As we commemorate Anzac Day for another year, its national significance is reaffirmed. But we are so familiar with the accustomed ritual and rhetoric that it escapes critical scrutiny. And its sanctity places it outside the reach of sceptical inspection.
Its great moral authority is due to the fact that it has become Australia’s principal moment of remembrance and lament for all the lives lost in the nation’s many foreign wars. Few people anywhere would question the importance and the need for such an occasion, regardless of the nature, the cause or the legitimacy of particular conflicts. Australians who went to war were answering the call of democratically elected governments often, but not always, with the support of the community. But beyond any other consideration, we should all be able to join together to grieve for so many young lives cut short or deeply scarred.
But Anzac Day has become very much more than our principal day of remembrance. The Anzac landing itself is a pivotal feature of a particular, and indeed partisan, interpretation of Australian history, one which comes cloaked in sanctimony. A generation of young Australians has been taught that the nation was born in those climactic months on the shores of Gallipoli, that war indeed is our defining national experience. There is so much wrong with these assertions it is hard to know where to begin.
But we could start with the provenance of the idea that nations are born or attain their maturity in the heat of battle. It was a widespread view in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a product of the vaulting militarism which prepared Europe for the catastrophe of the Great War. It emerged during an era of resplendent uniforms and dashing cavalry charges. In most countries, it did not survive the horrors of modern industrialised warfare but found a temporary haven in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Australia, even now it seems, has not shaken off the rhetoric which was still fashionable when the Australians stormed ashore in April 1915. But over 100 years later such ideas are both dangerous and atavistic.
Another problem with the Anzac narrative is the implicit assumption that Australia in April 1915 lacked something which was provided by conflict with the Ottoman Empire. Clearly, any proof of this idea is totally lacking. Australia at the time was one of the most democratic, prosperous and well-managed societies in the world; the product of over a hundred years of nation-building. How in the real world could the achievements of generations of men and women in their fields, factories, schools and homes be eclipsed by young men fighting on the far side of the world against people who could never present a threat to the homeland.
But the Anzac boosters have other arguments which are deployed in public discourse. In this case, they look onward from April 1915 and argue that the battlefield exploits of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) gave the country a new sense of national pride and unity. But these ideas are as lacking in substance as the rhetoric about national birth on the battlefield. The war opened up deep and damaging divisions in Australian society that were at best latent in 1914. Class division and the resulting industrial strife intensified. The conscription debates of 1916 and 1917 tore communities, families and friendships asunder. Religious divisions between Protestant and Catholic spiralled out of control. And returning diggers spurned those who had not rallied to the flag. And then there was regional discontent which culminated in 1933 when Western Australia voted by a large majority to secede from Australia.
Underlying the desire of two-thirds of Western Australians to return to the status of a Crown colony was the loyalty to King and Empire which had been enhanced rather than diminished by the war. It became harder than ever to question the emotional ties with Mother England. So much blood had been shed in common. It was seen as disloyal – even treasonous – in the inter-war years to cast doubt on Imperial entanglement.
The importance we accord the Gallipoli campaign, and the First World War more generally, underlines the continuing relevance of the Imperial connection. The story of our war effort, so recently commemorated non-stop for four years, was by definition Imperial history. It was given incessant priority over national history. Little attention was paid during the cavalcade of commemoration to what was happening in Australia itself including such major developments as the disastrous Labor Party split or the rejection of conscription in two referenda. The overwhelming emphasis given to Australia’s part in the conflict obscures the reality that the AIF was fighting in British campaigns, often under British officers pursuing strategic objectives they knew little about. And this was clearly the case in the Middle East in 1915.
Our attention is inevitably drawn to Australia Day which vies for national priority with Anzac Day. Both are days which could be, without any change, appropriate for commemoration in a British Colony. The continuing use of the British blue ensign as our national flag confirms this impression. The occasions we choose to commemorate and the manner in which we proceed suggests quite strongly that Australia has not been able to complete the process of decolonisation. How strange this must seem to inquisitive visitors. Decolonisation is after all one of the defining themes of modern world history. It stands in the centre of the experience of the vast majority of modern nation states. There are 117 nations where national commemoration occurs on Independence Day.
But there are even deeper problems with the way we mark Anzac Day. At the moment when we remember the sacrifice of our war dead, we completely ignore the suffering and the death of people of the first nations in the frontier wars which affected the long drawn out conquest of indigenous Australia. Our national lament is for those who died overseas in wars chosen for us by our great and powerful friends, most of the time against enemies who would never have been able to threaten Australia. How is that commensurate with frontier wars fought in Australia about the ownership and control of the continent itself? For us, this must be of far greater significance than the balance of power in Europe or the scramble to carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire.
Henry Reynolds FAHA FASSA is a historian whose research focuses on frontier conflict in Australia between European settlers and indigenous Australians. He is an honorary research professor in Aboriginal studies, global cultures and languages at the University of Tasmania.
This article was originally published on John Menadue’s blog Pearls and Irritations on 24 April 2019. It is republished with permission.