As we approach Anzac Day for another year, its national significance is reaffirmed. But we are so familiar with the accustomed ritual and rhetoric that it escapes critical scrutiny. And its sanctity places it outside the reach of sceptical inspection. 

Its great moral authority is due to the fact that it has become Australia’s principal moment of remembrance and lament for all the lives lost in the nation’s many foreign wars. Few people anywhere would question the importance and the need for such an occasion, regardless of the nature, the cause or the legitimacy of particular conflicts. Australians who went to war were answering the call of democratically elected governments often, but not always, with the support of the community. But beyond any other consideration we should all be able to join together to grieve for so many young lives cut short or deeply scarred.

But Anzac Day has become very much more than our principal day of remembrance. The Anzac landing itself is a pivotal feature of a particular, and indeed partisan, interpretation of Australian history, one which comes cloaked in sanctimony. A generation of young Australians has been taught that the nation was born in those climactic months on the shores of Gallipoli, that war indeed is our defining national experience. There is so much wrong with these assertions it is hard to know where to begin.

But we could start with the provenance of the idea that nations are born or attain their maturity in the heat of battle. It was a widespread view in the late C19th and early C20th. It was a product of the vaulting militarism which prepared Europe for the catastrophe of the Great War. It emerged during an era of resplendent uniforms and dashing cavalry charges. In most countries it did not survive the horrors of modern industrialised warfare but found a temporary haven in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Australia, even now it seems, has not shaken off the rhetoric which was still fashionable when the Australians stormed ashore in April 1915. But over 100 years later such ideas are both dangerous and atavistic.

Another problem with the Anzac narrative is the implicit assumption that Australia in April 1915 lacked something which was provided by conflict with the Ottoman Empire. Clearly any proof of this idea is totally lacking. Australia at the time was one of the most democratic, prosperous and well-managed societies in the world; the product of over a hundred years of nation building. How in the real world could the achievements of generations of men and women in their fields, factories, schools and homes be eclipsed by young men fighting on the far side of the world against people who could never present a threat to the homeland.

But the Anzac boosters have other arguments which are deployed in public discourse. In this case they look onward from April 1915 and argue that the battlefield exploits of the AIF gave the country a new sense of national pride and unity. But these ideas are as lacking in substance as the rhetoric about national birth on the battlefield. The war opened up deep and damaging divisions in Australian society that were at best latent in 1914. Class division and resulting industrial strife intensified. The conscription debates of 1916 and 1917 tore communities, families and friendships asunder. Religious divisions between Protestant and Catholic spiralled out of control. And returning diggers spurned those who had not rallied to the flag. And then there was regional discontent which culminated in 1933 when Western Australia voted by a large majority to secede from Australia.

Underlying the desire of two thirds of Western Australians to return to the status of a Crown colony was the loyalty to King and Empire which had been enhanced rather than diminished by the war. It became harder than ever to question the emotional ties with Mother England. So much blood had been shed in common. It was seen as disloyal – even treasonous – in the inter-war years to cast doubt on Imperial entanglement.

The importance we accord the Gallipoli campaign, and the First World War more generally, underlines the continuing relevance of the Imperial connection. The story of our war effort, so recently commemorated non-stop for four years, was by definition Imperial history. It was given incessant priority over national history. Little attention was paid during the cavalcade of commemoration to what was happening in Australia itself including such major developments as the disastrous Labor Party split or the rejection of conscription in two referenda. The overwhelming emphasis given to Australia’s part in the conflict obscures the reality that the AIF was fighting in British campaigns, often under British officers pursuing strategic objectives they knew little about. And this was clearly the case in the Middle-East in 1915.

Our attention is inevitably drawn to Australia Day which vies for national priority with Anzac Day. Both are days which could be, without any change, appropriate for commemoration in a British Colony. The continuing use of the British blue ensign as our national flag confirms this impression. The occasions we choose to commemorate and the manner in which we proceed suggests quite strongly that Australia has not been able to complete the process of decolonisation. How strange this must seem to inquisitive visitors. Decolonisation is after all one of the defining themes of modern world history. It stands in the centre of the experience of the vast majority of modern nation states. There are 117 nations where national commemoration occurs on Independence Day.

But there are even deeper problems with the way we mark Anzac Day. At the moment when we remember the sacrifice of our war dead, we completely ignore the suffering and the death of people of the first nations in the frontier wars which effected the long drawn out conquest of indigenous Australia. Our national lament is for those who died overseas in wars chosen for us by our great and powerful friends, most of the time against enemies who would never have been able to threaten Australia. How is that commensurate with frontier wars fought in Australia about the ownership and control of the continent itself? For us this must be of far greater significance than the balance of power in Europe or the scramble to carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire.

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5 Responses to HENRY REYNOLDS. Anzac Day.

  1. Avatar Andrew (Andy) Alcock says:

    Thank you Henry Reynolds for reminding us about the way ANZAC Day and challenging the historical myths that go along with it.

    One of those myths is that all the wars that Australians have participated in were just wars against tyranny Former Australian diplomat Ric Throssell reminded us of this in the book “The Pursuit of Happiness: Australia, The Empire, ANZUS, Nuclear Disarmament and Neutrality”edited by his daughter Karen. He reminded us that the Australian soldiers who were involved in the 1863 Maori Wars in NZ, the 1885 Sudan War, the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China, the 1899-1902 Boer War in South Africa and in WW1 were doing so on the say so of British imperialism.

    The funding of the book and an associated peace film, came from the sale of the Victoria Cross won by his father, Hugo, during WW1 – an action roundly condemned by conservative veterans and politicians. How scandalous that the sale of a war medal could be used to fund a project to promote peace!

