Our National Day

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In the early 21st century, Australians have embraced the Anzac legend as their most powerful myth of nationhood. Mourning the loss of life in the Victorian bushfires in early 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd compared the firefighters who stood at "the gates of hell", to the Anzacs in their "slouch hats", as if any story of courage and loss must now be placed in "the Anzac tradition" before national mourning can truly occur.

Over the last decade, analysis of the "resurgence" has presented a now familiar train of explanations for Australians' rush to embrace the Anzac story. In Sacred Places, historian Ken Inglis led the way, pinpointing the crucial turning point as the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Anzac Day attendances began to rise steeply. On the 75th anniversary of Anzac Day in 1990, Bob Hawke became the first Australian prime minister to preside over the Dawn Service at Anzac Cove, after which the numbers of pilgrims visiting Gallipoli each Anzac Day rose sharply.

The arguments put forward by Inglis have become the most commonly accepted explanations: the "surge" of interest in family history that encourages Australians to pursue the fate of relatives who served in war, the steady demise of ex-servicemen and women, which has only made it easier for recent generations to commemorate war in their own image, and the urgent need for a "civil religion" in a "post-Christian society that no longer delivers ancient certainties to young people who are in search of nourishment for the spirit".

Removed from the experience of self-sacrifice, contemporary Australians are humbled, "even awe-struck", by the "supreme sacrifice" made by the generation of 1915. Each explanation contains important insights, but they offer only part of the answer. The "resurgence" of Anzac Day, which stands at the vanguard of a new wave of patriotism in 21st century Australia, emerged out of the politics of nationalism in the 1980s.

The government-led campaigns designed to inculcate a deeper national attachment to Australia Day, which had been such a hallmark of national politics in the 1970s, continued with even more urgency in the 1980s. There was little choice. The bicentenary of European settlement at Sydney Cove was fast approaching. Long before the celebrations were underway, opinion leaders noted the manifest failure of earlier attempts to whip up enthusiasm for Australia Day. Significantly, many of these remarks were made in a comparative context, contrasting the lacklustre response to 26 January with the authenticity of Australia's only "true national day": 25 April.

By the early 1980s, it was clear that Anzac Day was a more popular proposition as a national day than Australia Day. Over the course of the decade, as preparations for the bicentennial celebrations gathered apace, other difficulties surrounding 26 January emerged, difficulties which had surfaced as early as the Cook bicentenary in 1970, but which would now put an end to any hope of a united and cohesive national narrative being constructed around Australia Day. The dilemma was expressed succinctly in a slogan formulated by the Aboriginal protest movement: "White Australia has a Black History".

Feature articles discussed "white guilt" and "national shame", while editorials spoke of the "dilemma" posed by the coming 200th anniversary of first settlement. Conservative intellectuals and interest groups began to respond angrily to suggestions that Australia's "British heritage" could not be commemorated positively. Unable to find a way through the competing voices, the Hawke government refused to support the First Fleet re-enactment, siding instead with the Tall Ships, a multicultural theme which would eventually see so many ships in Sydney Harbour on 26 January 1988, that no one could be sure exactly what was being "celebrated".

As "the First Fleet" entered the harbour, flying the Coca-Cola Flag, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal protesters marched from Redfern to Circular Quay under "Invasion Day" banners. As Australia Day became a lightning rod for historical and political disputes, Anzac Day came to be seen as a less complicated and less divisive alternative.

Writers, filmmakers and journalists performed narrative surgery on the Imperial history of 25 April 1915, casting it as a "uniquely Australian" story in which a fledgling nation's innocent youth fell like sacrificial lambs.

For decades following 1915, the Imperial context of Anzac Day had been fundamental to the rituals and meaning of 25 April; newspapers, for example, commonly placed the king's or queen's message on the front page. The day was linked inextricably with Australia's military contribution to the British Empire.

By the 1980s, the Queen's message, which is still sent every 25 April, had disappeared entirely from the front pages. Due to the success of Peter Weir's Gallipoli (1981), which drew on Bill Gammage's The Broken Years (1974), the Anzacs came to be seen as the victims of British incompetence and condescension. Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant (1980), and Simon Wincer's The Lighthorsemen (1987), reflected a similar emphasis.

Once the venerable core of Anzac Day rituals, by the 1980s the British had become "the bad guys", reduced to the stereotype of the pompous Pom — hedgehog-moustached officers who spoke in plummy accents and held nothing but contempt for uncouth Australians — the perfect antidote to the problem of Anzac's Imperial past. In popular culture, Anzac Day was slowly being reinvented as an exclusively Australian odyssey.

Anzac Day's demise had been prophesied since the 1970s. But Australians were now also solving this problem by replacing the dying diggers with new, more youthful marchers: their children and grandchildren, Vietnam veterans, now welcomed back as Anzacs after their allegedly poor treatment in the 1960s and 70s, women, and immigrants who had fought for foreign armies, including the Turks, who first led an Anzac Day march in Canberra in 1974.

