RICHARD BUTLER. The Honest History Book (UNSW Press 2017)

This is a book of singular importance. It provides the evidence and materials for the correction of the distortion of Australia’s history resulting from Anzackery and the continuing insistence that our national character was forged in and remains defined by our participation in foreign wars. 

Bob Hawke started the revival of nationalism based on the Anzac narrative but John Howard raised it to an unprecedented, strident, level. He saw immense political advantage in this and, given his elementally ethnocentric tendencies, decided that it would be good for us all to bathe anew in the waters of anglospheric patriotism.

No political leader, from either side has subsequently sought to correct this manipulation of public sentiment. 

This book contains contributions by 20 distinguished and deeply experienced Australians, its editors, David Stephens and Alison Broinowski, amongst them. It is essential reading.

Their decision to divide the book into two parts is an important one. The first part exposes the construction of and fluctuations in the Anzac mythology. For example, Carolyn Holbrook’s chapter on the political deployment of the Anzac narrative is deeply instructive.

The second part, describes other key features of Australian history which are typically shunted aside by the focus on Anzac, Anzackery, a term created in 1967 by Geoffrey Serle.

This part does not deal exclusively with non-military activities. On the contrary. For example, it discusses the frontier war we waged against indigenous Australians, in which many more people were killed than in our sacralised losses in the First World War; and, the leadership role played by Australian women, on both sides of the debate, during the conscription plebiscites of 1916-17.

To question the prevailing Anzac mythos risks condemnation, because of: the strength of the attachment to it by some individuals and relevant community groups, the uses to which politicians of all sides have put it, and the media’s attraction to it as a source of “human interest” and patriotic stories.

This book is, thus, likely to be condemned by some as unpatriotic, to mention the most obvious form of wickedness of which it may be accused. It is nothing of the sort, as both its sections attest. It is also not intrinsically pacifist, another identified form of wickedness. What it does extol is the notion of historical verity.

The standard it sets is the historian’s duty to deal in facts, to insist that only events for which there is evidence should be entered into the record. There can be various interpretations of the meaning or significance of such verified events, but interpretation will be subject to gross error, unless it begins with verified facts

The central assertion of Anzackery is that our participation in the battles of the First World War gave birth to our nation. This dilutes the reality that our nation was born 14 years earlier with the entry into force of our Constitution on 1st January 1901, and asserts that for our birth to be made real, action by us in war was required.

But, our participation in that war was not in the capacity of an independent nation. We were part of the British imperial force, as were the other dominions: Canada, South Africa (still with that status after the British defeat of the Boers, in which we also took part); and colonies such as India and Kenya. It was the British who decided that ANZAC troops should carry out the attack on Turkey at Gallipoli. Our troops were commanded by a British general. Strange birth of a nation.

A further twenty years would pass before we gained independence from Britain for our foreign and defence affairs.

By contrast, our national identity was in plain sight during the Second World War when we were deployed and commanded by our own leaders, and crucially, Australia was directly threatened.

What is challenged in this book, is the very idea that the definition of Australia and its identity is tied, at root, to our military actions. The book also describes, fulsomely, an alternative source of our identity, that found in the extraordinary, role we played in the development of modern democratic and societal institutions. Many of our actions led the world and were emulated elsewhere. Imitation is the sincerest from of flattery.

A salient example of the ability of Anzackery to omit deeply relevant facts is that it omits any account of the reasons why our troops were sent into Gallipoli.

As Douglas Newton records in the book, secret negotiations took place, between Britain, France and Russia, leading to the Straits Agreement of March 1915, relating to the disposition of Ottoman lands. Russia would get both shores of the Straits and Constantinople (Istanbul). Britain would get the oil rich “neutral zone” in Persia and France would expand into Syria. As Newton comments: “Unknowing Australians would die at Gallipoli so that Russia might rule in Constantinople”, and Britain would get oil.

In May, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was done providing for the division between the Britain, France, and Russia of the Ottoman possessions, inter alia, in what today is Iraq and Syria, reneging on promises of independence, given to the Arabs, earlier in the year. Sykes-Picot is widely regarded as a continuing factor in contemporary conflict in the Middle East.

Anzac and Gallipoli was a sideshow to these colonialist ambitions and bargains.

