Anzac a 'politically pliable' legend

16 Comments
Brisbane Shrine at dawnWith Anzac Day over, and the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign just under a decade away, it's time to re-examine, re-frame, and hopefully tame, the Anzac legend for the start of its next century.

You don't need to be an expert in every component of Anzac values to understand that the legend has a stranglehold over Australian public life. It enables people to feel comfortable in myths and non-sustainable notions of our nationhood rather than in identifying the new symbols and values which will give meaning and life to Australia as it moves forward.

The widespread acceptance of Anzac Day's quasi-religious sacredness is evidence alone of this viewpoint. Historian and soon-to-be appointed director of the Arts faculty at the Australian National University, Professor Joan Beaumont has observed that contemporary Australia is obsessed with materialism. She adds that 'Anzac, which has often been called a secular religion, is filling the void of meaning.'

Without demeaning the sacrifice of those Australians who gave their lives and others who left their youth at Gallipoli and western European battlefields during World War I, this rigid persistence to a flawed tradition is not healthy for national development.

Even for those victims of war in Crete, Tobruk, Kokoda, Changi, Burma, Borneo and in the jungles of New Guinea, 'Anzac' on its own is not a satisfactory legend because it fails to address the social and political complexities of the Australia then, and the Australia of today. Equally important, it is not a guide post for our future.

'Anzac' became a politically pliable legend soon after 1915 and has remained one since. Melbourne teacher and academic, Dr Martin Ball recently questioned the impending fate of 'Anzac' under Kevin Rudd's leadership. Earlier he noted its fluidity under two preceding prime ministers.

'Throughout Howard's term, commentators on all sides of politics observed how successfully he used Anzac as a medium to talk to the electorate. Rather than trying to historicise and re-interpret Anzac as Paul Keating had done, Howard's approach was to generalise the Anzac tradition and make it open and current to all Australians.'

In short, for all its perceived sanctity, Anzac is a political plaything. Even more disturbingly, its chief 'playmaker' is not our political leaders, but arguably Australia's most anachronistic institution, the RSL — most recently seen thundering scorn against a planned hot-air ballooning festival in the ACT due to commence on Anzac Day morning.

RSL national president Major General Bill Crews said it was a 'disrespectful' event at a solemn time of reflection and remembrance. 'A mass of balloons in the sky emblazoned with commercial advertising is hardly consistent with the mood of the nation at that time.'

Rather than attempt to judge our nation's mood let us push past the self-interest and debate Anzac in a spirit of openness and frankness which befits a mature, multicultural nation of a new millennium. Surely this is an ideal worthy of a fight by former and future generations.


Tom Cranitch Tom Cranitch is a Brisbane-based writer and communication professional.

 

Image courtesy brisbaneishome.com

 

 

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This appears to me to be a cynical attempt to denigrate the Anzac tradition. To call it quasi-religious makes a mockery of the services that are held throughout the country to honour those who died in action or since because of the effects of war - services that bring people together to pray - even people who would normally not attend a church service. Prayer should not be confined to being inside a church building to be considered "prayer". If the veteran derives some comfort from these prayers, some belief that his mates died so that he might be free, then Anzac Day needs to continue and to grow. And at long last our youth are making heroes of men and women who were brave and courageous rather than the Hollywood glitteratti.
Pat Cannard | 28 April 2008


Well put, Tom Cranitch. Most thinking people would agree with this view, and it seems odd that the Gallipoli campaign, one of British history's great failures, ranks in reverence in this country with the deaths of Ned Kelly and Phar Lap.

