HENRY REYNOLDS. Has the Cavalcade of Commemoration Finally Halted?

With Remembrance Day behind us we may finally have some relief from the relentless commemoration of conflict which began twenty years ago and climaxed with the centenary of the First World War. Historians of the future may well wonder where this obsession with war came from and why we spent more on the centenary than any other comparable country. It has been one of the most striking features of both political and cultural life for the last quarter of a century. Despite the continuous and lavish expenditure of public money there has been almost total bipartisan support and few attempts to ask what it has all been for. The apotheosis of the warriors has lifted them far above sceptical assessment and even the normal cut and thrust of public life.

One of the most curious features of the cavalcade is that despite the millions of words in books and articles and the countless speeches there has been an extraordinary lack of variety in much of the interpretation. We have heard far more about how the Australians fought than why they fought. There has been much, inimitable big- noting and applause for the military prowess of both foot soldiers and commanders. At its most extreme are those studies which credit our forces with changing the course of history. The perspective is often very odd almost as though it belonged to the years immediately after the war when victory still seemed entirely creditable and there was optimism about the League of Nations. How can this be sustained a century later when we can see, without qualification, that a catastrophe befell Europe between 1914 and 1945?  It seems as though our isolation from Europe allows us to applaud the role we played in this profound tragedy while taking no moral responsibility for it.

There are other related distortions and none more telling than the quite distinctive Australian focus on the service, suffering and sacrifice of individual soldiers. This not only distracts attention from the larger and more important questions but prevents us from any assessment of why our forces were involved in the first place and whether it was in our long term national interest. How can we have a serious debate about peace and war when each conflict is sanctified by the dead and placed beyond reach by rivers of sacrificial blood.  This is nowhere more apparent than in our commemoration of the First World War. Did any public figure dare suggest that Australia should not have been involved; that all the death and suffering did not provide any lasting benefit to the nation; that in fact 60,000 of our young men died in vain? Could we imagine any current political leader arguing that true patriotism would have been better served if all those young men had stayed at home raising families, establishing careers ,ploughing and building  and pursuing their education; that the vast expenditure should have been invested in preparing for the future defence of the homeland?

The intense concentration on military history misshapes our national story. It is by its very nature Imperial history. The emphasis is that the events of most consequence to us took place overseas far from our shores whether in Gallipoli, Palestine or the Western Front. In all the many words about war there was very little about the home front. The great civic battles about conscription in 1916 and 1917 received almost no attention at all. We can assume that most Australians don’t know anything about them. But there are even more significant elisions. What has dropped out of the national discussion about war and peace, nation and empire, is the history of the pertinent debates which ran through colonial life long before the plunge into war in 1914.  Forgotten is the dissident anti-Imperial tradition which remains highly relevant today. At its centre was the conviction that Australia should concentrate on local defence. Two arguments pinned the idea down. Australia’s size and location meant that we had no natural enemies and we were quite capable of defending ourselves. In addition the British Empire had global interests, was perpetually at war and would eventually be involved in a great European conflict. This was the greatest danger to the Australian colonies. The dissidents did not win the public debate but their prescience remains their calling card.

It also provides a retrospective challenge to the main themes of popular military history. In order to inspire the young there has to be a positive story about World War One. Such a catastrophic loss of life must me matched with inspiring achievements no matter how fanciful. And so a generation  of Australian students have been told the diggers died so that we could be free, that they made the nation which was born on the shores of the Ottoman Empire. They are appealing stories and rarely seem to be questioned. But there is more to it than that. The militarization of our history has done more than spin inspiring legends. It represents the most significant conservative victory of the culture wars, the advance of which has been both camouflaged and sanctified by the Anzac Legend.

I was forced to think about this when in discussion at a recent public meeting a young man asked me why there were no other interpretations of Australian history apart from the military dominated one he found distasteful. I suddenly realized that the vast propaganda machine operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the War Memorial  had been able to eclipse much of the historiography of the C20th.This included the work of that generation of historians who from the 1950’s to the 1970’s wrote the new general histories and introduced Australian history courses all over the country. They were of particular relevance because most of them had served in one way or another in the Second World War. Despite, or perhaps because of that experience, their emphasis was on Australia’s political and social achievements, on what we had done here , not over there.

Further troubling thoughts intrude. Is the successful militarization of our history the most important local manifestation of the more general lurch to the right animating the politics of many comparable countries? Has it encouraged a growing impatience with parliamentary democracy? Several recent studies have found that a substantial minority of Australians aged between 18 and 29 believe that authoritarian government might be preferable in some circumstances or just don’t care what government they live under. It is just a co-incidence that this is the generation inducted as never before into the Anzac Legend? For whatever else they are armies are not democratic institutions. It is by no means clear that young democrats will emerge from a generation constantly told that the nation was made in war and that military conflict has been our defining national experience.

Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.


Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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7 Responses to HENRY REYNOLDS. Has the Cavalcade of Commemoration Finally Halted?

