Reinventing ANZAC Day away from its imperial origins

Apr 25, 2021

Attendance at ANZAC DAY dawn services plummeted by 70% between 2015 and 2019, and questions have been asked about the Day’s ‘fading relevance’. We need to re-invent ANZAC Day as a day of restitution for the appalling losses of an imperial expeditionary tradition that bears no relationship to the defense of Australia and its dignity as an independent nation.

There are many reasons why such re-inventions might be necessary again.

The commemorative fatigue accompanying Australia’s over $600 million Centenary Celebrations (2014-18) might be one. Climate change, Black Lives Matter, our alleged war crimes in and forced withdrawal from Afghanistan could be others.

Then there is the Australian War Memorial (AWM), which, by failing to recognize the frontier wars seems to be losing relevance, except as a tourist site. In its fun-park extensions, funded by the government and, presumably, by the arms companies that sponsor it as they enable war for great profits, the AWM even seems to have forgotten the appalling ANZAC casualties of the First World War and the others it was built to remember solemnly.

We need to re-invent ANZAC Day as a day of restitution for the appalling losses of an imperial expeditionary tradition that, from Gallipoli to the Somme, to the falls of Singapore and Saigon, and now, to our forced withdrawal from Afghanistan, bears no discernible relationship to the defense of Australia and its dignity as an independent nation.

The campaigns fought for that national interest are our Pacific campaigns in both World Wars and Timor in 2000. Apart from those victories, the only possible restitution for all the losses can be solemn remembrance, grounded in historical reality, that leads to reform of the strategic culture that produced the terrible outcomes on imperial service and will be repeated as long as it remains so empowered.

Such reform raises the need to imagine an independent Australian vision to stare down the dependent colonial one. As our historians and politicians have long blocked out our imperial past to disguise our colonial present, we forget that the military, political and other cultures that shaped the Anzac tradition were formed in the wars of British imperial expansion in the 19th century.

This is partly because those wars – to take the land of Aboriginal and Maori peoples and inflict partial genocide en passant – were always going to produce historical amnesia. Silence, which was justified by a sense of British racial and moral superiority. There is ample evidence that colonial society normalised the horrendous behaviour implicit in the foundation atrocity.

Since the First World War and, especially since the Second, we have forgotten more. The ANZAC tradition could hardly have begun on 25 April 1915 at Gallipoli, given that its origins were in the New Zealand Maori Wars in the 1840s and 1860s. Those first ANZAC campaigns were, moreover, set in the wider expeditionary military tradition in which 25 British regiments were sent to Australia between 1788 and 1870.

This was usually as part of the global rotation of those regiments through India, China and New Zealand, or some combination, to secure British imperial interests. In the strategic interface created by these rotations, British settlement in Australia was braced increasingly by a perceived sense of race-threat, partly because Australia’s vast spaces would prove more difficult to conquer than Indigenous Australians. If we didn’t have the population to occupy the country, it appeared that Asians with their teeming millions would – and extinguish partial white settlement.

The ‘race fear’ born in that British settlement was intensified as the frontier wars pushed Aboriginals off the land we could occupy and Chinese immigration projected Asia into Australasia in the second half of the 19th century.

In Australasia, the regiments secured British settler society on remote frontiers, even when the settlers, often led by old soldiers, did much of the killing. G.W. Rusden’s History of Australia (3 vols, first published in 1883) states clearly what the AWM officially denies: the ‘great violence’ of ‘race war’, ‘boundary war’, ‘war of extirpation’ and ‘war of extermination’ against the ‘perishing race’ in the colonial conquest of Australia.

These frontier wars are beyond dispute, as are the widespread ‘atrocities’ – including those in Afghanistan still – which are inherent in the colonising enterprise.

A year after the worst anti-Chinese riots by gold diggers on the Buckland River led to the dispersal of 2000 Chinese and the killing of unknown numbers in 1857, Rusden describes one of the worst race wars, fought around Port Curtis, when the discovery of gold led to the surrounding country being cleared of its indigenous inhabitants.

