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The last Anzac's bullshit detector

  • 20 April 2015

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