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Anzac myths beyond the Alan Bond test


Soldiers silhouetteAt some point, the Anzac story that Australians celebrate each 25 April passed out of history and even beyond legend to become myth.

Myths, almost by definition, do not have a fixed beginning. But in this case there is a convenient, if arbitrary, marker of the change in the national consciousness. In 1983, when his yacht Australia II won the America's Cup, Alan Bond hailed the feat as the greatest Australian victory since Gallipoli.

Bond was obviously hazy about the details of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915. And I am not suggesting that serious historians no longer write about that campaign in accordance with the canons of scholarly research — of course they do.

Nor do I deny that mythmaking began early in the story — indeed, from its very beginning, when Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, and other war correspondents began filing despatches that distinguished the supposedly bronzed, fit, insouciant and occasionally insubordinate Aussie Diggers from the pale, undernourished and allegedly pusillanimous British Tommies alongside whom they fought.

What Bond's ludicrous misspeaking does indicate, however, is that at least by the 1980s the mythmakers' interpretation of the significance of Gallipoli was dominant in the popular consciousness. Anzac had passed into myth not only because a disastrous defeat had somehow been re-imagined as a glorious victory, but because the heroic strivings of the Diggers had become the benchmark for all other forms of national endeavour.

Does 25 April 1915 really mark the birth of a nation, as so many young people, who march each year wearing their grandfathers' medals, apparently believe? By the bizarre Bond test of what's worth including in the national story, it does.

There is no doubt that Anzac Day has a much stronger emotional resonance for Australians than the official national day, which commemorates the anniversary of British settlement on 26 January 1788. The celebration of Australia Day, like that of Anzac Day, has also been marked by increased popular participation in recent years, despite the inherent conflict in what the anniversary is capable of symbolising: one person's 'settlement' may be another's invasion and dispossession.

But Australia Day has never had, and does not seem likely to attain, the solemn quality that Anzac Day has always had, and which leads many to regard the latter as the 'real' national day.

There is a third option, of course, though it arouses neither the reverential awe associated with Anzac Day nor the conflicted emotions of Australia Day. Indeed, the anniversary of federation on 1 January hardly strikes an emotional chord at all for most Australians, despite the best efforts of historians as different as John Hirst and Clare Wright to remind them what an extraordinary achievement it was.

Australia is not only one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world — the extension of the franchise to women in 1902 made it more fully democratic than the US or the UK could claim to be until several decades later — but it is also that extreme rarity, a nation that achieved unity through peaceful negotiation and the ballot box. No wars or revolutions brought about the federation of the six Australian colonies in 1901 — and that, perversely, is why the event fails to inspire all but a few.

In the decade after federation, Australians had no doubt that their new democracy was a social laboratory and a model for the world. But before another decade had passed that mood of national exultation had been eclipsed by another, which fused mourning for the dead with pride in having survived the ordeal of war.

And so it has remained. The federation narrative of national identity, which arose on these shores and that from the outset included men and women, has been overshadowed by another, martial narrative that until very recently was overwhelmingly masculine, and that takes as its notional beginning Australia's subordinate participation in a military clash on the other side of the world between the British and Ottoman empires.

The notion that the Diggers of Gallipoli and their successors in subsequent wars, heroic though they were, are somehow the paramount exemplars of Australian virtues does not survive scrutiny. Yet that notion will not be subject to much, if any, scrutiny when the young people bedecked in a relative's medals march tomorrow.

Nor is there likely to be any next year, when the centenary of the Gallipoli landings is commemorated. The Anzac myth of national origins has us so firmly in its grip that to question it outside seminar rooms is to play the role of the heretic. Perhaps only those who dissect the myth from within the military tradition, as the former ADF officer James Brown has done in his fine recent book Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, can now do so without courting accusations of disloyalty.

We have a duty to all the nation's dead, however, including those who died before 25 April 1915, to keep asking the questions.

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Anzac Day image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Anzac Day



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Existing comments

Thank you Ray for a very thoughtful piece. As one who lives 20 meters from Anzac Parade and 800 meters from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra I am constantly struck by the religious, almost devotional nature of the way people behave in what they clearly perceive to be sacred space. I've no doubt that it is a kind of replacement religion for many. By the way, as well as James Brown's book, the webpage 'Honest History' is an effort by military historians also trying to get some perspective into the Anzac myth.

Paul Collins | 24 April 2014  

Many books and articles pour from the pens of 'wannabee' academic historians and others who feel they have some God given right to deconstruct the Anzac legend forged from the remnants of a defeat. As a veteran of Malaysia and of Vietnam I deplore such 'defeatism' that dishonours a legend that is nationally honoured each year. It marks survival of spirit under the most terrible conditions and has been selected, "for better or for worse" to represent values of honour, of mateship, and survival. For the military, Gallipoli also offers something unique. The Australian withdrawal; at night; while still engaged with the enemy; was a masterful and memorable action and a landmark in military history. It has remained a model of ingenuity. The procedures learned in that withdrawal are still practiced. Above all. Why do commentors, comment unjustly when most of them have never heard an angry shot; never undergone the rigours of warfare; and never had to struggle"when life and limb" are at the end of their tether. Anzacs mustered the strength to conduct an orderly extraction. They held their heads up high. Armchair 'historians then decry their effort. "Anzac" is a magnificent memorial to Aussies and Kiwis.