    Since WW2, most of the wars that Australians has participated in have been those instigated by the US Military Industrial Complex eg Korea, Indochina, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya etc.

    None of these wars can be considered as “just wars”. In fact, the only just wars that Australia has participated in are WW2, East Timor to expel the brutal Indonesian military and other UN peace keeping missions.

    When I was younger, I was taught that we should always try to learn from our mistakes. I still think that this is good advice and I think it is a tragedy that those who promote ANZAC Day as we know it do not want it to be a day of reflection on past historical mistakes that led to conflict, how we can avoid them and how we should go about trying to build world peace.

    Xanana Gusmao, the leader of FALINTIL, the East Timorese resistance to the Indonesian invasion and a former PM and president was asked in 2003 during a visit to Australia if he thought that there should be a war in response to the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in NY.

    His answer was that war would not be an appropriate response and that instead the perpetrators should be identified and dealt with under international law. He also said that to avoid war, we need to work for international social justice, independence and love. (He is also a poet and an artist!)

    In this day and age as we contemplate the environmental disaster that has contributed to climate change and to a huge number of pollution-related diseases, we could also use this day of remembrance to consider how much warfare contributes to pollution as well as loss of life, injuries, disease and waves of refugees.

    And I agree with those who are concerned that there is no recognition of Aboriginal people who died in defending this country from the British invasion and occupation. It seems to me that for meaningful reconciliation to occur in Australia, this is one of the key issues that needs to be recognised along with the establishment of a treaty, recognition of Aboriginal ownership in the Constitution, reconstitution of a national consultative council to replace ATSIC, implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Black Deaths in Custody, negotiate a new Australia Day acceptable to Aboriginal people etc.

  2. Avatar Tony Mitchell says:

    Thanks to Henry Reynolds and Andrew Jakubowicz for your courage and eloquence in speaking the truth.

  3. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    Reynolds’ article triggered a strong flash back in history as a student at the UNSW (late 1960s) studying English Literature as a Humanities subject when I was first exposed to the controversies of Anzac Day in reading Alan Seymour’s 1958 play, The One Day of the Year, notoriously condemned Anzac Day as a day of “bloody wastefulness” perpetuated year after year by a “screaming tribe of great, stupid, drunken, vicious, bigoted no-hopers”.
    As a teenager in my formative years, these types of information have been accepted without much challenge and continuing in the strong wave of anti-Vietnam war feeling, viz. anti-conscription, conscientious war objection and stories of draft dodgers and bread & water punishment by the army, Yes, I did loose a few mates through conscription (who flunked uni exams) who went to Vietnam and never returned.
    If you asked a university student in my era and what they thought about Anzac, they might well have told you that it was an old-fashioned idea that glorified war; the sooner it was forgotten, the better.
    More than half a century has passed, life has mellowed my outlook whatever the controversies in the past and bees in the bonnet, have gone.
    What changed my outlook about Anzac Day came when I witnessed disrespect shown to Vietnam war veterans who marched on Anzac Day. As a born British subject, I can understand what it meant by “My country, right or wrong” and young conscripts died in the name of Australia, whether they enlisted, volunteered or conscripted. And for the ultimate sacrifice, they should be honoured. They have done no wrong. All blame should go to the politicians.
    Whether one considers Anzacs were cannon fodders of the British Empire or Vietnam war veterans were cannon fodders the Americans, they were put there by our politicians and some never to return.
    A more lateral conclusion for all fallen service personnel, is that their sacrifices have given a spiritual meaning to mateship, birth of the nation, and a common memory to share with our descendants from years to come.
    Lest we forget.

  4. On Thursday before dawn, I will struggle out of bed and pull on some clothes and a pair of runners, attach my Australian Defence medal to my jacket, and shuffle down the hill to Coogee Beach in Sydney’s east. There I will hear all the nonsense that Henry Reynolds so rightly condemns parroted with never a moment of self-awareness from the Anzac boosters. Gallipoli and the nationalism of wars is actually not about the blood spilled, but about how thousands of young men were required to prove their masculinity and virtue by agreeing to kill others – the willingness to spill blood in the name of the nation, Empire, God, white Power, Ottoman power, and a dozen other myths of identity sits beneath the rhetoric of brotherhood. Henry is right to demand that at every Anzac celebration a silent thought or more should go to the spirits of the Indigenous people whose lives were lost in the place of commemoration on which we will be standing. As we take a moment’s silence we should see in our minds eyes the faces of Black men women and children whose existence was extirpated on the very spot we bow. As we throw back schooners and throw pennies, we should remember that we are the inheritors of the murders, the poisoning and diseases fed by our biological and chemical warfare agents, and the cultural destruction that cedes us these spaces for our memorials of distant failed imperial ventures. We should feel shame not pride, and think about what the future now looks like – young men infused with a self-serving spirit of Anzac, once more attacking people at prayer, justifying an interminable sequence of other young men believing killing people proves something about their virtue? I will also remember some of my comrades from another crazy war fifty years ago, and hope they resisted in their hearts the orders to kill.

    • Avatar Kien Choong says:

      “We should feel shame not pride, and think about what the future now looks like – young men infused with a self-serving spirit of Anzac, once more attacking people at prayer, justifying an interminable sequence of other young men believing killing people proves something about their virtue”

      I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that the spirit of Anzac contributed to white supremacist projects (and I do not read Andrew Jakubowicz as making that claim). But I have an uncomfortable feeling that the spirit of Anzac is exploited by others for their own ends.

      So it’s great to have the help of historians like Henry Reynolds to reflect objectively on what Anzac means and why we remember it (as well as what we should NOT remember it for).

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