26 Apr 2010

Our National Day

By Mark McKenna

In many ways, Anzac Day is a less controversial rallying point for a nation than Australia Day. But what does our embracing of the Anzac story really say about us, asks Mark McKenna

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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Posted Monday, April 26, 2010 - 21:00

ANZAC Day is a vital reminder of our terrible loss. Without being reminded of history and what our forebears did, current generations are superficial and risk repeating history.

But ANZAC day is a recurring reminder of tragic neglect of veterans by those that chose war and sent them there. Respect for ANZAC Day is being paid by the Australian community less successive Australian governments. That veterans are forced to rely on charity is despicable. That veterans of successive Australian conflicts exposed to radiation, carcinogens and trauma are denied benefits and health care by successive Australian Governments is despicable.

The true cost of war lingers well after the ticket tape parade. Normal fit, healthy and able people are set to war, but most don't return that way. Exposure to trauma in civilian life attracts considerable compensation and expert care and this can last for the remainder of one's life. Children of veterans and of those that didn't return deserve the best Government support that the country can provide.

That politicians have given themselves 15.4% guaranteed super, get a generous pensions for life, a Gold Card for airline travel and various entitlements, while Legacy and ANZAC volunteers rattle tins for donations for their veterans - yes ANZAC day is a vital reminder.

Government needs to be held accountable for the true and full economic and human costs of war.

Government and politician attendance at ANZAC ceremonies will only be a token presence until that happens.

Posted Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - 00:47

My view of the Bi-Centennial celebrations in Sydney in 1988, in the company of interststers, was of a very positive celebration of nationhood. The public goodwill was akin to New years Eve or the atmoshere of the Sydney Olympics. C
Academics may want to put that down to Australians being perfect party animals but there was a much deeper sincerity.

Alternatively also was the fact that my extensive family of exservicemen and women avoided the Annual Parade. That may have been a rejection of the RSL "bullies" who monpolised the event or the festering scars and demons that each returned with.

But the conclusion is too simplistic. If Gallipoli was the nation's birth then we were born-losers. Thank heavens for Harry Chauvel and our magnificent Light Horse chasing the Turks from GAZA to Damascus!

David Skidmore
Posted Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - 09:09

"While Australia Day was plagued by a "lack of national pride"..."

And the point here? I think a bit less national pride may couldn't go astray. Why is lack of national pride a "plague"?

I can't stand nationalism. Nationalism is an ideology that fuels some of the most brutal, large scale atrocities in human history. The examples are countless but they include atrocities committed in the name of Australia as well as the worst offenders.

I have no more allegiance to Australia than I do Ward A of Bankstown Council. It is an adminstrative convenience I have no say in. The world is divided into such compartments each with a government and ideology proclaiming them as the best in the world - a recipe for disaster.

As for honouring those who died in war I think of the 25 million Russians who died in World War II. I am not related to any of them but so what? Why should nationalism compel me to only remember those killed who came from this continent?

I also remember trade unionists and human rights activists worldwide who have died in the course of their duty. I wonder when they'll get a day of commemoration marked by a public holiday in Australia. I won't hold my breath waiting.

Ian MacDougall
Posted Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - 10:17

Many commentators over the years have been mystified as to why Anzac Day should be so poular, yet celebrate a defeat.

The historical fact, first pointed out to me in coversation by the historian Russel Ward, is that it began as a decision from below, not above. In 1918, groups of returned diggers who wanted their fallen mates remembered took to the streets on their own initiative on the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. Only when it was obviously established as a mass phenomenon did officialdom decide that it had best be part of it.

All wars are terrible, but only in a few is there a problem deciding which side is in the right. The world today would not be better off if the Central Powers had won in WW1; nor if the Axis had won in WW2.

The central tragedy of Gallipoli is that the whole thing, and the subsequent history of the 20th C, could have turned out so differently if the landing had taken place on 'Brighton Beach' as was intended, and not at Anzac Cove. The two are about as far apart as Tamarama and Bronte, and the Royal Navy apparently did not allow for the fierce currents in the channel.