  1. Avatar Lesley Finn says:

    As usual Henry Reynolds has succinctly articulated the link between the obsession with the glorification of Australia’s role in WW1 and the rise of militarism in the last few years.
    Those of us who would speak out against the dangers of this for a democratic society and question Bean’s history are likely to be publicly pilloried and accused of being unpatriotic.
    This also happened to those who spoke out during WW1 against Australian troops going to fight for the British Empire. My grandfather lost a lot of business in this period because he was publicly opposed to Australian involvement in the war. ( and also the Sudan war) and refused to sign the requisite papers for his son to go overseas to fight in the trenches.
    His opposition was a brave stand in a small country town.
    However the High School in that same town which I attended had some very good history teachers who did teach us about the Anti conscription civic debates and the truth about the military fiascos on the Western Front. That was in the 1950s and I do not recall any outcry about that in the town at the time and there were WW1 veterans still alive then. I suppose that is because having been to the war they knew the truth
    I can only conclude that this obsession with the war today is for an ulterior political purpose as Henry Reynolds has indicated in his excellent article.

  2. Avatar Tsutomu Yamaguchi says:

    I think Dr Reynolds sees Australia as having more sovereignty than is really the case. Can one really imagine the great Anglo powers sitting back and allowing the newly federated convict riff raff to choose its own foreign policy ? . To this day it is still being decided in smoky mens clubs and boardrooms, perhaps moreso in the US than the UK. Nor will we allowed to determine our own course through the ongoing conflict with the Chinese. Russian election meddling ? Regime change ? Ha ha the poms and yanks wrote the instruction manual ! (Translated from the Roman Latin, of course)

  3. While I agree with concerns in the article [ especially the money lavished on memorials while our living veterans are homeless and lacking the medical support they need ] it did open up some debate about the contribution of aboriginal soldiers who managed to volunteer even though not regarded as citizens then shunned when they returned. Hopefully it will now turn the attention to those men and women who survived the war but did not survive the peace within ten years seeking suicide and lobotomy. Our veterans from more recent conflicts would benefit from this analysis. The politicians make a big show of the fact that the cabinet doors are opened to look across to the war memorial when they send our service men and women into harm’s way but close the door when it comes to looking after the broken when they return.

  4. Avatar John Constable says:

    I wonder if, in 1915 and in the early stages of the war (when they still believed it might soon be over), did Britain celebrate in any way the centenary of Waterloo

  5. Avatar John Mordike says:

    Henry Reynolds observes that: ‘What has dropped out of the national discussion about war and peace, nation and empire, is the history of the pertinent debates which ran through colonial life long before the plunge into war in 1914. Forgotten is the dissident anti-imperial tradition which remains highly relevant today. At its centre was the conviction that Australia should concentrate on local defence.’

    How true! But there is more to be said. The national issues did not simply ‘drop out’, they were pushed out, ignored and ridiculed by a generation of so-called Australian military historians. Other historians in our universities have done nothing more than stand on the sidelines while this vandalism of our national history, largely by fourth grade historians who have never looked at the primary sources in the United Kingdom, was perpetrated.

    How many people in this country understand that our first Defence Act denied an Australian government the power to conscript men for overseas service? The only provision in the Act for conscription was in the case of the defence of Australia on Australian territory. This was deliberate attempt to limit involvement in imperial military campaigns.

    How many people know that when Prime Minister Alfred Deakin introduced his proposal for Universal Military Service in December 1907 that it was purely focused on establishing ‘a National Guard of Defence’? It was the beginning of the establishment of an Australian defence capability and included plans for a local defence industry that would make the nation self-sufficient in the event of war. Deakin stated that his government was ‘not preparing for any expeditionary adventures outside Australia’. The object of the defence developments, Deakin explained, was to establish a national defence capability to a standard that ‘will be as thorough and complete as that of Japan’, Japan being the perceived threat to Australian security.

    How many people know that Deakin’s defence initiatives were subverted by British Army officers – chiefly Kitchener – and a group of Australian military officers of imperial persuasion: William Throsby Bridges and Cyril Brudenell White, with the express aim of providing an expeditionary force to fight under British command?

    How many people know that British strategists told Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and Defence Minister Senator George Foster Pearce in 1911 that Japan had an army of 1 million men and was establishing a naval capability with the aim of attacking Australia in 1915? The British aim was to encourage the Australian government to increase defence spending, not for Australian defence, but for an imperial war in Europe, an aim that was deliberately withheld from the Australian politicians in case they took fright. The strategy worked. Pearce gave the senior British general an undertaking that the Fisher government would begin to make plans and preparations for an Australian expeditionary force on the strict condition that this would be kept secret because, with due reason, he was worried about the reaction if Australians were told the truth. Pearce did not even ask where the Australian force might be deployed but felt assured that, in cooperating in imperial campaigns, Australian would receive assistance from the Royal Navy when the Japanese attacked. The Fisher government immediately started to spend significant amounts of money on military preparations, quadrupling defence expenditure in the period of five years. Pearce also initiated secret planning with New Zealand to establish a composite expeditionary force. All of this was done without Australians ever being told.

