Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession

The approaching centenary of World War I has triggered some public questioning about the scale, character and purpose of the commemorations being planned in Australia. Among the critics is James Brown, a former Australian Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is now based at the Lowy Institute. His highly readable Anzac’s Long Shadow raises many issues in a way that has already generated considerable debate.

Firstly, Brown takes issue with the commodification and trivialisation of war memory in Australia. Anzac Day has ‘morphed into a sort of military Halloween’, a ceremony in which it is difficult to differentiate between those who served and those who did not. Military enthusiasts who have never seen battle dress up in period costume while many of the actual veterans stand to one side, not wanting to big-note themselves or attract attention. Certainly, Brown argues, it was inappropriate in the past to neglect Anzac Day, but now we have almost over-corrected, creating ‘a cycle of jingoistic commemoration’.

Similarly, Brown is highly critical of the plans for the centennial commemorations, what he calls ‘a discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four-year festival for the dead’. As Brown sees it, Anzac is being ‘bottled, stamped and sold’ not just by a multitude of commercial and sporting agencies but by the custodian of the national memory of war itself, the Australian War Memorial. The merchandise the Memorial is marketing under the centenary motto, ‘Their Spirit, Our Pride’ includes stubby holders, an item of ‘remembrance’ only so far as it recalls the drunkenness with which Anzac Day has often been associated.  Likewise, the ‘Raise a Glass’ appeal promoted by Carlton United Brewery, which it claims to be a fitting way ‘to recognise the ultimate sacrifice any Australian can make’, promotes alcohol consumption. This is at a time when the Australian Defence Force is struggling with alcohol abuse especially by veterans dealing with post-conflict trauma.  Meanwhile, the RSL Clubs in New South Wales make huge profits from the name Anzac, while returning only a proportion of their earnings to veteran welfare and support.

For all the punch of these criticisms, the most important sections of Brown’s book are those in which he discusses what he sees as a ‘chasm’ between the ADF and the Australian public. Thanks to the controls which Defence placed on the reporting of the war in Afghanistan, the public ceased to be informed about what was happening in this conflict. The media, for its part, made little effort to explain the intricacies of the Afghanistan intervention and Australia’s role within it.  Instead, it told only one story in detail, that of death. Hence, as casualties rose, public engagement with the war declined.  The Anzac legend too has been culpable in this process, Brown argues, since it inculcates in Australians the illusion that Australian soldiers are so naturally gifted that they don’t die. The presence of senior politicians at every military funeral, and the extraordinary spectacle of Julia Gillard returning from a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum because of five fatalities in one day, reinforced ‘the myth that deaths in war are extraordinary and unexpected’.

In this and other ways, Brown maintains, Anzac does not serve the current members of the ADF well. Rather it has become ‘the Anzac Spirit Monkey’ on the soldiers’ back.  It emphasises tactical heroism by individual soldiers, when post-heroic warfare by modern professional armies requires very different skill sets. Its valorising narrative encourages today’s ADF to assume that attention will be lavished on them; hence, the institution has lost the ability to assess how good it actually is. In effect, Anzac inhibits the fluid exchange of ideas and the honest, intelligent study of the past that the ADF needs if it is to remain effective in the twenty-first century.  Meanwhile senior Defence officers, being increasingly politicised, avoid debate that might be politically contentious.  None of this is helped by the fact there is little knowledge of defence policy among journalists or parliamentarians, very few of whom have ever served in conflict.

There is much more to Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow than can be explored in this review. Some of his critique is, perhaps deliberately, overstrained but it remains thought-provoking and challenging. This is a book that deserves not to be submerged in the tsunami of uncritical commemoration that threatens to engulf us in 2015.  Rather it should inform an overdue debate about why it is that Anzac, which is only one narrative of Australia’s collective past, has become so dominant – and whether the role it plays in the national political culture is as positive as its champions assume.

James Brown, Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession, Collingwood, Vic., Redback, 2014, 184 pp.

Professor Joan Beaumont, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University