Anzac Day has been the de facto Australia Day for many years now and possibly since 26 January ceased to be called Anniversary Day, as it was known since 1789. Perhaps we should revert to that old name for the latter and just call 25 April Australia Day.
Alan Slatyer | 28 April 2008


Thanks for asking the difficult questions! Even at the grass roots level there is something less than honest, in my multicultural inner suburb, when immigrants are asked to celebrate the heroic stands to defend freedom that were taken against their own ancestors. Time for us all to start asking the difficult questions!
margaret | 28 April 2008


The Anzac legend is not only politically pliable, but it is historically pliable as well. Big questions need to be asked about a sense of history that leads children to stand up at Anzac Day celebrations and embrace every martial event from the Boer War onwards as a defence of the Australian homeland and 'liberty'.

As for the quasi-religious nature of Anzac commemoration, check out its origins during WW1, the role of 'war theology' in the Australian churches, and the religious/theological origins of the commemoration.
Rowan Cahill | 28 April 2008


Again we get the bleating "out with the old in with the new" multiculturist regime philosophy!

Seems some people just don't have the imagination to be able to view this concept of nationalistic importance as relevant any more because it just doesn't fit well with the changes they want to achieve in Australia.

Like maybe it cuts across the Republican creed of removing our flag, any images of the Queen, any sense of remembering our past ties and last of all, burying what all of a sudden we are told is oh so offensive to so many others whose ties are elsewhere.

To those people, neither the word Anzac or the "Nationalistic" event Anzac Day is either relevant or appropriate any more.

Well jolly good luck with your flag designs - we've been there done that before - but we still have Anzac Day, we still have democracy, we still have freedom, we still don't have wars within our country. I guess we should apologise for that on behalf of all the wonderful people so poignantly remembered every Anzac Day!
P Charter | 28 April 2008


Salut! The Gallipoli importance is insignificant compared to Anzac achievements in north France. Down with Gallipoli and up with Somme, Aisne (don't forget Montbrehain Aisne), Wallonia and Flanders. Bien a` vous de la part de Gauvain Smith aged 86 ex-Nudgee College
Kevin G. Smith | 28 April 2008


Yes, I couldn't agree more. The Gallipoli legend, in particular, has overshadowed other areas of WW1 as well. It is a sacred cow, too 'holy' to question. I wonder why the youths of Australia are made to feel so much empathy for those of almost a century ago, who volunteered for our forces? Where does it come from? I can only concur that it fills our spiritual void in some way.

I'd like something that is more inclusive of recent arrivals or Aboriginal Australians. My maternal grandfather fought in France in 1917, he died in 1949.
andrew trezise | 28 April 2008


I love the indigenous football code but the way the AFL has been able to both commercialise Anzac Day and pretentiously associate it with the legend is distasteful and lacking integrity. I can just imagine in the near future when, as seems inevitable, another "blockbuster" is created for Good Friday. When this happens some creative mind employed by the AFL will think of some type of pre-game spectacle to commemorate the crucifixion and somehow link it with the prematch musings of a young player from each of the competing teams. The link will be as tenuous as last Friday's was to the real story of the day we celebrate. Expert marketing will overcome that. Watch the dollars roll in.
Terry Oberg | 28 April 2008


Tom, has your Father, Mother, brother experienced war service? We need these days to remember the sadness, the futility, the bravery of those in the battle as well as the bravery of those at home and the sadness of those whose fathers, mothers, sons and daughters were lost or wounded or returned 'different' people. We need to remember not forget.

The decision to go to war is never made by thae people who fight and die or are wounded. Lest we forget. In hope, never again.
Bev Smith | 28 April 2008


The Sacred has migrated to Anzac Day. That is the starting point for the discussion. Anyone who attempts to question its sacral character should not be surprised if they are treated as heretics.

There are substantial historical, moral that theological questions that should be asked about the rhetoric of Anzac Day.

To do so is not to show any disrespect for those who died in war or their families - it is to show them the ultimate respect of seeking to understand truthfully what happened so that we might create communities of people who will resist the call to sacrifice their humanity on the altar of nationalism.

