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Is Anzac Day a remembrance or a sedative?

Is Anzac Day a remembrance or a sedative?
Published 22 Apr 2015   Follow @j_b_curran

The Gallipoli Centenary may well be the biggest civic cultural event this country has seen or will see in a generation. 

The commemoration of the First World War in various forms has been undergoing something of a resurgence in Australia in recent years. In itself this is an extraordinary phenomenon, especially when there was a prediction only a few decades ago that the various forms of Great War remembrance would not last.

During the 1960s, Anzac Day was expected to simply wither on the vine as the diggers themselves passed away. For a new Australia emerging at that time, the occasion was seen to carry too much British imperial baggage. As one panelist in a debate in 1965 said, 'If Anzac Day is to be used then it is certainly going to be changed from its present state'.

And indeed it has, with Anzac Day being invested with a new rhetoric of inclusiveness and belonging. Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard have all played critical roles in this transformation. As has popular culture, especially films such as Peter Weir's Gallipoli, Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant, and even the mid-1980s mini-series Anzacs that featured Paul Hogan among its cast.

Gradually, Anzac shed its now dubious overtones of Empire and Britishness and became a story about the forging of distinctively Australian values. The new liturgy of Anzac undoubtedly permits a wider degree of community participation than it did before.

But that also brings with it new responsibilities. With no more survivors from the Great War left, the narrative of the conflict moves even more into the public sphere. The publication of the letters and diaries of those involved in the conflict will of course continue to give us an unparalleled insight into the horrors of battle and the private motivations of those who went, but the likelihood is that it will be the politicians, writers, historians and commentators who will increasingly shape our understanding of what these conflicts were about, and what they mean for us today. 

For some, this growth of interest in the remembrance of war, and the writing of it, is something to be wary of. In Australia we have even seen the hysterical suggestion that the country's entire history is being 'militarised'. I think such concerns are far-fetched. [fold]

The real risk for Australia's wartime commemorative culture is not the proliferation of military histories weighing down the shelves of bookshops. Rather it is the danger that the rhetoric of Anzac becomes so caricatured and hackneyed that the occasion becomes little more than a national sedative, an annual Anzac dosage which dulls the mind and skates over the challenge of understanding the history of Australia's participation in global conflicts. 

The risk is that we lose sight of the national interest that propelled Australia into the Great War. We must resist the parochialism of the present which so often says that those who joined up in 1914 were little more than duped patriots, and that Australia followed blindly its British imperial masters with no thought as to its own interests. 

And yet this has been perhaps the most striking feature of the current media frenzy during the Gallipoli centenary: the distinct lack of serious reflection on why Australia went to war in 1914. Instead, we are now awash in sentimentalism of sometimes the crudest and most superficial kind.

Precious little has been said about how Australian leaders from the outset perceived this great conflict and its inherent dangers for Australia's future, especially in the Pacific. Not much has been written about the original decision to go to war, and how both sides of Australian politics competed with each other to profess their loyalty and commitment to the Empire's cause – without losing sight of the nation's interests closer to home. How many school students would know, for example, that Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, only days after saying that Australia would assist Britain 'to our last man and our last shilling', proclaimed that his 'idea of patriotism was to first provide for our own defence and if there was anything to spare, offer it as a tribute to the Mother Country'?

As historian Neville Meaney has emphasised, Australians fought a 'hot war' in the trenches in Turkey and Europe, but Australian leaders pursued a 'cold war 'in the Pacific in an attempt to ensure that Japan, an uncertain ally in the First World War, did not gain a strategic foothold in the region. That fear of Japan, which had permeated the Australian consciousness since the late 19th century, by no means suddenly vanished as the First Australian Imperial Force set sail. Japanese manoeuvring in the North Pacific was to prove a constant source of angst for Australian leaders throughout these years and into the peace.

It can only be hoped that one by-product of the commemorations is a greater understanding of the fundamental issues – geopolitics, national security, loyalty and race – that conditioned Australia's response to the world in that era.

It is remarkable that so many more young Australians are now traveling long distances to visit the graves on the Western Front and the Gallipoli peninsula. It suggests that in the culture of immediacy in which we live, there remains a basic hunger to know about the past, and to learn from it. But the commemoration of Anzac cannot be allowed to become a cult of uncritical veneration, one which loses sense of the gravity of what occurred in those places and the history behind Australian involvement. Otherwise we risk turning Anzac Cove into a playground for package-tour patriots.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.

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