Australia has never been the maker of its own history. So said the legendry Manning Clark, who spent a life mapping the heart of our nation. From the utterly worthless Sudan campaign of 1885 to the atrocity-ridden Afghanistan War of 2001-2013, our people have been made to wade through blood in foreign lands to satisfy feckless sycophantic leadership at home and unfathomable geo-political intrigues festering far away.
Yet this is far from the official narrative that Australians have swallowed hook, line, and sinker. We continue to see this history of war violence through cataract eyes. War narratives are never innocent. Despite what their protagonists feverishly claim, they are never on the side of the Angels. We come to know ourselves in the stories we tell about ourselves. If we tell ourselves lies, and the big lie is Anzac, then we know each other falsely.
For example, it is said, and we will hear it said again this Anzac Day, that 25 April 1915 was the day our nation was born. Not sure how 8709 Australians cut to ribbons by Mustapha Jemal’s forces on those western slopes of the unforgiving Sari Bair Range was the midwife for the birth of our nation. That event occurred 14 years prior, on 1 January 1901 when the six colonies federated into the Commonwealth of Australia. Yes, I know, hardly the thing of myths, but there it is.
The people were after a spicier story of the birth of the nation. A mere six months after the Gallipoli massacre South Australians voted to rename the traditional celebrations for the 8 Hour Day, “Anzac Day”. The event included a procession through Adelaide, a carnival at Adelaide Oval, and a curious planned headlong smash between two old trams, resulting in a spectacular firestorm.
The Anzac myth was on its way. Anzac Day has been observed every year since 1916. In 1927, during the prime ministership of Stanley Bruce, every state observed some form of formal public holiday on Anzac Day. By the mid-1930s all the rituals we now associate with the day — dawn vigils, marches, two minutes’ silence, memorial services, wreath laying ceremonies and reunions. Wartime writers oxygenated the foetal myth and made it grow.
Journalists like CEW Bean, glorified the tragedy of war through gluggy patriotic over-writing. They portrayed armed conflict as an exhilarating adventure. It was cricket with guns. The soldier became the apotheosis of Australian manhood. So began the biggest lie we as a nation has ever incubated. Bean has got a lot to answer for.
So too has the RSL, that conservative canker still squatting in the public landscape. In 1922, with a side door entrée to Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s office, the National Congress of the ultra-conservative Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) demanded Anzac Day should be known as Australia’s National Day and “be observed with a statutory public holiday in order to inculcate into the rising generation the highest national ideals”.
Men, women and children line the streets in Brisbane to watch the procession of the 41st Battalion on Anzac Day, 1916. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland 39805
Yes, the RSL blows on the Anzac embers, but Anzac memorialisation is principally curated by the Australian War Memorial Council. It has never taken us up into the mountains to look down on the grand sweeps of history. Rather, we are kept entertained at ground level, in narrow, claustrophobic cognitive trenches, so to speak. Little wonder that when we remember war, we miniaturise it as separate acts of “valour’, “mateship”, “duty” and “patriotism”.
This is bad, bad history. It is constructing a view of us that never was. Since the start of the Anzac Day renaissance in the 1990s our war history has been panel beaten into a shape that we should be ashamed of. In charge of the instruments of historical reconstruction has been an army of philistines, jingoists, racists, and militarists.
You see them in front of wide-eyed primary school classes, moulding young minds through colourful Anzac Day school projects about heroes in pageant wars.
You see them in RSL board meetings, where old voices raise above the clatter of club life and the tinkle of pokies stealing money from the pockets of disconsolate ex-diggers, to make a point or two about our glorious dead.
You see it in the school-girl crushes politicians like Howard, Abbott, Morrison and Stuart Robert have for our Special Forces, notwithstanding the fact that some men who wore the sword through the boomerang hat badge became rampaging killers in Uruzgan Province.
The panel beaters reshaped the Anzac story in a way that would emphasize the bravado moments of our history while quietly eliding stories that did not match the Anzac myth. Some of these stories did get through into popular culture, such as Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year. Most don’t.
The historian Phillip Tolliday has argued that this re-casting started at roughly the same time that personal memory was fading and the imperial ties with England that had been an essential part of the Anzac story were being slowly eviscerated. This fading of memory gave room for ideological imagination controlled by the aforementioned panel beaters.
Up to the moment they drew their last breath on far away blood fields, our diggers chronicled the chaos in letters home. The Australian War Memorial holds many of these. As if having to submit their stories to the blue pencils of the military censors was not enough humiliation. Once the letters were gifted to the Australian War Memorial another round of censorship takes place, and it is this one that is an ongoing national disgrace.
Our diggers not only gave up their lives, but they gave up their stories to the Memorial curators. These people, using what Tolliday called the “ideological imagination”, pick for exhibition display letters that reveal and augment the four pillars of the Anzac myth; mateship, duty, courage, and patriotism. Letters that show leadership idiocy, friendship betrayals, rapes, murder, stealing, and cowardice, remain boxed up in the Memorial’s offsite storage facility in the Canberra suburb of Mitchell. The diggers who wrote these critical letters home have been buried twice.
Do you think I am exaggerating? Then check it out for yourself. I suggest you write to Tony Abbott, who will soon assume the Chair of the AWM Council and ask him when will the AWM mount public exhibitions with titles such as “The ten worst leaders in Australia’s Military History”, or “The Persecution of Pacifists in Australia’s Military History”, or “Cowardice on the battlefield’, or “Women’s accounts of rape by Australian soldiers”, Nope, never going to happen.
Manning Clark had something to say about this;
I hope that the story of [Australia’s] past…would increase wisdom and understanding. It should turn the mind of the reader towards the things that matter.
Dream on Manning.
If he were alive today, he would be appalled at the Anzac Day chutzpah that has now taken hold. This once-a-year military version of the Melbourne Cup is now a flag waving carnival of deceit and smugness. A Mardi Gras with guns. Politicians, so grateful that they have never seen war, give shallow speeches as they squint into the rising sun with a languidness that comes with the assurance that a sniper is not going to blast their heads off. Then they give over the podiums across the land to desk dwelling generals and admirals wearing their best military jewellery, who say the same things they, or their predecessors said last year. The rising sun picks up the wrought iron on their chests. It’s a big day out for the toffs in starched uniforms.
As the years go by, Anzac Day will get bigger and bigger. It has to. A cultural hole has been discovered in the heart of Australian with the retreat into quite ignominy of the other day, Australia Day. Once the nationalist day of the year, it is now mocked as Invasion Day. It is getting messy. Conterminous black protests are growing in numbers and credibility. It is getting to the stage when it will be avoided by reasonable people. Australia Day’s future belongs to flagged draped hoons, pissed and loud. It will soon be the property of extreme right groups such as the Australian Defence League and the Lads Society. The hole left by the subsidence of Australia Day will be filled by Anzac Day. But it to, in time, will vanish from the social landscape.
Bob Hawke, the first Prime Minister to lead the dawn service at Gallipoli, splendidly caught the tension between Australia Day and Anzac Day when he said;
Here at last, was a day that could be shaped into a true source of national communion. The blood spilt in the frontier wars, the taking of Aboriginal land without consent or compensation, the physical and cultural decline of Aboriginal communities, and the political demands of Aboriginal activists, none of these need haunt or spoil the commemoration of Anzac Day. For Anzac Cove, not Sydney Cove, was where the right kind of Australian blood had been shed.
Hawke was right. Australia Day is built on a false truth.