. I agree that it is demeaning to say that Australia became a nation at Anzac Cove. But hardly any of the great political, social and economic developments of modern Australia were not crucially shaped by the two world wars.
Nor do I believe that the Anzac service, even in its current phase, makes for a more militaristic society. In their chapter on the anti-war movement, Carina Donaldson and Marilyn Lake write, “The content over Anzac Day and then Vietnam (in the 1960s and 1970s) was part of a larger cultural struggle over the sort of society Australian should become.” That is, the Anzac debate can be productive and positive, by the authors’ own standards.
Anzac observances are seldom a celebration of martial values. The protean nature of its meaning is its strength. The fact that it commemorates a fiasco and a defeat actually inhibits military triumphalism.
Paul Keating objects to Gallipoli partly because ‘none of it was in defence of Australia’. As prime minister, he promoted Kokoda. While Kokoda represents everything Keating claims for it, it is in fact more focused as a specific military achievement than Anzac.
A peculiar characteristic of the Anzac version promulgated by John Howard has been a preoccupation with identifying old battle sites and repatriating bodies. Relatives two or three generations removed are deemed to derive ‘closure’, and the prevailing idea is that any soldier dying overseas – whatever the circumstances – must be accorded a state funeral, presided over by the prime ministers of the day. This is not so much militarisation as sacralisation.
Marilyn Lake complains “to write about what’s wrong with Anzac today is to court the charge of treason”. But the way things are going, she is more likely to be charged with blasphemy or sacrilege. The symbolism of Anzac, with its emphasis on sacrifice, redemption, rebirth and even resurrection (“I tell you there is no death” intones the Sydney Male Choir at the end of each Dawn Service in Martin Place) fits readily into the post-Christian culture. Howard saw this and exploited it.
The main purpose of this book is stated by Henry Reynolds in this way: “We write because we think it is time to reclaim our national civil and political traditions of democratic equality and social justice in whose name we now ask our soldiers to fight.” This is clearly a political agenda. As one who was closely involved in the efforts to inject elements of this agenda into the various celebrations of the last two decades – the Bicentenary, the Labor Centenary, the Sydney Olympics, the Centenary of Federation, the Sesquicentenary of Responsible Government, and the 150th anniversary of Eureka – I doubt if it will be much advanced by debunking Anzac Day.
What's Wrong with ANZAC? - The Militarisation of Australian History
By Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi
Published by UNSW Press RRP $29.95, NZ $39.95
Graham Freudenberg won the 2009 Walkley Book Award for Churchill's Australia
Illustration by John Tiedemann, who works for News Ltd. in Sydney. This illustration originally appeared in The Week.