Anzac 2005 reflection

It might be my imagination, though I think not, but did the nation’s celebration of Australia Day go up a notch this year? Without the aid of extensive survey material on the subject I can only hazard an educated guess and my conclusion is that it did.


Residing on the outer eastern fringes of Melbourne, as I do, I can say unreservedly that the number of utility trucks visible on the local streets adorned with Australian flags far exceeded the numbers of previous years.


Flag waving has long been a feature of our society. The sight of children clasping and waving little Australian flags along the Moomba parade route or that of the Queen’s Royal cavalcade was a common one in days gone by. Apart from that the only places you saw the flag was on the pole at school during Monday morning assembly or possibly hanging in the local Scout Hall.  In recent times, at least in my area, local council has taken to erecting flagpoles in as many public spaces as is possible – including roundabouts. I am feeling a distinct unease with the overt brandishing of the national flag that seems to be becoming endemic in our society.


That unease stems principally from the socio-political backdrop against which it is taking place. More astute political commentators than I have pointed to the return of ‘White Australia’ policy rhetoric in our political and public forums. That this has been allowed to happen is an indictment on the current national government’s penchant for divisive rule and its pandering to the lowest common denominator. Divide and conquer is an old adage and one honed to perfection by Howard’s government.


The biggest loser in all this has been various minority groups singled out for public hatemongering. Pauline Hanson’s assault on indigenous Australia tacitly supported by John Howard’s declarations about the right to free speech; the vilification of refugees as queue jumpers and illegal immigrants despite their legitimate right to seek asylum under internal conventions to which Australia is a signatory; the targeting of the Muslim faith and dress codes and accompanying arguments as to their lacking in Australian values (whatever they might be!) – have all acted as rallying points for racist elements in our society.


The common denominator in all these has been the government’s unwillingness to adopt an unequivocal stand against poisonous rhetoric and reprehensible action – made all the less likely by hard line policy and rhetoric evolving from within the government itself.  In refusing to cap such outbreaks with pointed rebukes both the government and press (to add another element) give tacit support to the perpetrators and embolden their nationalistic fervour.


I must say I am a tad troubled by the direction that the commemoration of Anzac is heading. Is it commemoration or is it celebration? If it is the latter then does it constitute a celebration of war and if so is that something that should be celebrated? Or has it become simply an evocation of nationalism, a celebration of Australian identity (irrespective of how elusive that might actually be)? These questions, I think, represent the fine line upon which events planned around that day currently tread.


That Anzac Day has become so popular or at least is portrayed as such is interesting (and let us not kid ourselves about the extent to which interest in Anzac Day is politically and media driven).


If we think back to the 1970s, then, Anzac Day was struggling to find an audience and there were many predicting its demise. Yet, like the mythical Phoenix it has risen and thrives again. How did this happen?


Well I do have a bit of a theory – not necessarily the correct one but it is one that I will share with you nonetheless. As Anzac Day floundered two films of critical importance were released that aroused the national consciousness and began to channel interest back into Anzac Day. The films were Breaker Morant and Gallipoli.


Both of these films tapped into a rich vein of anti-British and more specifically anti-English sentiment in our national consciousness. In the national narrative, Morant is portrayed as a victim of British duplicity and sacrificed by generals covering their backsides. The fact that Morant and Handcock murdered prisoners and a clergyman, were of secondary importance to the act of British betrayal.


Gallipoli, too, in even more evocative terms presents a story of fresh faced heroic young Australians being sacrificed through the callous ineptitude of British generals and with it an image of craven English behaviour (remember we are told that the English are sitting on the beach drinking cups of tea as the Australians charge to their deaths).


I must say that historically, this view of English turpitude was certainly a view that many Australian soldiers held. It wasn’t necessarily well founded but it was believed whole-heartedly by many. It is a view that persisted throughout the war and one that was carried back to Australia after the war. There it entered the Australian consciousness, building on existing sporting rivalries as well as the ever present desire (in some quarters) to define ourselves as a separate entity to Britain.


There occurs in 1983 an event of unprecedented outpouring of unity and euphoria that remains for me as mind-boggling today as it was then. I refer to the winning of the America’s Cup. Two statements made at that time said much about our national outlook. The first was Bob Hawke’s declaration that any employer who gave a worker a hard time for not turning up as a result of all night reveling and partying would be ‘a bit of a mug’. The second was victorious owner Alan Bond’s declaration that the America’s Cup was our greatest victory since Gallipoli.


Bond’s statement said much about how Gallipoli is understood by the broader public. All the positive talk about Australian exploits at Gallipoli had served to mask the reality of the outcome of the campaign.