As the old men in medals decreased in number, and the generation gap became less pronounced, the common criticisms of 25 April that had emerged in the 1950s and 1960s were undermined. It seemed ridiculous to accuse young people of glorifying war. As journalist Tony Stephens remarked in 1988, "the old divisions" were "fading away": "the critics have discovered respect for the men and women who went, not to glorify the barbarity but to honour old comrades."

"This new understanding," Stephens thought, had "been emerging for a decade or more". It also represented a displacement of the fierce divisions over Australia Day in the lead up to the bicentenary. On 25 April 1990, the 75th anniversary of the Anzacs landing at Gallipoli, the connection between the failure of the bicentenary celebrations and the new embrace of Anzac Day was made abundantly clear.

At Gallipoli, in his speech at the Ari Burnu Cemetery, where 151 Australians were buried, Prime Minister Bob Hawke told the audience that the hills around them had once "rang" with the voices of the Anzacs; even more importantly, they "ran with their blood". In the "exploits" of the Anzacs, he said, Australians were "proud to identify the very character of our nation". Speaking later to the media, Hawke observed that the pilgrimage made by so many Australians to Anzac Cove in 1990 represented "the regeneration of the spirit of Anzac".

While Australia Day was plagued by a "lack of national pride", Anzac Day was simply "about being Australian". As if the 19th century struggles for responsible government and federation, and the decade of nation-building by Liberal and Labor governments that followed World War I did not exist, the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised that the death of the Anzacs was "the starting point of our nationhood … the beginning of a separate identity from Britain that did not mature, perhaps, until we baulked at sending troops to Europe when Australia was under threat in 1941".

The Anzacs were no longer the soldiers "whose blood was up … rushing northwards and eastwards, searching for fresh enemies to bayonet", as reported in 1915 by the British correspondent, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. Stripped of bloodlust, they were now sanctified as men who preferred to have a yarn with the Turks during ceasefires, crack jokes and swap cigarettes.

How different this was too, from the Herald's characterisation of the Anzacs at the beginning of World War II, when a different historical context demanded an almost Homeric image of the Anzacs: "These muscular, grim-faced veterans who had scaled the heights of Gallipoli exactly a quarter of a century ago, who later destroyed the Ottoman power and helped so effectively to turn the tide of war in France, symbolised the prowess of Australian armed forces and the indestructible strength of an Empire … Despite the passing of the years, the grey hairs and the spectacles of middle age, these men had the cool, quiet confidence of seasoned soldiers who knew war and victory too … the martial spirit of the Anzac still gleams and glows."

There are few better examples of the way in which each generation moulds the Anzac legend for its own purposes: furious killers in 1915, cool and confident killers in 1940, and by 1990, brave boys loyal to their mates, whose virtues the nation might now emulate.

When Prime Minister Bob Hawke addressed a national television audience of millions in 1988, he could not bring himself to mention the dispossession of Aboriginal Australians. He spoke only of the need for a "commitment to Australia" and of Australia's success story as a nation of immigrants. Delivered at the Sydney Opera House, only a stone's throw from where Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack on 26 January 1788, the silences in Hawke's speech revealed the dilemma that had plagued the bicentenary celebrations since 1980. The history of Aboriginal dispossession, of which Phillip's landing was the opening act, undercut any attempt to present Australia Day as the rallying point for national pride.

Eighteen months later, at Gallipoli, Hawke, like much of the nation's press, turned to the Anzac story with a sense of relief. After a decade of cultural and political division over 26 January, here, at last, was a day that could be shaped into a true source of national communion. The blood spilt in the frontier wars, the taking of Aboriginal land without consent or compensation, the physical and cultural decline of Aboriginal communities, and the political demands of Aboriginal activists, none of these need haunt or spoil the commemoration of Anzac Day.

Hawke looked up at "the steep cliffs" above "the narrow beaches", and saw the metaphor of heroic struggle the nation pined for. Anzac Cove, not Sydney Cove, was where the right kind of Australian blood had been spilt.

With Anzac's Imperial origins receding from public memory, the legend could now be refashioned as the Bastille Day or Fourth of July Australia never had, the day which cut Australia adrift from its Imperial past in one fell, heroic swoop, a story clearly yearned for, and much more romantic than the "boring" history of incremental independence.

As our political leaders increasingly mimic the public performances of American politicians, smiling and waving to the cameras as they pass through the church gates on Sunday morning, one wonders if the Anzac revolution has occurred not because we are a post-Christian society, but because we live in a time of religious revival. Before Anzac, we bow down, we close ranks and we remain silent. So sacrosanct has Anzac Day become, that no political leader dare risk qualifying, let alone doubting, the absolute centrality of its position to our national identity and national values.

In our rush to participate in the Anzac "resurgence" as the centenary of the Gallipoli invasion approaches in 2015, we appear to have forgotten to ask the most fundamental question of all. After the horrors of war in the 20th century, in which so many millions of people died, does Australia, a modern pluralist democracy in the 21st century, still wish to cling to a 19th century concept of nationhood: the belief that a nation can only be truly borne through the spilling of the sacrificial blood of its young?

This is an edited extract from What's Wrong With Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi (UNSW Press)

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