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The last Anzac's bullshit detector


Alec Campbell

In recent years I have judged the exuberance of the Anzac commemoration against the nonchalant attitude of the last Anzac Alec Campbell (pictured), who was quoted in the New York Times at the time of his death in 2002 at the age of 103:

I joined for adventure. There was not a great feeling of defending the Empire. I lived through it, somehow. I enjoyed some of it. I am not a philosopher. Gallipoli was Gallipoli.

In other words, it's what you make of it. Whatever!

Alec Campbell didn't make much of it. John Howard did, possibly because he saw it as helping to bond the nation in the wake of 9-11 and Tampa. Paul Keating didn't. He saw it as part of Howard's 'populist manipulation of Australia's best interests'. For Keating, Kokoda was more significant.

Entrepreneurs have been even more lyrical about our failure at Gallipoli, with Alan Bond calling the 1983 America's Cup win 'the greatest Australian victory since Gallipoli'. Such mis-statements have helped to build an emotional resonance in young Australians that has allowed Anzac Day to supplant Australia Day as the national day in the popular imagination.

To be fair to John Howard, he did acknowledge that Anzac, as we know it, is something that was made up. Or at least had little to do with the experience of the troops in 1915, whether they were stoic-in-adversity, or happy-go-lucky like Alec Campbell. Howard said in 2005: 'The original Anzacs could not have known at the time that their service would leave all Australians with another enduring legacy - our sense of self'. Arguably he was admitting that Alec Campbell's quest for nothing more than adventure was appropriated for an entirely different (conservative ideological) purpose.

In context, the New York Times' Campbell obituary had a slightly bemused tone in its explanation of Anzac: 'Gallipoli has been defined by writers and politicians in Australia and elsewhere as the moment that defined the national identity and character, even though it ended in withdrawal rather than victory.'

If it comes down to selecting an event or series of events that are worthy of commemoration because they define the nation, we need to pay more attention to historians than politicians.

Historians including the former Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial Dr Peter Stanley argue that the frontier wars between black and white Australians during the first century of European settlement have more to say about the Australian nation than the Gallipoli landing. Politicians shun talk of this because they paint a picture of white Australians as violent and racist rather than heroic and virtuous.

Stanley is now the president of the non-profit association Honest History, where his colleague David Stephens uses the term Anzackery to encompass the destructive and even abusive effects of the jingoism associated with Anzac Day. Stephens argues that 'much Anzackery targets children, to the extent that their psychic health is at risk from a sentimental, misleading portrayal of war'.

As Anzac Day comes around every year, politicians and other promoters of Anzackery cite what are supposed to be our national characteristics, including mateship, courage, loyalty and fairness. In this context you do not hear mention of that other renowned identifier of the Australian character the bullshit detector. Something Alec Campbell appears not to have lacked.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Alec Campbell image from Australian War Memorial under Creative Commons licence.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, John Howard, Peter Stanley, Alec Campbell, Anzac Day, Australian War Memorial, nationalis



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Existing comments

Ah, the Aussie bullshit detector! Has it been patented yet? Last night I watched a British-made TV program called "Our Girl". I knew nothing about the program beforehand, having read no reviews or even glanced at the TV guide. It's the story of a teenage girl living a difficult life in a lower class London suburb. She joins the Army on nothing more than an impulse and by the end of the first episode is serving in Afghanistan. I'll be watching next week. It's a cracker of a show. Many of our young diggers were perhaps like Molly, the young Londoner, looking for 'something'. And I think our nation looks for 'something' that Anzac Day now defines. I don't want the BS detector going off by saying anymore!

Pam | 17 April 2015  

I remember studying the facts of Gallipoli in the mid 1980's and aboriginal history while doing adult entry year 12.

A series of films since shown on NITV called Women of the Sun opened my eyes to the monstrous war the invaders waged against the aborigines and the hoax that we were taught about the great victory at Gallipoli.

And Pam, Our Girl was spectacular - my grandfather dropped his age from 37 to 25 so he could go and get the kings shilling and left his wife, my father and new born to fend for themselves for 6 long years in WW11.

Marilyn | 17 April 2015  

As for a "sense of self" it would seem that the Fall of Singapore in 1942 opened the way to a realisation of "self-sufficiency" to be later contextualized by geography.