To grieve for those who died in war is appropriate - we need to learn how to grieve rightly so that our grief does not make us vulnerable to those who would use our grieving as the basis to go to war yet again.
Doug Hynd | 29 April 2008


As one of the 40% of Vietnam Veterans who don't participate in Anzac Day "festivities" there are a couple of points I would like to add to the discussion.

Firstly, as a serving soldier I found the Anzac heritage and spirit helpful in focusing on my responsibility to do my job well, not for the flag (what it represents is important, not its colour and design) or country, but for the people I was serving with who were depending on me.

To suddenly find myself courted by the RSL after they originally rejected our service left me nonplussed but did not stop me from appreciating that some of those whom I served with draw great comfort from the celebrations.

Secondly, the Anzac tradition finds its fullest relevance in the attitudes of those who today put their lives on the line to do their duty, often under the harshest conditions, not from those who seek to exploit it for personal or political reasons.

Long may the tradition of selfless service continue!
Tony McLennan | 30 April 2008


As a military chaplain for many years I treasure the baseline values that have grown from the Anzac story and legend. Sadly,these values of sacrafice, loyalty, duty and 'being a mate', have become in many ways the catch call of identity for many who do little to invest of themselves in the social and personal implications of such values.

A worrying bulk of Australians are, I believe, slipping more and more into a cultural shallowness where self-centeredness, agression, lack of baseline neighbourliness and attention to others gets conveniently lost in the 'mythic me of Anzac fame'.

What a farce we have made of the treasured term 'mate'. The word should be banned from use so we might once again treasure its importance to the quality of life that Aussies so easily pretend we adhere to. One hopes that such as Tom C's. article will temp the many to find again the treasures in the field.
Paul Goodland | 09 May 2008


While we maunder on every year with the ridiculous "lest we forget" we forget that we forgot not to do it again.

What a stupid farce all this glorying of failure has become.
Marilyn | 10 May 2008


I have just been to Villers-Bretonneaux for the 90th anniversary of the town's liberation to honour my uncle who died on the Western Front and has no known grave. It didn't seem a nationalist celebration but a solemn and reverent service for many of us.
Maureen Stewart | 27 May 2008


It is an interesting notion, 'to debate a myth'. Perhaps Tom Cranitch has been asleep for a few decades. Tom we have never stopped debating ANZAC day and that is probably why numbers attending dwindled and then resurged.

Possibly what we don't need are people who seem to think that human beings can only operate in the rational analytical and intellectual manner. Human beings are so much more than that and every culture has myths that we simply don't stuff around with. people need meaning and one notices that this article is not written in a way that seeks to add something but only take away something. And when it is taken away we will be left with a yet still shallower society.

It is interesting that many people who disbelieve the myth still observe it because they need it. I believe that an investigation would reveal that ANZAC day began as a repentance movement. Prior to the first world war people believed that We were ushering in God's kingdom of peace. A view not entirely removed from a humanist position today.

The war shattered the fantasy that humans would solve their own problems. One doesn't have to be religious to see that war confirms the unlimited capacity of human beings for stupidity.
Bruce Johnson | 11 March 2009


It is an interesting notion, "to debate a myth". Perhaps Tom Cranitch has been asleep for a few decades. Tom we have never stopped debating ANZAC day and that is probably why numbers attending dwindled and then resurged. Possibly what we don't need are people who seem to think that human beings can only operate in the rational analytical and intellectual manner. Human beings are so much more than that and every culture has myths that we simply don't stuff around with. people need meaning and one notices that this article is not written in a way that seeks to add something but only take away something. And when it is taken away we will be left with a yet still shallower society. It is interesting that many people who disbelieve the myth still observe it because they need it. I believe that an investigation would reveal that ANZAC day began as a repentance movement. Prior to the first world war people believed that We were ushering in God's kingdom of peace. A view not entirely removed from a humanist position today. The war shattered the fantasy that humans would solve their own problems. One doesn't have to be religious to see that war confirms the unlimited capacity of human beings for stupidity.
Bruce Johnson | 11 March 2009


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