What the America’s Cup did though was to usher in an era of commercial flag-waving nationalism perhaps best illustrated by the Boxing Kangaroo, the songs ‘Living in a Land Down Under’ and ‘Still Call Australia Home’. The 1980s saw the resurrection of Australian sport in a number of fields, improved Olympic performances, all conquering rugby union and leagues sides, the arrival of world boxing champions such as Lester Ellis, Jeff ‘the Hitman’ Harding and Jeff Fenech. The decade also saw the reclamation of the Ashes after something of a barren period in Australian cricket. 1988 provided a platform for the bi-centennial celebrations which gave the newfound penchant for flag-waving a national focus.


During this time the story of Australian participation in the First World War was presented to a wide viewing audience in the television series Anzacs and the appalling movie the Light-Horsemen..


My point here is that our understanding of Anzac and what it represents was beginning to take place against an increasing backdrop of popular nationalism.


It is probably true that that backdrop did not begin to merge significantly with Anzac until 1990 when the broadcast of the 75th Anniversary brought Gallipoli into the lounge rooms of millions of Australians. Suddenly Gallipoli was not just a distant inaccessible landscape but something tangible. This was soon followed with the internment of Australia’s own unknown soldier – an event of Royal Wedding proportions.


In the post 1990 period, backpackers began to gravitate to Gallipoli for the dawn service at Anzac Cove, culminating in this year’s record numbers.


That congregation of mostly young Australians has captured the imagination of politicians and media who have seized upon their presence as representing some newfound pride in the nation and what it means to be Australian.


I wonder about how truly representative of young Australians these backpackers are. Having taught some 400 students at first and second year level at university I can tell you  that in a four year period only about twenty of those students admitted to attending an Anzac Day service (notwithstanding those they attended as primary and secondary students).


There is also no doubt that the tenor of the Anzac day march has changed. A few years ago I attended and watched the thinning legions march past punctuated by school and community bands, one of which treated the crowd and other marchers to a rendition of the “Aussie Aussie oi oi oi” chant.


This year’s anniversary bore out just how far the ceremony has moved from commemoration to entertainment. That it was seriously proposed to have John Farnham perform as part of the service said much. In the end a night of music to keep the crowd entertained did occur and you may have read about the song choices such as ‘Stayin Alive’ by the Bee Gees that many thought irreverent.


Appended to all this was the hysteria surrounding the widening of a road and excavating of ground near the North Beach at Anzac. I visited Gallipoli two and a half years ago and from the photographs I have seen of the new work, I can only say there seems to have been something of an overreaction. Still the preferred story was that the road improvements were sacrilegious and amounted to a desecration of a sacred site. I suspect many indigenous Australians wondered at the ease with which White`Australia established and accepted such a sacred site given their own struggles for similar outcomes.


Anzac Day and things Anzac have become a commodity and I think this is a dangerous thing for its integrity. This year the newspapers offered commemorative medallions for readers. Anzac biscuits can be purchased off the supermarket shelves with the RSL s blessing.


The match ball of the traditional MCG Anzac Day clash is delivered in a Sea King helicopter and the player of the match wins an Anzac medal for best displaying the attributes of the Anzac diggers. It seems to me a commercial crassness is invading the spirit.


The Anzac fever has been further fueled by an awareness of the few remaining veterans in our midst and those men were subject to increasing focus as their numbers dwindled. The state funeral held for Alec Campbell, the last surviving Australian soldier to have served at Gallipoli, was rich in symbolism and tainted, a little, by political opportunism.


The seeming popularity of the 90th anniversary of Gallipoli would suggest that the 95th and 100th will be equally popular. I daresay that they will be followed by a similar process as the dwindling Second World War servicemen and women grab our attention. Perhaps we will see a shift in the axis of commemoration from Gallipoli to Kokoda.


I do wonder about exactly what the visitors to Gallipoli are deriving. It is certainly not a true understanding of the events that unfolded there. How many people know that the Australians outnumbered the Turks by 7-1 in the initial landing, that some Turks were taken by surprise with their coffee still warm in the hut they occupied. How many people know that the Australians actually seized portions of the second and third ridges but could not hold them?


I suspect those visiting Gallipoli represent a new generation of a secular society searching for a meaningful context in which to define their place in the world. Undoubtedly the values that are celebrated under the Anzac umbrella are not without merit.


I do question the legitimacy of the claim that Australia came of age at Gallipoli and that it was at Gallipoli that the Australian identity was forged. This mantra is consistently spouted by the Army, the Australian War Memorial, by politicians and is being taught as an unequivocal fact at many schools.