Tom Halloran | 18 April 2015  

While there have been many well recorded heroic,edifying priests in WW1, i have been intrigued by one who lost his faith in the trenches FrTheodore Maly (1894 – 20 September 1938) a former Roman Catholic priest and Soviet intelligence officer during the 1920s and 1930s. He lived illegally in the countries where he worked and was one of Russia’s most effective illegal recruiters and controllers. Like many other illegals he was not Russian but had Russian citizenship He was one of the controllers of the infamous destructivd British Soviet spy ring known as the Cambridge Five: Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt.. Maly was later executed under Stalin paranoia as a German spy!!-but rehabilitated under Khrushchev destalinisation in 1956. [a rare tragedy among heroic RC chaplains in WW1] http://static.awm.gov.au/images/collection/items/ACCNUM_SCREEN/C01804.JPG

Father John George | 19 April 2015  

I am a Vietnam Veteran. I will march in Melbourne next Saturday with my surviving mates. As the Day approaches I find that I am increasingly anxious , concerned and very angry at the nonsense being spruiked by shock jocks and politicians about the symbolism of Anzac. For me and thousands of other Veterans, Anzac Day is a day to remember those we lost in war but far more importantly the many men and their families, like mine, who continue to suffer the impact of war . Eric Campbell's comments reflects very strongly my own feelings about Anzac and the stupidity of war. For me I did not volunteer, I was conscripted. I decided to learn as much as I could about the country and it's people but then I was the exception not the rule. Sadly our politicians have not learnt the lesson of Gallipoli-maybe they never will.

Gavin O'Brien | 19 April 2015  

Yes, the frontier war. That long, long war in which indigenous people defended their country and in which many of “them”, and some of “us” died,. Do any of us know the names of the warriors in that long war? Do we know where the fallen are buried? Do we ever mourn? Pray? My ancestors were in that war right from the beginning and I know the details of one story of brutal killing by white farmers of teenage boys who raided “their” foodstocks. It happened in 1799. The shootings, poisonings and herdings continued for over a century. Why don’t “we”, the “victors” celebrate this glorious war? Wasn’t God on “our side”?

Janet | 20 April 2015  

An important piece, Michael. Of course, Abbott is exploiting it for all it's worth at the moment. You make the point about the frontier wars deftly and firmly. Bruce Pascoe's 'Dark Emu', 2014, sheds more light on that.

Joe Castley | 20 April 2015  

In the introduction to his 2013 book "Forgotten war" Henry Reynolds writes "Aboriginals who fought fought for the white man are remembered with reverence. The many more who fought against him are forgotten". The purpose of his book is his belief that "it will be unconscionable to indulge in a crescendo of commemoration (100th anniversary of WW1) and
ignore the fundamental importance of the war between settlers and Indigenous nations within Australia....This is the war that made the nation not the fateful invasion of Turkey at the direction of the Imperial Government."
Thank you Michael for your timely contribution to the conversation helping to redress the historical record.
I am informed that this conversation will continue at a conference later this year at which Henry Reynolds will be the Keynote speaker entitled "Both ends of the Gun. Australian Aboriginals at War"

Jim Carty | 20 April 2015  

I had the opportunity to visit Gallipoli & the western front with 2 sons & the wife of one who's grandfather was a WWI hero.It was an incredible experience for us all.Why ?--perhaps because we saw the effort that locals had gone to to remember people who had fought to save them from unwanted domination years before, but in particular the sadness associated with the loss of life & the heroism involved in just surviving in appalling conditions.I will attend dawn service again this year & feel proud to remember those special Australians who have lost their lives in many wars.My sons who like so many young Australians have only experienced the "good" things of life now join me in this rememberance.

