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.