Karl H Cameron-Jackson | 24 April 2014  

Anzac is close to home , it recognises what our fathers and grandfathers did to give us the lifestyle we have . Federation is about politics and its heroes are politicians for whom Australians have been taught by Eureka Street and others to have no respect for ,either their actions ,motivations or ethics . Lost cause to push Federation as a national day for me ,rather remember my Pa and Dad .

john crew | 24 April 2014  

Neither aNZac day, nor January 26th are really suitable for celebrating 'OUR NATIONAL Day. Perhaps that date is yet to come - when an Australian is elected by the people of Australia to be our own Head of State. Those who say, "If it isn't broken, don't fix it", are really saying, "Just because it is out of date and inappropriate, don't bring it bring it up to date and make it appropriate."

Robert Liddy | 24 April 2014  

Thank you Ray. I have been starting to feel increasingly uneasy with the glorification of war that appears to be, “a perhaps unintended” consequence of ANZAC day. My recently deceased father had told me that his father, who had fought and was wounded in WWI, would have nothing to do with neither the RSL nor ANZAC day. He wanted to try to forget the horror of many young men senselessly gassed to death in their trenches before they could raise their rifles. If pornography corrodes personal integrity and art increases it then perhaps it is not unreasonable to cast a discriminating eye on how war is portrayed in Australian culture. As we spend a year preparing for the 100th anniversary of the disaster of Gallipoli perhaps the phrase "WAR PORN” might enter into our vocabulary as an aid in discerning images and stories that ennobles us from those which degrades us through normalising and perhaps glorifying senseless suffering and death.

John Francis Collins | 24 April 2014  

Will Gallipoli sustain the core of ANZAAC justification? Does it really stack up as our foundation mythology? My father, returning after two hellish years in the Somme, saw things differently. Ray reminds us “We have a duty to all the nation's dead”. Let us expand that duty to those dead beyond Gallipoli shores, beyond the Somme and other conflicts in other lands. What of the conflict waged right here? The very act of Federation, so central to our identity, had its foundation after the deaths of many thousands of those original occupants of more than 60,000 years. That foundation mythology will never be complete until our duty extends to thousands of those who died, many heroically in defence of their own lands. Those Aboriginal men and women are foundational part of our nation’s origins.

Jim Bowler | 24 April 2014  

As someone not born in this country, I hesitate to offer an opinion. But it seems to me that Paul Keating's dismissal of Gallipoli, particularly as contrasted with the kind of things written by Tim Kroenert in today's other posting, is a better indication of Australianness. Surely, the fact that 200 Turks managed to hold off 16 000 invaders is something for Turkey to celebrate rather than for those sent by Churchill on what was a vainglorious, unnecessary and doomed campaign. as for spending 300 million next year, that could buy a few wings of one of these new planes that have not even been built yet.

Frank | 24 April 2014  

Thank you for this, Ray, it's so insightful. I disagree on one crucial point. Ours is not "that extreme rarity, a nation that achieved unity through peaceful negotiation and the ballot box." The war against the Indigenous owners is still going on, with children removed from their families and men beaten to death by our police. We lionize the fallen of World War One and dismiss Indigenous warriors who defended their land as criminals or nonentities. Where are their cenotaphs, where is their memorial service? To me one of the most disturbing elements of the distortion and sentimentality you outline here is its racist whitewashing. Your Alan Bond story reminded me of two drunken revellers telling an attractive Canadian visitor the story of Anzac's history, in a small town in SA. "Well, our boys.... landed in Gallipolli, in France... in 1941..." "No! Mate, it was 42." I would love to see the myths dissolve into a sensitive, honourable commemoration and acknowledgment of all the pain of our history, including that which is ongoing.

Cathoel Jorss | 24 April 2014  

My family like so many has members lying in the soils of France and others who returned from both major wars. All of them and their young comrades were human beings with strengths and foibles. Many displayed great heroism and so many were exemplars of what is best in both the Australian and New Zealand character. All served believing they were doing what was right. They were, as always, the victims of the global politics of the time. Question all you want but in your haste to rewrite the "myth" to your own personal tastes do not make them victims of politics yet again. My Grandfather's brother Peter Loney and my father of the same name will always be my heroes.

martin loney | 24 April 2014  

...thank you,Ray Cassin-your article made me aware of another totally different view of my lifelong thoughts of the revered Anzacs.Personally,I have always given thanks to all soldiers,sailors & airforce personnel who went to war to protect their fellow countrymen,women & children,from the threat of cruel invaders.To me they are all heroes,dead or living.On Anzac Day my thoughts are with them,& I am very conscious of the fact that my loved ones & I live safely & happily in a beautiful homeland because of sacrifices made by generations of servicemen-do others feel as I do ??