The plain sentimentality in the detail of the Anzac narrative is often misleading. For example, the mythos has come to include the conciliatory words, attributed to Ataturk, now literally carved in stone, referring to the “Mehmets and Johnnies”, now in Turkey’s fond care. There is no evidence that Ataturk ever spoke or wrote those words and every reason to believe that they were devised, some 15 years later, by an aide, for PR purposes.

Australians are hardly alone in being attracted to agreeable myths rather than to harder reality. The immense success of such enterprises as Walt Disney, or the aptly named Dreamworks, attests to this. It is a universal phenomenon. And, so is the business of re-writing history. For example, China and Japan fight over it almost continually, Marine Le Pen has called for the expunging from French school text books of any reference to the German occupation of France. There are many more national examples of rejection of uncomfortable history, not least the utterly derisory attitude of President Trump towards the truth of any matter, recently including US Civil War history.

In the case of Anzac and World War I, Anzackery has spun out of control. Currently, Australian governments are spending hundreds of millions on commemorating Anzac Day, and $100 million on the construction of a memorial at Villers -Bretonneux.

But, three realities, derived from these circumstances, are of far greater importance:

First, we continue to fight in wars, distant from our shores and of dubious relevance to our national security. Ironically, we continue to be at war in the Middle East.

Secondly, we continue to choose to do this, as a virtual client state of an imperial power. This was the UK and today it’s the USA. Our troops and public are told, in all instances of military action by us, that our actions are in the Anzac tradition.

Thirdly, our political parties, on all sides, and their leaders, continue to believe that there would be electoral dangers in their taking their foot off the Anzackery accelerator pedal, or indeed that of the Alliance with the US.

This book points out that such beliefs: involve continuous endorsement of a political mythology riddled with errors and misrepresentations of facts; and, diminishes, sets aside, historic achievements in non-military areas of our national life.

Persistence with the notion that we are primarily defined by our militarism, and that it will always sell in the electorate, will only lead to continued unnecessary involvement by Australia in wars and to the resultant death of Australians.

In addition, as Alison Broinowski details, in her compelling essay, decisions by our government to commit our military to war, from Vietnam onwards but particularly by John Howard and each succeeding Prime Minister, have been based on dubious legal grounds, in terms of both our Constitution and relevant international law.

It is a large task, but The Honest History Book can help to correct and change the circumstances fostered by the current Anzac mythos.

Correction is needed because, as the distinguished historian, Timothy Snyder, recently observed:

“ the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures……To abandon facts is to abandon freedom”   

 Richard Butler AC formerly: Ambassador to the United Nations, Governor of Tasmania.

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3 Responses to RICHARD BUTLER. The Honest History Book (UNSW Press 2017)

  1. Jim Kable says:

    Hear! Hear! Excellent review of book I think deserving of being set as a senior history text right now!

  2. Julian says:

    Thank you Richard for your excellent review of what should become an important book.

    You correctly state: “This book is…likely to be condemned by some as unpatriotic…”. I reckon that the epithet “unAustralain” won’t be too far behind.

    Having regard our active military presence in the Middle East (past and present), together with the legitimate question of whether Australian forces should be there, serves to my mind to highlight the present discussion of the usefulnesss and/or direction of the alliance. With this in mind I refer readers to a speech the outgoing Defence Department secretary Dennis Richardson gave to the National Press Club on Friday 12 May 2017 in which the US-Australia alliance featured prominently. The speech was also notable for a reference to “Chinese spying in Australia”, which has received some press coverage, unlike the “Alliance” reference – not so much.

    However an edited version of the speech appeared in the Weekend Australian (13-14 May, 2017) at page 16. In light of the matters here reviewed it is worth quoting a paragraph from the edited version of the speech.

    “It is certainly true that without US leadership and involvement we would not have been in most of the conflicts since 1951. But the alliance has not always been the sole driver of decision making, with our presence in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan today serving strong national interests independent of the alliance. In other words, in some instances, without the US we would not have been able to give full effect to our national interests through the use of force. And sometimes the use of force is necessary.”

    I found it depressing that no one asked the speaker just what was meant by the reference to: “…our presence in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan today serving strong national interests independent of the alliance…”.

  3. lesley finn says:

    an excellent review and article.
    However, the evidence is that Australia was not directly threatened in the Second World War. The Japanese had no plans to conquer Australia just to bomb American installations here.

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