That's the way some history gets made.

Marilyn Shepherd
Posted Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - 13:46

I was among tens of thousands on that day in 1988 marching with aborigines and others to mourn invasion day and I don't and never will celebrate Australia day.

As for ANZAC day - we do love our abject failures but on ANZAC while reading senate estimates questions I came across an answer that tells us who we really are.

(48) Program 4.3: Offshore Asylum Seeker Management
Senator Hanson-Young (L&C 100-101) asked:
a) Are mental health checks mandatory for immigration detainees, and, if so, at what
intervals are reviews done?
b) What are the arrangements for children?
c) Is there always an independent party present when children and minors are
interviewed and, if so, who is the accompanying person?
a) All people entering immigration detention undergo mental health and torture and
trauma screening as part of their health induction assessment (which is conducted
within 72 hours of their arrival in immigration detention). This information is used to
inform an ongoing care plan.
Due to the high proportion of Irregular Maritime Arrivals (on Christmas Island) who
have experienced torture and trauma, the health induction assessment also includes
an automatic referral for torture and trauma assessment by the Indian Ocean
Territories Health Service.
As part of the ongoing health care provided to all people in immigration detention, rescreening
for mental health concerns is conducted after seven days in immigration
detention. It is then conducted every 12 and 18 months or when triggers for concern
are identified. If a person remains in immigration detention for longer than 18
months, re-screening occurs every three months or whenever triggers for concern
are identified.
b) Current mental health arrangements in place for minors are consistent with those
for adults. However, the Department is working with the Detention Health Advisory
Group to ensure that specific issues for minors are addressed. This includes
appropriate screening arrangements specific to minors and ensuring that the family
unit as a whole receives assistance when required. For example, where mental
health concerns are raised for any member of a family unit that includes a minor,
then all members of that family unit will be referred to mental health professionals for
appropriate assistance, which may include assessment or treatment.
c) Yes. In cases where a minor is not accompanied by a parent or guardian, an
Independent Person is required to be present for the Department’s immigration
processing. The key role of the Independent Person in these cases is to provide
pastoral or physical care to the child throughout the interview process.
An Independent Person is required to have no relationship with either the
Department or the minor.
Currently, suitably qualified staff from Life Without Barriers act in the role of
Independent Persons.

We are the cowardly jailors of innocent victims of war and torture. And we don't care.

Posted Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - 14:30

Young Mark,

As a serving Australian soldier at Holsworthy Barracks in September 1999, I remember watching the television news and seeing people who are normally categorised as "anti-War" or anti-military demanding that the government of the day, John Howard Coalition, send Australian troops to East Timor to stop the militia violence.

In fact, it took enormous public pressure and arm twisting to get Howard to do so...the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was even refusing to accept Indonesian covert operations were taking place in East Timor to stop it from breaking away.

It's funny when one section of the population rubbishes our military heritage but when the going gets tough demands others go in and do the tough stuff.

This never seems to get a mention by critics of the Anzac Legend. I wonder why?! I don't recall any criticism of the Anzac Legend back in 1999 over East Timor!

I actually welcome the scrutiny of the Anzac Legend, as all national myths must come under the microscope...But there needs to some consistency. You'll find both serving and ex-military who take a sceptical view... In fact, recruitment numbers have remained low despite the popularity of the Anzac legend. I think the average person is smart enough to discern and give praise and recognition to our military heritage without going over the top. The professional defence forces in this country do not want conscription.

I quite enjoyed your article and this is not a criticism of it.

If you take a closer look at some of those involved in the "Anzac industry" which has popularised the legend in books, some of them were against the Vietnam War back in the 1960s.

It looks to me a case of jumping on a bandwagon, rather than some militarist conspiracy to put everyone in uniform. Quite simply the Anzac legend resonates with the current generation because there is a strong element of truth behind but you don't see them rushing to enlist.