Brian | 20 April 2015  

"I joined for adventure", Just like the young jihadist Australian citizens running off to murder the infidels in the Middle East at the behest of all-powerful masters who are prepared to use anyone to further the cause. As far as Australian history is concerned we should remember that we were governed by the British until 1901 and de facto governed on the British behalf for another half century. Our soldiers were used by the British, just as the young jihadists are used by the acquisitive IS, to colonise the primitive black races of most of the known world. The white men slaughtering the Aborigines were British actively pursuing an aggressive occupation of as much of the world as possible by Britain. The British, not their citizens in Australia and other colonies, were the aggressors just as the Australian Muslim citizens are not the aggressors but rather the victims of IS. They are simply being faithful to what in their day and age they believe is their duty just as the ANZACS were being faithful to what they believed was theirs. Pity the modern world largely promotes priority of duty to self rather than to society. The ANZACS deserve all the admiration we can muster - we have little to match them in this indulgent society. It is an insult to those who, despite surviving what they believe were just wars, are denigrated by those who have never served and use them as political tools, marketing devices, or, as Neesham has done today, objects of ignorant ridicule

john frawley | 20 April 2015  

'ANZAC' is an acronym of (1), Australia, (2), New Zealand, and ( 3), Army Corp. It reminds us that we traditionally stand together to defend our previous ties and dependence on England. Gallipoli remind us of the heavy price we both paid for a disastrous badly planned strategy in a European war. Both are backward-looking, and as such are non-productive. What needs to be promoted are ideal events that will help to lead us to what we should be aiming for - a mature awareness of how to create a better future for coming generations of everyone.

Robert Liddy | 20 April 2015  

If reading more recent history of World War 1 and in particular more detailed and harrowing history of The Gallipoli Campaign is too much to ask, people would do well to read Alan Seymour's play The One Day Of The Year (or better still see it performed) if they want to get Gallipoli and Anzac Day in perspective. I think he would be appalled at how much worse the jingoism of the 1950s has become. And why has this happened? Conservative politicians have used it to counter the so-called black-armed band of history which exposes how cruel and exploitative British colonialism was. And how strong some of the characteristics of 'the white man's burden' permeate Australian society.

Uncle Pat | 20 April 2015  

The Anzac hoopla drummed up, in particular by the commonwealth, leaves me distressed. Anzac day should be a quiet, low-key and respectful occasion when we recall the futility and horror of war at least as much as any purported military glory. My great uncle died at Gallipoli two days after the landing: probably for nothing. A young man with the wonder of life ahead, cut short. His widowed mother did not even learn that he had been buried in a marked grave until 1924. Yes armies are needed at times (my father was a veteran of the WW2 PNG conflict) but throwing young lives away because of military stupidity and political adventurism should be condemned. Sadly the practice continues, with our country again sending young Australians into harms way in Iraq, at vast expense, and almost certainly without any likelihood of benefit.

Llewellyn Davies | 20 April 2015  

"Anzac's long shadow: the cost of our national obsession" by James Brown presents a refreshing, timely and challenging read.

M. Clare M. | 20 April 2015  

While I resonate with some of these comments they are far too simplistic. As a psychologist I observe young people who are rejecting current social hedonism looking for symbols to find identity and meaning.Let us engage them in creative dialogue rather than simply pulling the rug from under them.

peter powell | 20 April 2015  

I loathe Anzac Day. Those who actually fought, suffered and lost mates have every right to commemorate or commiserate in any way they choose. What I hate is the phony, sentimental bullshit of those who never fought, who 'discover' that some distant ancestor was killed in action and then weep bucket loads for someone they'd never even heard of until last week. All the propaganda, all the lies. The indoctrination of young children. The strident nationalism. The lock-step conformity. The cliches, stereotypes and sheer ignorance (compared to the wholesale slaughter of German, French and English young men on the Western Front, Gallipoli was a sideshow. Some 8,700 Australians died in the 8 months of the Gallipoli campaign. 19,000 English soldiers died on the first day of the battle of the Somme!) Most of all, I hate the way the pointless, disgusting, squalid mess that was the First World War is now portrayed by media and politicians as something noble, uplifting, almost sacred. Wilfred Owen and the other 'war poets' would be turning in their graves.

Harold | 21 April 2015  

HAROLD. Why loathe Anzac Day. It simply remembers Australian and New Zealand boys wrenched from their land and families to help an inbred German/English king stage an ego trip war with one of his equally inbred German cousins, the Kaiser. These men and boys were fodder for war just as fodder for industry and the English dinner table was wrenched from the toil of this land for a mere pittance, all in the name of Empire. Properly should have been called grand larceny. I hope we don't have that sedition law still - do we??

john frawley | 21 April 2015  

Yes Harold and Uncle Pat, I'm with you both. If the essence of a nation is expressed in its most untranslatable dialect expressions, "Fair Dinkum" is a concept to be proud of. We used abhor bullshit. No wonder some of us find so repulsive the Hollywoodization of WW1 and Gallipoli. And all for the good of scoundrel politicians for whom patriotism is the last refuge and for whom wrapping themselves in the fictitious myths of stupid battles enables them to distract citizens while they wage war on the poor, the ignorant and refugees. We ought be protecting children from propaganda and be providing ideals which make them want to stay here and build their own community.

