The exploitation of Anzac and other myths


Carpaccio's Flight into Egypt

In many contexts it is inflammatory to speak of myths.  When Scripture scholars describe Biblical stories as myths they are quickly taken to task.  

As are those who describe such significant national events as the landing of the Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli or the Battle of the Boyne.

To describe events as mythical is always open to misunderstanding, because in common speech myth is opposed to reality. When mythical stories are seen as unreal, the deep significance they have for individuals and groups also comes into question. So a hostile response is to be expected.

Given these predictable responses, why might we want to speak of the Anzac myth or of the myth of the Israelite liberation from Egypt? The use of the word ‘myth’ recognises that any historical event embraces the actions and suffering of many people who plan it, help realise it, or are affected by it. Because countless relationships are involved, the event can be seen from many perspectives.

The landing at Gallipoli can be described as the invasion of Turkey by foreign troops in the prosecution of a European war. It led to the death of very many Turkish soldiers, many French soldiers and slightly less Australian and New Zealand soldiers. Many on both sides fought with great courage, some with less. There were acts of great generosity and some of meanness on all sides. The invasion was badly planned and failed in its goals. And it affected the lives and livelihood of many rural communities in Australia.  

To understand such complicated events involving hundreds of thousands of actors, we need to interpret them. Australians look at Gallipoli from the perspective of the Australian soldiers there, seeing the other actors through that lens.  When we interpret we highlight some actions, overlook others, making some connections central and overlooking others.

When interpretations are popularly received, they are often embodied in sayings and doings that are emblematic of the interpretation.  The capture of a machine gun nest is enshrined as an act of heroic gallantry, the mercy missions of Simpson and his donkey for dogged courage and self-sacrifice. Such actions are taken to represent the whole event with its multitude of actors and sufferers, its mixture of strength and weakness, motives and accidents, and variety of possible perspectives.  

It is at this point we can speak of the Anzac myth.  The word does not deny that the events described happened, that people did not die and live as they are described, or that they did not display the virtues the story gives them.  It says that this is a partial, simplified and rarified account of very complex events.

The gap between the events and the interpretation becomes larger still when the qualities shown in the selective interpretation of the events are applied not only to those events, but also to people and events at a distance from it. The mateship and initiative displayed by soldiers at Gallipoli are then taken to be typical of Australian soldiers generally, or at an even further reach, of all Australians.

These self-attributed qualities can then be used to differentiate Australian soldiers from Turkish or United States soldiers, or Australians from British people, and so on. Australian soldiers who were baptised with fire at Gallipoli then anoint Australian soldiers fighting in Iraq and the politicians who send them, and eventually the whole Australian people, with the Anzac spirit.  This spirit becomes available for sporting contests and all kinds of unlikely events.

It is at this point that myth separates itself totally from reality. We enter a world of self-delusion, sometimes harmless, sometimes dangerous.  The myth in this free-floating form can be commercialised – we, too, can be part of the spirit of the past by buying the appropriate ticket.  We can share in the high country values shown by the explorers by driving our 4WDs complete with GPS along dirt roads. We can share the Anzac spirit by being in the stand at the big match on Anzac Day.

This appropriation of myths can be dangerous. When a colonial nation indentifies with the liberation from Egypt and the campaign to take possession of the promised land, the myth will justify theft and barbarism.

Even when the popular cooptation of a myth is a harmless indulgence, it is important for us periodically to ground the myth again in the messy, multi-faced reality of the original event, We must look at the Anzac landing through Turkish eyes, also shining with mateship and bravery, through British eyes, and through the eyes of the sardonic soldiers as they realise that their officers and politicians have once again stuffed up.

Periodic vigilance will protect us against new generations of lords and masters who exploit national myths to lure us into enterprises born in timidity and corrosive of mateship.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Image: Carpaccio's Flight into Egypt, 1500 (Wikiart)



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Anzac Day, myths, history, politics



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Existing comments

Nations I suggest have their own individual temperaments and traits[British,German, Arabic,Samoan,PNG etc.,]. Such derived from heredity, environment, maturation and learning, I suggest the Aussie traits were there antecedent to Gallipoli, but emerged dramatically at ANZAC Cove etc.[Ask WW1 British officers re Aussie characteristic attitude to authority and good natured larrikanism] Unlike Turk eyes, Aussie eyes didn't see a gargantuan massacre on April 24th of men women and children, sick and disabled leading to a 1.5 million genocide[Turk "mate ship","bravery"??} Many Aussie anzac traits are not simply appropriated from 1915 but are part of the national temperament developed from convict colonial days,currency lads and lasses onwards not appropriated from Dardanelle shorelines. Of course demographic sciences can assist in identifying national characteristics; and rigorous historiography, in detecting Anzac Sitz im leben, just as biblical archaeology and correlate sciences avoid 'myth'taken reductionisms of the factual flight into Egypt etc versus "wikiart"

Father John George | 06 May 2015  

The problem is to distinguish myth from reality. For example, a 1963 play, “The Deputy”, alleged that Pope Pius XII was a Nazi sympathizer. This quickly became a “fact” notwithstanding that the now-dead pope had previously been praised for helping Jews during WW2. Subsequently it emerged that this allegation was a concocted Soviet lie designed “to smear the Vatican by portraying Pope Pius XII as a cold-hearted Nazi sympathizer…a super-secret plan for destroying the Vatican’s moral authority”, according to a high-ranking Soviet defector. Books like Rabbi David Dalin’s, “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope” also rebuked the lie. In Cubillo v Commonwealth it was alleged that Commonwealth policy of removing half-caste Aboriginal children had been “scandalous and outrageous”. This was a test case for the Stolen Generations. Lawyers for Cubillo and Gunner claimed it was a myth that half-castes in camps were outcasts. The Judge heard the evidence and disagreed. However he did not believe the evidence was deliberately untruthful, but was unconscious reconstruction based on “what they have convinced themselves must have happened or what others may have told them.” The Left continually smears Australians as racist. The anti-Anzac literature is a deliberate attempt to smear and demean Australian traditions.

