Lest we forget what?

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

2010 Anzac Day clash

Today is Anzac Day, the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli of Australian (and New Zealand, though my remarks here mostly pertain to my own country) troops on 25 April 1915. In the last two decades Anzac day has increasingly been seen as marking the coming of age of the nation, and its annual commemoration has become the most sacred event on the national calendar. And as a military historian I think this is a problem.

The original diggers are gone now, and the numbers of the veterans of later wars are diminishing rapidly too, but dawn services at local war memorials and overseas battlefields seem to only become more popular. Broadcast, print and social media are filled with ritual invocations to never forget. New forms of commemoration appear. Stories of courage and sacrifice are told and retold. This is not in itself a problem. I’m not against Anzac Day, as such, and there’s nothing wrong with remembering. It’s what we’re not remembering, or never knew in the first place, that is worrying. We should be looking to understand, not merely remember.

For all the remembering of Gallipoli that goes on, there’s precious little understanding of the campaign. The British took more casualties than the Australians, yet in our version of the story the British are to blame for sitting around drinking tea while their generals sent our boys over the top in senseless attacks: it was one of our own commanders who did that. We weren’t fighting Turkey but the Ottoman Empire, and Johnny Turk probably wasn’t Turkish at all. The role later played by the Ottoman commander at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in founding the modern Turkish state is sometimes noted, but not the role played by the Allied attack on the Dardanelles in precipitating, or at least justifying, the Ottoman government’s repression of the Armenian people. And why Australians were there at all? The main idea seems to be that they were defending Australia, or democracy, or maybe that they were fighting injustice. Either way, we should be grateful to them for the freedoms we hold today. No doubt these reasons explain why some of the Anzacs fought, but patriotism was surely more important, as was the desire for some adventure and travel as well as simply getting a job.

It is anyway difficult to understand how invading the Ottoman Empire could defend Australia, but in any event Australia didn’t join enter the war for that reason: it joined it because it was part of the British Empire. Australia itself was hardly united during the war: disillusionment increased as it wore on. Two incredibly bitter referenda in 1916 and 1917 on whether or not to introduce conscription were interspersed with equally bitter strikes and strike-breaking, including the so-called General Strike of 1917, followed by an outbreak of sightings of imaginary German aeroplanes at a moment when the war appeared to be lost. Our contribution to the war effort earned us international respect, which we used at Paris to prevent the inclusion of a racial equality clause in the Covenant of the League of Nations. This shouldn’t surprise: the right to keep Australia white was one reason for fighting in the Second World War. But it does.

There are plenty of other things we don’t remember or don’t know about our military history. That the British took this continent from its original inhabitants by force. That ‘Breaker’ Morant was a war criminal. That we didn’t break the German Army in 1918, or that Monash didn’t win the war. That the Japanese never planned to invade Australia. That we panicked when Darwin was bombed. That we weren’t outnumbered at Kokoda. That we bombed Dresden. Some of these things are admittedly uncomfortable to dwell upon, which is the other problem with the rise of commemoration. The endless, ritual invocation of the Anzac spirit (including such supposedly inherently ‘Australian’ characteristics as courage, humour and mateship) and the reverence for the fallen leads to an intolerance for any dissenting views and a consequent deadening effect on inquiry. Criticising ‘our boys’ in any way is fraught with peril, because in the popular imagination they were all heroes, or victims, or both: never villains, certainly. As a historian, I reject this. Soldiers are just people, with all the virtues and weaknesses that implies. Veneration helps us to understand them not at all. Conversely, by focusing so heavily on the masculine and military Anzacs as the founding story of our nation we neglect other, more inclusive and peaceful stories we could tell: for example, Australia as a pioneer social democracy, being among other things one of the first countries to give women the vote. Australia is hardly alone in constructing an exclusive national myth from the experience of war, but it is perhaps telling that Angus Calder drew on Anzac in his introduction to The Myth of the Blitz.

