John Menadue. The Anzac Myth.

Conservatives and militarists want us to cling to a disastrous imperial  war. They encourage us to focus on how our soldiers fought in order to avoid the central issue of why we fought.  

The four-year and well-funded carnival celebrating Anzac and WWI is now rolling. The carnival will depict WWI as the starting point of our nation, as our coming of age! 

It was nothing of the sort. It was a sign of our international immaturity and dependence on others. What was glorious about involving ourselves in the hatreds and rivalry of European powers that had wrought such carnage in Europe over centuries? Many of our forebears came to Australia to get away from this. But conservatives, our war historians and colonel blimps chose deliberately to draw us back to the stupidities and hatreds of Europe. Conservatives and militarists want us to cling to a disastrous imperial  war. They encourage us to focus on how our soldiers fought in order to avoid the central issue of why we fought.

It seems that the greater the political and military stupidity of wars that we have been involved in, the more we are encouraged to  hide behind the valour of our service people at Gallipoli, the Western Front and elsewhere.. The ‘leadership’ of Winston Churchill and General Ian Hamilton were catastrophic both for the British and for us. Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli were commanded by a British General. No hiding behind the sacrifice of troops can avoid the facts. We should not have been there and it was a disaster.

Unfortunately the more we ignore the political and military mistakes of the past, the more likely we are to make similar mistakes in the future. And we keep doing it. If we had a sense of our calamitous involvement in wars in the past like WW1 we would be less likely to make foolish decisions to involve ourselves in wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our history is littered with tragic military adventures, being led by the nose by either the UK or the US.  And it goes on through the Boer War, the Sudan War and more recently, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In all these cases, and just like WWI, we have desperately tried to hide behind the valour of our service people.

The most important and justified war in which we have fought as a nation was WWII, in defence of our own people and land. But WWII is rated by the Australian War Memorial and so many others as of much less significance.  WW1 Is the Holy Grail.

On April 25 each year we are told that the great sacrifice of WWI was in defence of freedom and the right. But I don’t think that they even believe it themselves. It just does not ring true. Tony Abbott says it was a ‘just war’. But he is yet to explain what was ‘just’ about it. It is claimed that it united this country, but it divided us in a way that we had never been divided before or since with Billy Hughes exploiting the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment in the country. Only 30% of eligible men chose to enlist. WWI was a great divider. It was not a unifier despite the platitudes of Anzac Day.

Some claim that WWI was to bring peace to Europe. But the war and its aftermath laid the ground for even greater death and destruction in WWII.

In relation to our population, our greatest loss of lives was in the Frontier Wars where over 30,000 indigenous people died in defence of their own land. But we ignore it in favour of the myths of Anzac. Best we forget the Frontier Wars.

Yet it was the Frontier Wars -the forcible occupation of a vast continent- and not the wars of Gallipoli or the Somne that made Australia.

The first time Australians and New Zealanders fought together was against the Maoris in New Zealand in the 1850s and 1860s. The ANZAC connection was not forged at Gallipoli but half a century before in the Maori Wars.  It’s best that we forget that too. It doesn’t do our self-respect much good to recall that we fought together with New Zealanders in a race war to quell the Maori people.

The early and remarkable achievements of this young country at the turn of the century and early in the 19th Century are blotted out by the blood and blather of WWI, ANZAC and Gallipoli. We talk endlessly about the Gallipoli landings. A more honest description would be the invasion of Turkey.

Federation in 1900 was a remarkable achievement, pulling together our six colonies into a nation. We led the world in universal suffrage, the rights of women, industrial democracy and the minimum wage. The ‘Australian ballot’ or secret ballot was progressively adopted in the Australian states in the latter half of the nineteenth century. We were a world leader. Our ballot was adopted in New Zealand, Canada, UK and US

In 1904 we had not only Australia’s first Labor Government. It was the first in the world. The rights of working people as expressed in the Harvester Judgement of 1907 put Australia as a leader on the world stage. We were an advanced social laboratory. Before WWI there were two decades of remarkable nationhood and advancement for ordinary people.

But conservatives were frightened of the future. They wanted to drag us back to the heart break of the past. And they succeeded with the help of Billy Hughes and other Labor renegades

In the process we broke our own heart – or as Marilyn Lake has expressed in a blog on April 23 this year ‘WWI fractured the nation’s soul’.

It is time we were honest with ourselves and discounted the myths of WWI, ANZAC and Gallipoli.

Instead we should celebrate the two remarkable decades of progress before the catastrophe of WWI. And never forget the Frontier Wars.

See also ‘The Wars we would rather forget.’


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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14 Responses to John Menadue. The Anzac Myth.

  1. Avatar Trevor Steele says:

    John, as much as I agree with your article, I have to point out
    that the social progress in federation and the pre-WW1 years
    was unfortunately sullied by the rabid White Australia policy.

  2. Avatar Bill Burke says:

    That Politicians seek to ensnare the day in self serving photo opportunities and sound bites is unarguable. To become caught up in a chat about the politics of war, its causes and consequences is fair game but not under guise of a reflection with Anzac Day as the point of departure .
    The day is locked in the collective memory for more precious reasons: at one time it brought together not merely the survivors of those conflicts, but a nation unified in the experience of receiving a telegram that declared the extinction of a relative in twenty words or less.
    Today it speaks to a younger age group which is fascinated with why young lives would volunteer for such a high risk activity and why they didn’t just leave when success was clearly not an option.
    The politics, rhetoric and post script twenty twenty vision have their place on any of the other 354 days and under their own banner.