evangelia dascarolis | 24 April 2014  

Well said, Karl H Cameron-Jackson! Anzac was indeed a great nation founding event for this country. It brought together people of many nationalities living not in unity in this country but in different national colours, living in their tribes with little genuine rapport between them, a nonsense most easily recognised in the Catholic /protestant sectarianism of those times and the anti-Pommie attitudes, quite apart from the alienation of Chinese, Asians, Aborigines and any non-English speaking Europeans collected together in Australian society of the time as "wogs". All of these came together as one nation for the first time in the Australian forces in the 1914-1918 war. Many were not Australian born. The legendary Simpson of compassion-fame with his donkey and his bravery was a recently arrived Brit as were many others, together with a whole patchwork of non-british imigrants from many nations resembling the Australia of today. They came together as one in the face of great human tragedy. Indeed, not only were these troops noted for their larrikinism and dislike for authority, but also for courage and Christianity, notable in many of the letters they wrote home during the conflict and also by their famed respect for the Holy Christian places of the Middle East which they famously wrenched from the Turkish Ottoman Empire in some of the greatest battles of the war. They made a nation to be proud of. Anzac Day deserves to be our National day - no other day brings silent, reverential tears to the eyes of today's young Australians who visit Gallipoli. Paul Keating's speech at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier is closest any politician has come to a declaration of nationhood in this country. In passing it is worth noting that one of the greatest of Gallipoli's heroes was the full Aborigine, Billy Sing, who was a very successful sniper at Lone Pine on Gallipoli, accounting for some 200 of the enemy. Yes, it was not a great victory - that is a myth. However, the nation it brought together is no myth and its time that was recognised, loved and promoted. AUSTRALIA, AUSTRALIA,/ BEREFT OF SWEET HOORAY/ DO YOU NOT REMEMBER?/ NOT CRY FOR YESTERDAY?

john frawley | 24 April 2014  

I think just about everybody made very telling contributions to the lead article which in itself decried any attempt to cheapen our great day. To me Anzac Day is seen in its true value each dawn service at Kings Park. The power of the simple classical ritual and the silence it evokes with the 40,000 or so people including young children surely ties the remembrance to that so close to it on the calendar when we light the Paschal Candle to remember the triumph of spirit over slaughter. Compassion and service mark the deepest expressions of humanity and when that is felt nationally then we can feel justly proud. Being in Ireland at the moment does not permit me to feel it any the less.

Peter Hardiman | 24 April 2014  

I dread Anzac Day. I stay home to avoid all those who march and to shut out the sound of the old war vehicles that rumble down our street for the commemoration. I know many of those who observe the day are sincerely remembering those who died. I too, have relatives who fought in WW1 (one an Anzac) in WW2. But I heard no word from them about war, for or against it. My father served in WW2 and never observed Anzac Day. I absorbed through the pores of my skin something about Anzac Day that was not savoury. It is only in recent years that I have felt any social pressure to observe the day. Just before Anzac Day the old machine gun in our village is repainted, so it stands out clearly. As you round the bend in our main street it points right at you. If they fired it it would kill you. I am not sure what the message is supposed to be, but that is what I experience. Beware. On Anzac Day they have a defence forces caravan where young people can get information about signing up. It is a day of commemoration and of recruitment. For the next war. I find Anzac Day scary. There is a pressure to conform that outshines anything the churches can impose. If you do not celebrate the day you are not a true Australian. I wonder when the day will come when those who refuse to commemorate the almost two century-long war in this land, the war against the indigenous inhabitants by those who would prevail to set up government here. Will we ever feel sidelined for refusing to commemorate the proud indigenous warriors who resisted the invasion/settlement? On Anzac afternoon we wait for the sound of police sirens coming into town to break up the fights. Commemorating by fighting in the street. sigh.

Janet | 24 April 2014  

I enjoyed your very objective titled ' Anzac Myths beyond the Alan Bond Test'. I would also agree that for many Australians, the 'victory' at Gallipoli is still believed to be true. I think that part of this has arisen out of the romanticism that has arisen from the term 'Anzac', irrespective of the fact that like the mythical victory at Gallipoli a great many Australians (and possibly New Zealanders may not know what the term means. However, many of them are very aware of the myths (and legends) associated with Anzac. For the men who survived Gallipoli and the horrors of the Western Front, I am doubtful that very many of them saw the Gallipoli campaign as giving the young Australian nation impetus. I feel sure that having survived the carnage of World War 1, returning home, and a continuation of war time mateship was sufficient for them. While the nation was grateful for their sacrifice, it was not overgenerous with rewards for the survivors, or the wives and children of those who did not return. I think that Paul Keating, in his speech recognising the Kokoda campaign as a true victory, without any myths attached, was more in keeping with our national character. Thank you for your article.

Terry Hannan | 29 April 2014  

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