Michael D. Breen | 21 April 2015  

For 33 years I have been driving vets who are unable to march in the Anzac Day Parade.I have found it a most rewarding and humbling experience.The things that strike me are as follows: the gratitude of the vets at being able to attend and see their mates. the enthusiastic support they get from the crowds along the way... and not a lot of interest in the Service which fails to engage an increasing number of people.

Chris Flamer | 22 April 2015  

A must tell WW2 event re my former PP/Superior Father Norbert Earl MSC: Lest we forget!
"Right in the middle of a furious fire-fight, Father Nobby Earl suddenly appeared, walking with a shovel over his shoulder towards an Australian soldier who had just been shot, and clearly killed, in no-man’s land between the two forces. War or no war, bullets flying or no bullets flying—but by God it was the former—Nobby was going to give the fallen soldier an immediate Christian burial. As soon as he moved in front of the Australian soldiers they of course clearly distinguishable as a man of God, with his priestly ‘dog-collar’ plainly visible; but it was by no means certain that all of the Japanese soldiers would recognise that, and just one easy shot from one of them would have brought him down. But nary a shot. Maybe it was his simple courage that stopped them; perhaps no man wanted to bring down one who was clearly unarmed, taking no defensive or cowering action; or maybe the simple humanity of his action awakened an equal humanity on those all around—whatever the case, not one shot was fired. The two forces waited in the simmering jungle as Father Nobby dug a shallow grave, manhandled the soldier into it, covered it again and said his prayers. Then, equally purposefully, he put the shovel once again over his shoulder and walked back towards the Australian perimeter. At the very instant he was safely out of harm’s way, the Japanese unleashed a fusillade to wake the newly dead. It was back on, and it went through the night….[From "Kokoda" by Peter Fitsimmons]

Father John George | 22 April 2015  

An advertisement in a back copy of "BBC History" (Dec. 2009) is for a World War 1 history "When Europe went mad" by Terence T Finn and the blurb refers to the "insanity of The Great War." I do not have that book but Anzac, obviously, was part of the insanity. Douglas Newton's "Hell-Bent - Australia's leap into the Great War" (Scribe 2014), described by Henry Reynolds as a classic of Australian historical literature, tells how close Britain was to remaining neutral (which means Australia would have been neutral) and how Australia's political leaders fighting a federal election competed with each other in a love-of-empire auction and, egged on by the governor- general, made an extravagent offer of support to the hawks in the British cabinet 40 hours before the cabinet had made up its mind. This publicised offer gave valuable support to the would-be warriors. Ross Coulthart's "Charles Bean" with a sub-title "If people Really Knew" shows how Bean's struggle to tell the truth resulted in a big gap between what he wrote in his diaries and what appeared in print. Coulthart also writes of the serious problem of virulent venereal diseases, specially the syphilis being contracted by troops in Cairo brothels. Bean's brother Jack, a medical officer in a venereal diseases hospital, endeavoured (unsuccessfully) to establish a voluntary legion of honour 'to protect the purity of our nation against disease and against drink.' Kitchener's said to Churchill at the time, "You politicians have got the country into this mess, I have to get you out of it". Some mess. (quoted in "The Imperial Idea and its Enemies" by Professor A.P. Thornton (Macmillan, London, 1959). - Rod

Rod Manning | 22 April 2015  

And now back to WW1 The only Australian chaplain recommended for the Victoria Cross was Father Tim["Ted] McGrath MSC. In the dying months of the war to end all wars, Captain McGrath, who stood over six feet tall and therefore, made an easy target, was awarded the Military Cross (MC) It was during a British counter-offensive behind the village of Bucquoy near the town of Lens on August 21, 1918, that Captain McGrath, of the Cheshire Regiment and formerly of Bungeet in northeast Victoria, went forward repeatedly under heavy machine-gun fire to rescue wounded men. In 1975 I celebrated Holy Mass near his bed and at 95, he received Holy Communion with the fervour of a first communicant. He was co-founder of the Brown Nurses. Captain McGrath saw an officer brought down with what appeared to be a shot to the stomach. "In another act of outstanding courage, the chaplain went an incredible 300 yards out intro no-man's land, lifted him up and carried him back to safety on his shoulders," For this act of valour, Father Ted was recommended for the Victoria Cross.