This is moving into the realm of politics. The conservative prime minister John Howard did much to promote Gallipoli and to embed it in Australian culture, partly as a response to what he saw as ‘black armband history’ (particularly the increasing awareness of historical and indeed ongoing injustices to Aboriginal Australians). A federal election later this year is likely to bring in a new, conservative government, and we are promised that restoring the Anzacs to their rightful place in the school curriculum will be a priority, as though we somehow don’t talk about them nearly enough. It looks like the second history war is about to begin.

Further reading: Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History (Sydney: NewSouth, 2010); Craig Stockings, ed., Zombie Myths of Australian Military History (Sydney: NewSouth, 2010) and Anzac’s Dirty Dozen: 12 Myths of Australian Military History (Sydney: NewSouth, 2012).

Image source: Victoria Park. This was used to promote the 2010 Anzac Day clash between the Collingwood and Essendon Australian Rules Football clubs; this year witnessed the extension of this ‘tradition’ (est. 1995) across the Tasman, with Sydney and St Kilda playing a game in Wellington. Ironically, while the background image was taken at Gallipoli, it is not of Australian troops at all: it shows men of the Royal Naval Division practising going over the top.

3 thoughts on “Lest we forget what?

  1. Pingback: Lest we forget what?

  2. A very stimulating post, Brett.

    I live in the Washington DC metro area, and that city is home to more than its share of splendid war memorials. But I’ve long maintained that the best and most meaningful of these is the Vietnam Memorial. It asks a simple question and gives a painfully simple answer: “You want a war? Here’s what it costs.” Brett, you’re absolutely right that we need to do a better job of remembering the sordid side of every conflict and their antecedents. But in war you invariably have to learn things the hard way and at an invariably excessive cost of lives. E.g., Forcing the Dardanelles offered considerable strategic benefits, and yet apparently there was relatively little serious analysis of the difficulties involved (except perhaps within the Royal Navy, whose reservations were shamefully muted by Winston Churchill and never came to the Cabinet’s attention). Certainly the Allies shared a uniformly poor opinion of the Turkish Army, thereby sealing the fate of so many British and Commonwealth soldiers. This seems to be the rule of history, though, as exemplified by Vietnam, Iraq 2, and Afghanistan. Only Desert Storm seems to be a counter-example, and the long Desert Shield period enabled a great deal of serious analysis and preparation to be done.

    All this is to say that we shouldn’t begrudge the commemoration of the sacrifice; for me, a visit to the Vietnam Memorial (as a veteran) is a profoundly sobering and emotional experience that has and will continue to inform my civic attitudes and behavior.

    And that said, I agree with you that by any definition Breaker Morant was a war criminal, although he probably did believe that his actions had some degree of official sanction. Next to his brutality, however, we should force the South Africans of Afrikaans descent to acknowledge the often horrific behavior of the Boer Commandos, much of which was directed at the Native population. Finally, I maintain that Bruce Bereford’s “Breaker Morant” remains one of the finest war/antiwar movies ever made. It should be screened in every modern history and political science class in every university worldwide.

  3. Thanks, Ralph. I have no problems with commemoration; I’ve been to the dawn service at the Shrine of Remembrance here in Melbourne, and I have a fondness for the war memorials that are scattered across the Australian landscape. I guess it’s what happens (or doesn’t happen) before and after the ceremonies that troubles me. We pay lip service to ‘learning the lessons of history’ but given how ignorant we (meaning Australians) are about our history, that seems an improbable goal. Of course, you’re right that some lessons can’t be learned except through experience; but at least we could admit to our mistakes, instead of pretending that we were always in the right/were always wronged.

    I know what you mean about Breaker Morant, except I would say the same thing about Peter Weir’s Gallipoli! Despite its perpetuation of some unfortunate myths about the Anzacs (such as the one I allude to in the post), it’s a brilliant movie and one I often find myself watching around Anzac Day. I haven’t seen Breaker Morant in decades, actually; I must find a copy of it. It’s quite remarkable that Australia produced two brilliant films about war in the space of about a year (1980/1981) — and not much worth writing home about since. A couple of decent action flicks, but nothing with anything profound to say about either war or Australia.

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