Quoting from an eye-witness account in a Melbourne newspaper of 1858, Rusden wrote: ‘The ordinary relation between the black and white races is that of war to the knife. The atrocities on both sides are horrible and I do not believe the government makes any effort to stop the slaughter of the aborigines.’

‘It is not to be supposed that all colonists were accomplices in, or even knew of the atrocities; nor were all offenders of like character,’ Rusden continued. Still, ‘known of all, but judged by none, murders continued’ – in all the colonies.

At the same time, British settlers took great interest in the empire. The 44th Regiment was sent to the New Zealand Wars (1845); a small contingent went to support Britain in the Crimean War (1854); and the 77th Regiment was sent to support the shaken British in India (1858) after the ‘Mutiny’ (1857) – arriving too late to see action. Contingents followed to the Sudan (1885), the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Boer War in South Africa, (both 1899-1901).

Why all this imperial interest and engagement?

Because settler society was a part of the British Empire. Increasingly also towards 1900, because of the mounting fear of British imperial instability as events occurred that signified the rise of Asia: the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the emergence of the first republic in Asia in the Philippines (1899) and, especially, the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).  Surely, we would need all the more imperial military or naval power to guarantee survival in Australia.

Suppression of the fear that such protection might not in reality be guaranteed –  as it wasn’t – blocked out clear geo-political thinking in Australian colonial culture and still does.

This is evident in the cultural nightmare of Asia that eventually inflected the emergence of ANZAC in 1914-18, as the military wing of White Australia: Phil May’s cartoon of the Chinese octopus; Norman Lindsay’s drawings of nondescript Asian hordes coming down; the virulent racism of The Bulletin. Now we have what the gratuitous, self-serving threat construction that Michael McKinley (P&I, 3 Jan 2021) indicates ASPI produces in relation to China and intensifies our sense of dependence on powerful ‘white’ Anglosphere friends.

There is no evidence that, even in 1942, any Asian power has intended to invade Australia. Still, anxiety stemming from colonial possession pre-disposed settler society to projection: Asians would do to us, what we had done to the Aboriginals.

Billy Hughes, our ‘Great War’ Prime Minister, often gave voice to this fear, never more bluntly than in a speech he delivered two years before that war as Attorney General.

Speaking on 13 March 1913 at the symbolic laying of the foundation stone for Parliament House in Canberra, he raised the defence of white Australia and linked it dramatically to the destruction of the Aborigines. His words, which boiled down to a recruiting call for Australian soldiers to support the empire, projected our race-based anxieties onto Asia and our race-based virtues onto America.

‘The Deity’ had ‘fashioned us out…to have our way’, he declared. ‘Australia and America’ were ‘two nations that have always had their way, for they killed everybody else to get it’:

I declare to you that in no other way shall we be able to come to our own except by preparing to hold that which we now have. (Cheers.) We are here as the visible signs of a continent. We have a great future before us…The first historic event in the history of the commonwealth we are engaged in today [is being taken] without the slightest trace of that race we have banished from the face of the earth. We must not be too proud lest we too in time disappear. We must take steps to safeguard that foothold we now have. (Cheers.)

‘(Cheers)’ was how the Sydney Morning Herald indicated audience approval in its 14 March transcript of the speech.

All cultures incorporate workable self-deception. Arrogant and insecure, all too comfortable in a British colonial cocoon, Australian culture organised itself around the self-deception that works to this day: British moral and racial superiority would save us from where we live in the world. We would employ a race strategy, in which expeditions supported British and, from 1942, US wars anywhere in the Empire, of which the dependent colonial nation in Australia has since 1901 been a part.

We need to remember this key to our dependent strategic behaviour, if we are to do justice to the worthy values of ANZAC: mate-ship, loyalty and perseverance in the face of hardship. We need to see through our irrational race-based fear of Asia, particularly China, if we are meaningfully to reinvent ANZAC Day as one of solemn remembrance in a sovereign nation that will provide restitution for the appalling casualties in the imperial expeditionary tradition’s ‘Great War’ and all its successive ones.

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