Historically it does not stand up. It is an exercise in historical reductionism that ignores other defining events and movements in our path to nationhood such as the story of Federation, the artistic and literary engagement with the land and society of the late 19th century, universal suffrage and the emergence of the Trade Union movement. These were pivotal things that defined us that preceded the landing at Gallipoli.


One thing that has assisted with the attraction of youth around the totems of Anzac is the lack of a real connection with the human cost of war. Previous generations have lived with loss and witnessed the cost of war in living rooms and bedrooms with returned men. They have lived with constant reminders of the debilitating effects of war in post war society. The past few generations have been spared this sobering experience. War is a far more abstract thing to today’s youth who are also, perhaps, inevitably exposed to a commercially driven brand of nationalism that rolls our war experience into the same package as sporting achievement and generalized national characterizations of what is typically Australian.


It worries me when students arrive in class at university with the perjured view that Australians were the best soldiers in the world and were sacrificed by British generals. It worries me when my son is told at morning assembly on Anzac Day, without any context, that Australian soldiers were brave. This teaches nobody about the reality of war. Nor do descriptions of Anzacs in our daily papers as ‘laughing Paladins’ and ‘bronzed Gladiators’.


It concerns me too that as each war is woven into the Anzac tapestry we are increasingly accepting war as a natural condition of national life.


So while Anzac Day is enjoying significant centrality in public attention I am not sure that knowledge of what the soldiers actually did there, of what really happened there, and of what war actually represents to the participants is necessarily a pre-requisite.

And on this score the media and institutions such as the Australian War Memorial are guilty of accentuating the more sentimental and heroic aspects of the war experience above the grisly. Grisly accounts involving Australian soldiers are proffered but only when Australian soldiers are victims.


Recently I submitted an article on the killing of wounded prisoners by Australian soldiers to the editors of the War Memorial’s magazine ‘Wartime’. The article was not accepted, not because of any apparent scholarly shortcomings but rather because the subject matter was considered inappropriate for that publication. This is a publication that claims to provide understanding of Australia’s war experience. Clearly the warts and all view that I favour is seen as less legitimate than the celebratory and hagiographic style practised by the War Memorial.


If we are to arrive at a real understanding of what war experience entails then we must incorporate study of the unsavoury aspects, irrespective of how unpleasant they may be. Study of those alternative realities is far more enlightening than the more sanitized versions provided for general consumption.


Let me conclude by sharing some examples of those realities drawn from my books.

In No Quarter I discuss incidents of unlawful killing. Killing in this manner, the refusal to take prisoners despite the practice being outlawed by the rules of war extant at the time, was endemic on the Western Front. Australian soldiers were both victims and perpetrators. Wounded men were shot in the name of military necessity, despite the fact that they posed no danger to their captors and on other occasions soldiers were shot purely out of revenge. One Australian records how his sergeant shot a surrendered man just so that he could procure his field glasses. Such cold blooded acts were not aberrations. Yet they represent an aspect of war that has been expunged from our memory.


In Dinkum Diggers I examine a Battalion from its inception, through its war experience at Gallipoli and in France and Belgium into the men’s post war lives.


The horror of the First World War is difficult to grasp. Statistically it is mind numbing. Consider that each time Australian Battalions entered a major battle they were likely to lose close to 50 per cent of their men. That is a 1000 halved to 500, 700 to 350 and as attrition took its toll, 500 to 250. A battalion 1000 strong in 1914 would have 6000 men pass through its ranks to maintain its strength during the war. The organisation of the various units was therefore often in a state of flux.


Two-thirds of Australain soldiers that returned home were classified as unfit for active service. Soldiers who enlisted in 1914 had about a 12-15 per cent chance of still being on active service in 1918. As the soldiers said, “All the good ones die eventually.” The statistics told them that. Returned men had a reduced life expectancy of 3-5 years against others in their age groups. By the early 1930s close to 50,000 returned men had passed through repatriation hospitals for treatment to war related injuries.


The Anzac legend celebrates the endurance of Australian soldiers in the First World War but the reality was that most could only endure until their number was up. The war simply wrecked men. Concepts that we attribute to these men’s experience, such as contributing to Australian identity and the making of Australia were far removed from most men’s minds. They talked about the inevitability of death and of war being hell. They drew literary parallels from Dante’s Inferno and the book of revelations. Battle represented Armageddon. For many the frightfulness of war carried into their post war lives, affecting them and the people around them. Lest We Forget..