Sasha Uzunov
ex-Australian soldier (2 tours of East Timor 1999 and 2001)
freelance photo journalist (Iraq & Afghanistan)
Independent film maker: Director/Producer: TIMOR TOUR OF DUTY

Posted Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - 15:31

The meaning of Anzac Day was the main theme in last night's Q&A programme on ABC TV. Whilst watching it my wife pointed out that an explanation of why Gallipoli is so celebrated in Australia is not as a glorification of war, but because the (white) Australian psyche celebrates glorious failures!
Our mythical heroes are a drowning sheep thief and a fellow that got gunned down whilst wearing a bucket on his head.
When an Australian won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, not by winning, but by the others falling over, we all cheered.
I'm glad my parents brought me to this country, I'm glad I got "neutralized". I'm glad most of us don't know the words to "girt by sea" (I voted for Waltzing Matilda), I'm glad many of us despise the dog-whistler that lost the election and the King of Spin that replaced him.
If our leaders unconditionally re-instate the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory and stop using the boat people and Aborigines for cynical political purposes, we can be proud (and grateful) to be Australians. What day we celebrate this on is a moot point.

Posted Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - 15:41

Excellent article.

However missing from the article is any mention of the 1915-1923 Armenian Genocide that commenced on 24 April 1915, the day before the Anzac invasion of Turkey and after months of Anglo-French naval bombardment of the Dardanelles.

The xenophobic Turks, attacked by the Russians in the East and the Allies in the West, turned on their Armenian citizens and savagely murdered 1.5 million of them.

This immense tragedy linked to the Anzacs and Gallipoli is religiously excluded from the Australian national narrative - no doubt because of the undesirability of linking the murderous destruction of an ancient Christian civilization to the "birth of the nation" at Gallipoli.

However history ignored yields history repeated, and 50-60 years later Australia was also involved as a puppet of Anglo imperialism (this time US imperialism) in Indo-China and this was followed by the Cambodian Genocide in war-traumatized Cambodia (1.5 million Cambodians murdered) (see my book "Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950": http://globalavoidablemortality.blogspot.com/2008/08/body-count-global-a... ).

There must be zero tolerance for racism, genocide and genocide-complicit lying , genocide ignoring and holocaust denial.

I sent 10 Key Questions relating to the above to the recent ABC TV Q&A on Anzac Day - sentimental, politically correct, right wing rubbish punctuated by sensible, honest and authoritative views from Professors Germaine Greer and Henry Reynolds. Of course none of these Key Questions were asked.

Having entered my 5th decade as an academic (science) teacher, I have created an educative website entitled "Questions Q&A won't ask" (see: http://sites.google.com/site/questionsqawontask/ ) and my un-asked questions about Australian complicity in Imperial Genocides - plus the documented, authoritative answers - are found in "Armenian Genocide Day & Anzac Day questions re Australian military complicity in genocide atrocities": http://sites.google.com/site/questionsqawontask/4-26-2010-anzac-day-ques... .

In short, Australia in its 222 year history has been involved in 22 genocides of which 8 are ongoing, namely the Palestinian Genocide, Iraqi Genocide, Afghan Genocide, Tamil Genocide, Muslim Genocide, Aboriginal Genocide, Biofuel Genocide and Climate Genocide (see "Australia's Secret Genocide History": http://sites.google.com/site/aboriginalgenocide/australia-s-secret-genoc... ).

Avoidable Asian deaths associated with Australia-complicit post-1950 US
Asian wars total 23 million, including 4.5 million in the ongoing Afghan Genocide, an atrocity in which Labor voter-betraying, pro-Zionist, pro-US, pro-war, war criminal Labor has now made 90% of Australians complicit - ergo vote #1 Green and Put Labor Last.

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.

Marilyn Shepherd
Posted Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - 16:56

Perhaps Paul Daley's book about the massacre at Surafend should be mandatory reading.

When we chased the Turks from Gaza to Damascus we repulsive enough with trapped and fleeing soldiers being gunned down like dogs by the Australians but the massacre at Surafend when they slaughtered dozens of innocent men ater the war is truly repulsive.