Don't Mention The War


Timed perfectly for Anzac day, historians Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna, Joy Damousi and Carina Donaldson are going to ruffle a few feathers with the release of their provocative book What’s Wrong With Anzac? 

The problem with Anzac, Lake asserts in the book’s introduction, is that nobody ever questions it. And why would we? After Australia Day was compromised by so-called black armband history, it’s become our "real" national day, as Mark McKenna discusses in his contribution, extracted in today. It’s a great story: brave young men selflessly sacrifice the best years of their lives for a cause they know is right. Courage against insurmountable odds. Doing the right thing even while you know you will fail. It’s a great story. Isn’t it?

Inga Clendinnen certainly thought so when she wrote an eloquent Quarterly Essay entitled The History Question: Who Owns The Past? She named Anzac Day as an example of an event that many people "own" — and which thus has as many meanings as there are Australians. That was in 2006, during the period of reflection the historical profession went through in the wake of the first history war.

Now Lake and Reynolds have proposed an alternative narrative on the significance of Anzac Day. Clendinnen has already taken the authors to task over the scholarly basis of the book. The media loves this sort of division — but although it looks like a polarised historical fist-fight, there’s actually a much more sober and nuanced argument underway.

In her introduction, Lake notes that to criticise the Anzac tradition is akin to treason. She reflects on the responses to a critical article she wrote on the topic published in The Age in 2009. Many cited a personal connection to the tradition — regardless of whether they were critiquing or defending the Anzacs.

Clendinnen also addressed the personal nature of Anzac Day in her essay when she acknowledged that "war" for her meant World Wars I and II whereas to other, younger Australians, "war" meant Vietnam — and that this had an impact on their assessment of the Anzac myth. One of the strengths of What’s Wrong With Anzac? is that it directly confronts these personal connections, and poses a tough question: Why should your family’s service history matter in terms of how Australian you really are?

The answer to this question is complicated by the changes in Australian society over the last century.

Australians in the late 19th century believed that wars were clashes between races — and just as evolution weeded out the sick and weak, only the strongest and fittest race would survive. This version of Social Darwinism underpinned the racism of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Another consequence was that Australia sent men off to fight and die in two world wars for a British Empire that they felt was a brotherhood of whites, destined to struggle against other races until one or the other was wiped out.

In 1945, around 4 million living Australians, out of a population of around 7 million, had served or been affected by two world wars that took a total of 10 years to fight. It makes sense that military service would attract such a civic premium for returned servicemen and war widows.

Things have changed since 1945. We’re now a country of 22 million people that has seen successive waves of immigration from all over the globe. We’ve fought in many wars since then — Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, East Timor — yet we have still not seen war on our soil. Apart from our soldiers, the only people who have seen what war is like up close are those who flocked to Australia to escape it, often from countries where Australia had deployed troops.

To a significant number of Australians, war is a traumatic memory that impelled them to leave their homes in search of a better life. And here is the problem — if Anzac Day is our "real" national day, as Clendinnen and the contributors to What’s Wrong With Anzac? variously assert, then how can first and second-generation Australians truly be part of the nation? What do we do to the social fabric of our society by publicly treating war in a way that so jars with their personal stories?

The Anzac myth places a premium on military service, and holds that it was at Gallipoli — and not before — that our nation was truly born. What’s Wrong With Anzac? points out that as a result of Anzac, we as a nation unquestioningly revere those who serve in our military, but are incapable of recognising civil achievements, like Federation — the true birth of the nation — or the extension of suffrage to women, in which Australia led the world. The Anzacs overshadow all of these concerns and encourage us to believe that only military service and sacrifice on the field of battle have any bearing on history.

In the closing chapters of the book, the authors look at the resurgence of Anzac. They assert that debate in Australia around recent military interventions has been silenced by the Anzac tradition. The problem, they argue, is that because we value military service so highly, and identify war with nation-building, we are incapable of critically approaching involvement in wars.

The Anzac myth tells us that war happens in other people’s countries. We go to war not because of any connection to the countries we fight in, but because of the countries we fight alongside, Britain, America, and the rest of the first world. We don’t start wars, we go to help stop them, and we pride ourselves on the martial prowess of our armed forces even as we pay lip service to the truism that war is hell.

But it’s that martial prowess, and the assumption that we go to war to help people, that underpinned Anzac in 1918 and underpins it still. In Australia today, to criticise involvement in a war is the same as criticising the "heroes" that fight these wars for us. All debate on the morality or justness of a conflict melts away the second troops are committed, because while we can criticise politicians for warmongering, the troops are sacred.

This means that, eight years after debate over our involvement in Iraq started, we still haven’t had any serious inquiry into why we joined the fray — and why we have stayed there so long. Britain is in the midst of such an inquiry, but here in Australia, we aren’t even talking about the war anymore. Afghanistan is the same.

Deep down, at the core of the Anzac myth is the assumption that wars make men and nations — so we need to keep having them.

The book will, in its own words, open up a new front in the history wars, and I think it’s about time. Unlike often-feted, sometimes-hated novelist Kate Grenville, I don’t think anyone is "up on a ladder, looking down at the history wars".

History is something that we all have a say in, but it’s also something we can’t avoid, even when we want to. I think we should have history wars. I think the history wars are an essential part of Australia’s growing up. Under Howard, the nation experienced a schism over Aboriginal history — and the shocking idea that British settlers may have invaded a populated continent rather than settled a terra nullius.

This new challenge issued by Lake and Reynolds to the way we see ourselves is equally important. We need to critically assess the way we see our own history. We need to divorce our personal memories from our national history, and we need to acknowledge when it’s gone too far.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.