    Bean’s official history of World War I is untruthful. According to Bean, there was no prior planning and no preparation in the supply of equipment. When war broke out in August 1915, it dropped on Australia ‘out of a clear blue sky’. But, by ‘chance’, Australia could recruit and equip the first 10,000 men and have them ready for embarkation in six weeks. Bean attributed the response to an enthusiastic outburst of imperial loyalty by Australia. Unfortunately, despite the many challenges I have made to establish the truth, Bean’s imperial propaganda is still the accepted version. The official history is a cover-up. Furthermore, Pearce never told the truth about preparing an expeditionary force in the period 1911-1914. To protect his own reputation, when writing his autobiography that was published in 1951, Pearce simply lied about the reason the Fisher Labor government began to prepare for war in 1911, a war in which some 60,000 Australians would lose their lives. The unpalatable, but inescapable, fact is the First Australian Imperial Force was conceived in deceit. As a Vietnam veteran, I find Pearce’s lie to be most upsetting.

    All of this and more has been in the public arena beginning in 1992 when my first book ‘An Army for a Nation’ was published. In 2002 my second book ‘We should do this quietly’ firmly established the Japanese connection. The title ‘We should do this thing quietly’ were the words British General Sir Willian Nicholson uttered when Pearce gave his undertaking in 1911 to establish an Australian expeditionary force on the grounds that it be kept secret.

    So why is my work not known more widely? There is clearly no reward or recognition in this country for challenging the ANZAC myth with the evidence of what really transpired. Note for instance Peter Stanley’s comment in his review of Peter Cochrane’s book ‘Best We Forget’, published yesterday on this website. Stanley commented that my work is ‘warily regarded or even rejected by more cautious historians’. I responded to Stanley’s comment yesterday. But Stanley went further and handed the laurels for exposing the Japanese connection to Cochrane with the words that: ‘Cochrane has made the original and profound connection between racial fears and its participation in the Great War. This is something that – amazingly – no-one else has done … .’ As I commented yesterday, that is nonsense.

    I refer readers who might be interested in this subject to my two publications ‘An Army for a Nation’, 1992, and ‘We should do this thing quietly’, 2002. Peter Stanley has provided the link to the latter publication in his review of yesterday. It is a digitised copy reproduced in Trove and so it is freely available in electronic format in its entirety. I note that the copy of my book was donated by Colonel Jim Wood. I thank him for doing that.

  6. Thank you, Prof. Reynolds, for a most perceptive and eloquent analysis of the well-funded fixations and distortions that afflict our ‘peephole’ history around the First World War – when we need panorama. Superb stuff! In my own current research I am struck by how the same distortions were fed to the men of the AIF at the time, through the “Anzac Bulletin”, the newspaper given free to soldiers from July 1916. As diplomatic secrets were unveiled in the world’s press, revealing the purposes of the battles undertaken by the men of the AIF – the Straits and Persia Agreement of March 1915 (revealed in December 1916), the Treaty of London of April 1915, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, and the Left-Bank-of-the-Rhine Agreement between Russia and France of March 1917 (all revealed in the US and British press over the winter of 1917-18) – nothing at all about these things could be found in the pages of the “Anzac Bulletin”. Similarly, opportunities for a negotiated peace – the American Peace Note of December 1916, the Reichstag Peace Resolution of July 1917, the Papal Peace Offer of August 1917, and many more – never appeared in the “Anzac Bulletin”. The men themselves fought on, in darkness. The “Anzac Bulletin” was a mere megaphone for Hughes. So too we are now encouraged to commemorate the events of the First World War with an all-consuming focus on military achievement and experience of the AIF, with only amiable generalities uttered about purposes, and almost no discussion of alternatives to war. Wider understanding of the war withers. We risk washing the dead into their graves again with a cascade of clichés.

  7. A great summary of the issues. Also, hinted at here but worth more discussion is the ’emotional’ aspect and the link to trauma suffered in war. Stories of soldiers going tens of thousands of miles to fight, then not returning, or returning damaged, are ripe fodder for the histrionic abilities of spinmeisters like the War Memorial’s Dr Brendan Nelson, who is so good at evoking ’emotion’ he even makes himself cry: https://photos.keatingmedia.com.au/National-Press-Club-of-Australia/Non-Politicians/Brendan-Nelson/
    ‘Emotional’ usually means ‘teary’ or ‘lachrymose’; there are lots of other emotions (one list has 27 of them). Still, most people benefit from a good cry (cf. weddings, funerals, christenings) and spokespersons like Nelson work the cry-inducing buttons well. (And, almost invariably, ’emotional’ is Dr Nelson’s adjective of choice when he is spruiking a new display at the Memorial.)
    Sure, there is militarisation of our history, in the sense of making too much of the khaki bits, but these bits are also the bits that make us cry, because of the trauma they disclose.
    So, if I was turning it into an equation I’d say militarisation+trauma=tears=what many Australians settle for in terms of their history. They are short-changing themselves. There are many other non-military parts of Australian history worth celebrating, commemorating – and regretting, including most importantly what was done to the First Australians. The authors of The Honest History Book (NewSouth 2017) set these arguments out in more detail.

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