Ross Howard | 06 May 2015  

I agree with Ross Howard, the problem is to distinguish myth from reality. I often ask myself that same question when reading the Bible.

Tim Quilty | 07 May 2015  

"When a colonial nation identifies with the liberation from Egypt and the campaign to take possession of the promised land, the myth will justify theft and barbarism."A perfect example of your central theme - "This land is mine / God gave this land to me." If we create a myth and add enough accretions to it, people begin to believe it as fact not legend. And I trust your readers will appreciate the significance of the mythification of the flight into Egypt in the image you choose, a fiction that is taken as fact by most Christians. Thank you, Andrew: A-plus this time!

Frank | 07 May 2015  

The question is why did that event reach the status of Australian Mythology. I my case, being old enough to have heard the stories first hand of the noble way that suffering, socialised in that collective, from the common tools of the Diggers, mostly their laconic attitude, formed in the Nation that they came from, makes this event a gift to the generations that follow.

Nev Hunt | 07 May 2015  

The concept of mateship is one I have never warmed to. Too often it is used to justify no dobbing even at times when such dobbing is necessary and morally demanded. If, as Samuel Johnson asserted, patriotism is the refuge of scoundrels, mateship could be a sanctuary for misplaced and misguided tolerance.

grebo | 07 May 2015  

Andrew, I could not agree more with your comments. I am a veteran from the Vietnam era I found the hype and exploitation of the recent ANZAC Day very stressful indeed. Sadly we the Veterans get lost in the exploitation of the so called Anzac myth and it hurts very much. I fear between now and 2018 each year will find the Anzac myth resurrected by the politicians for their glorification at our expense. Abbott's "folly" in France is the latest example of this silly nonsenses at the expense of the long suffering veterans. We certainly do not need yet another memorial! . By the way April 29th was the 50th anniversary of our commitment to Vietnam-the silence was deafening!

Gavin O'Brien | 07 May 2015  

Very good, Andrew! An excellent exposition of the nature of myth and the damage that it may pose to truth. Perhaps Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is a victim of the mythicism of the gospels. With the evolution of language myth has come to imply untruth, make believe or fictitious creation. Perhaps we should consider myth as romanticised selective truth, not as fanciful fiction.

john frawley | 07 May 2015  

You hit the nail on the head with " new generations of lords and masters who exploit national myths to lure us into enterprises born in timidity and corrosive of mateship". We need these reminders to balance the exaggeration and propaganda.

Bilal | 07 May 2015  

"Periodic vigilance will protect us against new generations of lords and masters who exploit national myths to lure us into enterprises born in timidity and corrosive of mateship." and the flatterer is seldom contradicted. Nauseating and disrespectful as the recent Anzackery has been it is, as Andrew's article might imply not so different from other myths now separate from their foundations, like moorings separate from their anchors afloat in stormy seas:Christmas, Easter, Mothers' and Fathers' days, Songkran(inThailand) etc. Once the market grabs the brand and there is no correcting voice we are buggered. When the alternative voices of historians or periti are slated as traitorous we are doubly done. Truth first casualty of war, exhumed and re-executed later by people like Abbott.

Michael D. Breen | 08 May 2015  

Thanks Andrew. A fantastic report. At times it is difficult to know what to think about ANZAC Day. You have given us a very clear (other) understanding and view of ANZAC.

Breda O'Reilly | 08 May 2015  

This seems more a critique of the existence of an Anzac myth than of its misuse. Even a national foundation narrative stirs our anxieties about exclusivity and judgementalism: the so-called “myth” is criticised for being “partial”, used “to differentiate”, a source of “self-delusion”, and (at best) a “harmless indulgence”. In contrast, our foreign-born parish priest sees the Anzac spirit alive in Australians’ generosity in overseas disasters, and in volunteers’ gift of time (and sometimes their lives) to save others from fires, floods, surf and storms. “Periodic vigilance” is indeed essential: there was fear and cowardice in that slaughterhouse, and merciless bastardry. But the “legend”, supported by a mountain of independent testimony, is that these were met and transcended by initiative, courage, compassionate mateship, and subversive humour. Foreigners – generals and privates, eminent and anonymous journalists, allies and enemies alike – greatly admired the Anzacs. But the men themselves would only acclaim their country and their mates. Yesterday's "gospel" (how soon will pluralism demand we call this a “myth”?) tells that we have no greater love than to lay down our life for a friend. Supposedly irreligious Australians instinctively recognise Gallipoli as a story of sacrifice and mercy. Our unpretentiousness means we actually know far too-little of our wartime achievements. Anzac is an epic that we should be proud to acknowledge, and honestly interrogate, without corrosive post-modern angst. (PS Michael Breen, since August 1915 the Anzac ‘brand’ has been protected by patent etc regulations.)

David Moloney | 09 May 2015  

VE day has just passed with so little mention from the generals and the politicans. Don't the flag wavers remember the joy that so many parents felt when our young people were no longer in danger.

Peter Lee | 10 May 2015  

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