  3. Avatar Peter Goon says:

    Thanks, John.
    The ABC documentary entitled “Lest We Forget What?” by Kate Aubusson is well worth

    We should never forget “the past is just the same and war’s a bloody game”.

    Alas, many seem to have forgotten this and also forgotten that the primary job of any Defence Force is to maintain and sustain peace.

    Thanks again, John.

  4. Avatar Julia Perry says:

    Thanks for this timely and incisive comment. Gallipoli was a clear example of the contempt in which our great and powerful friends held us. We might well feel desperately sad for all the young men who died attacking the Dardanelles, landing on the wrong beach. But what is the point of that if we continue to engage in every war Britain or the US summons us to. Korea and Vietnam were not in our interests. Afghanistan and Iraq have been pointless failed adventures that continue. Syria is presumably next. Politicians act the part of being photographed with men on the front line. Drunken young men run about in Australian flags. (The part played by women is rarely acknowledged). When do we take stock of our national interests and stop playing this deadly charade?

  5. Avatar ANZAC day makes me vomit says:

    ANZAC Day sickens me to my absolute core.
    Oh, I attend my local “commemoration” wearing my grandfathers + fathers medals.
    The service is even in the park my father had handed over and dedicated as a “war memorial ” park. And the “cup of tea” afterwards is in the community hall my father fundraiser for and had built as an early non-aligned RSL (it’s now a CWA hall) …. So ANZAC day is part of my “story”….. But each year I get more and more disgusted.
    We had about 2500 people this morning for the Dawn service.
    Bleeegh. All so “patriotic” and “proud Australians”…… Bleeech.
    When world is minutes to midnight with WW3 looming – and how many know? Who cares??? All “proud” to get up early on ANZAC day and fight for a parking spot close to the action – but no one is interested in speaking out or taking action to stop Australia slavishly following the Yanks into WW3.
    How many know Australia participated in a war crime with the US in Syria in September 2016? Who cares? The US murdered 60 Syrian soldiers in an hour-long repeated bombing air assault. This was an “accident” the US later claimed (an accident that lasted for an hour?). And Australia was proudly bombing right beside the US.
    Australia is supposed to revile “terrorists”,, but the US founded! funded! trains! sponsors, arms and coordinates the ISIS terrorists.
    The Syrian government is genuinely fighting to rid its territory of this US-backed scourge. But Australia proudly murders Syrian soldiers, all to support the US.
    And all “proud” Australians can do is assemble at a dawn ANZAC service and bask is some dubious military debacle from 100+ years ago….
    Bleergh. I have to stop typing to go vomit…..

  6. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    Thanks, John for these reflections. My brain tells me – like John Menadue – that most of our wars outside Australia were aggressive wars imposed on us by the alliance demands of our great and powerful senior protectors, and/or the products of avoidable failures of diplomacy . The war against Naxi Germany and Japan -though it too involved diplomatic failures – had much more of a defensive quality. We really had no alternative to fighting that war and our country really was at existential risk from Japan. Admiral Ray Griggs told the story well today at the Canberra ANZAC Day Parade.

    Yet I do grieve at the human suffering caused by all our wars, and I honour the loyalty and heroism of those who fought and of those who waited for them at home, however the wars were entered into . ANZAC Day for me is a day of grief and honouring the sacrifices by those who went before us. One can be a fervent antiwar activist – as some of my friends are – while honouring this day. Lest We Forget.

  7. Maybe the emphasis on WWI is a defense against acknowledging the Frontier Wars. Though Mannix said, “Like most wars it was a trade war”. But thanks for keeping the matter open and deflating the culpable myths.

  8. Avatar Michael Lang says:

    Misplaced loyalty and a reliance on alliances in which we are definitely the junior partner have characterised our aproach to the world since 1914. Yes, we had a lot to build on in the years leading up to WW1 but we have never seriously faced the causes for the enthusiastic answering of that call to arms. Loyalty, identity and a sense of familial duty clearly played a part, but so to did the desire to take part as a new nation in an undertaking of international significance. We still keep tripping over the dificult questions, like what is in our collective interest? Who really benefits from our commitment to this? How will our ongoing loyalty impact on our regional relationships?
    If Anzac day and its rememberence stimulated questions like these I would be more optemistic. To begin with, we could look on such questions as legitimate.

  9. Avatar A Sniveller says:

    My old man – who was in 3 Squadron (western desert, Palestine, Sicily and Greece) had a pet gripe that Anzac Day always released. It was that “Lest we Forget” is from Kipling’s Recessional and is a lament for lost Empire, not a commemoration (or even “celebration”, as current usage decrees) our fallen. He never joined the RSL and only marched to catch up with the diminishing number of comrades.

    Politicians would do well to consult with returned soldiers before committing to war. And certainly, committing to war should be a decision of Parliament, not Cabinet and most certainly not a PM acting alone.

  10. Avatar Chris McC says:

    Thanks John – I agree completely.
    Lest we forget what it was really like!
    “The novelty of being a soldier wore off in about five seconds … it was like a bloody butcher’s shop”
    Private Jim Cleworth WW1
    and remember to ask “why?”
    “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

  11. Avatar Mike Gilligan says:

    Thanks again for this tiimeless insight – it has to be said over and over, there is no alternative.

  12. Avatar John Timlin says:

    Easily the most compelling account of the WW 1 celebrations to which the government has devoted $300m + to stimulate useful patriotism and
    continuing error.

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