Father John George | 22 April 2015  

So many mixed and conflicting emotions does Anzac evoke in one. I’ve never dared go to an Anzac dawn service. The last post would probably reduce me to a sobbing mess. And accounts of the futile charges at the Battle of the Nek etc I cannot read without a dry eye. And I’ve never even been to war, nor have any members of my family and almost no relatives. And yet the tragic futility of it all is almost unbearable. And the hype the cheap theatrical emotionalism that seems to increase exponentially every Anzac Day year disgusts me. I’m sure that many of those brave stoic young men who landed at Gallipoli at dawn on April 25, 1915 would have been similarly repulsed by it. “Get a grip” they might have tersely advised. And those endless overblown ceremonies every year at Anzac Cove. All I can say is that the Turks have been incredibly gracious about us tearful Aussies and Kiwis especially descending on their shores every year to wallow in sentimental patriotism at the annual Anzac service. After all we did invade their country and killed 86,692 of their soldiers while total Allied deaths were 46,272 - Britain (21,255), France (12,000), Australia (8907), New Zealand (2701), India (1558) and Canada (49). Also, equally tedious is the way Australia has virtually turned Anzac Day into our own self-indulgent grief-fest in ways in which they Kiwis, at least till recently, didn’t do. I remember many years ago I took the trouble to look at a copy of a leading NZ daily to see how they celebrated Anzac Day. On the front page was a pointer to Page 10 or whatever regarding the Anzac ceremony. One average-length news story and a pic or two and that was it! For the previous decade or so, Australian newspaper had been (as they do now) publish yards of copy filling 10-/20-page thick Anzac supplements. And all those Aussie-themed newspaper accounts of Gallipoli. Occasionally there’s a bit on the Kiwis but almost nothing it seems on the French, the Brits, the Indians and those 49 Canadians from Newfoundland. The only good thing to come out of all this is that at least the Turkish tourist industry makes a few hundred million every year from the Anzac grief-fest. A tiny compensation for the slaughter of 86,692 of their young men at Gallipoli from April 25 till December 27, 1915..

Dennis | 23 April 2015  

8,700 Aussie soldiers died at Gallipoli for "King & Country" - basically for the British Empire. A similar or bigger number of Turks also died for Turkey. It was a wasted military campaign, that British Army & Navy commanders, who were often incompetent upper-class appointees like young Winston Churchill, badly mismanaged. As a WA Gallipoli survivor said to me in 1970s, "The British were barbarians". He had bad PTSD & took it to his grave untreated. I salute the courage & mateship that the ANZACS showed. I distance myself, as far as humanly possible, from the use of the WW1 heroism by our soldiers, by the likes of our current PM for his, and his government's, political advantage. I believe that what PM Abbott is doing, in making such a big and costly Gallipoli Centenary event, is an abuse of his office & also involves a denial of the true horror of war as a way to resolve differences between nations. We have learnt little in the past 100 years. PM Abbott would fit neatly into the role of the PM in 1915.

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 23 April 2015  

Yes, it is interesting that the frontier wars are such a historical amnesia in this country whereby there is a reluctance to even remember the white Australians who fell in battle let alone acknowledging the many first Australians who also died, many being massacred etc. The Australian War Memorial needs to officially these 19th Century conflicts.

nicholas nicola | 24 April 2015  

What's the point of remembering the wasted lives of the first ANZACs if we still haven't learned the lesson? The sectarian wars in the Middle East are a direct result of the way the Allies carved up the Ottoman Empire. But we still see "the Turks" - now ISIS, as an evil death cult, rather than human beings with a just cause. Killing is killing, so let's not pretend the Anzacs under the British Empire are on any higher moral ground than IS soldiers.

AURELIUS | 24 April 2015  

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