anzac day: what does a myth do?

As ANZAC Day comes upon us again many Australians find themselves, for a variety of reasons, in an especially reflective mood.

Last year I reflected on the myth of violence inherent in ANZAC Day, and I don’t think it necessary to tread that ground again this year. What I am thinking about in 2012 is the function that the ANZAC myth plays in Australia (not by any means a unique thought).

There has been a reasonable amount of commentary floating around that suggests ANZAC Day was and is a reinforcement of common identity in Australia. In Eureka Street on Sunday, Benedict Coleridge wrote:

By paying tribute to the Anzacs, Australians reinforce their sense of common identity: in doing so the Australian nation is imagined as a sovereign and limited community defined by certain ideals.

Arguably this focus on ideals is what makes Anzac Day so popular. Day to day political affairs and cultural and social debate is often antagonistic — democracy as a process of public argument rather than public reasoning. And in the realm of morality, modern life is defined by a plurality of moral perspectives so that it is difficult to form a moral consensus on a wide variety of issues. Anzac Day, by contrast, is an occasion for public concord and consensus — it is marked by displays of solidarity.

I can’t agree more. My recent post on political disillusionment in Australia made similar points – nihilism has so pervaded our collective life that there is no foundation on which to build a common future.

In comes ANZAC Day, a commemoration that has the potential to bind us together under a common history of struggle and sacrifice for freedom. The only problem is that this is a historically problematic conclusion.

The Gallipoli history has come under fire in recent times. Just this week a number of articles popped up raising the legitimacy of the “official” history. Historian David Day wrote in The Age yesterday:

Initially, Gallipoli was embraced as a way of closing the curtain on the shame of Australia’s convict origins. The stories of the war correspondents allowed the international image of Australian manhood to be transformed from a cowering convict to a courageous soldier. From being the rejected detritus of British jails, Australians could project themselves to the world as being the bravest defenders of the British Empire.

Few publicly questioned the terrible cost – 8709 Australian dead – for no gain. And the architect of our war effort, Billy Hughes, ensured as prime minister that the official version of the Gallipoli story would be used to bind Australia even closer to Britain rather than advance Australia on the road to independence.

And, characteristically colourful, Guy Rundle in Crikey:

We were pitched into the First World War, not merely out of unquestioning imperial duty, nor out of racial fealty, but also as a confected nation-building exercise. Billy Hughes, the little grave-digger, was quite clear on this — a nation, federated from six states, and existing as a dominion (at the time Australia had no independent diplomatic missions, and most national activity still occurred under the Union Jack) would never find an identity until blood had been spilt, in its own name, and in copious amounts.

That the ANZAC myth could be so wielded by political leaders should alarm us, particularly in light of the recent revival of the event at the hands of John Howard. It should, at the very least, cause us to ask important questions about the disparity between what we continually assert and what might have actually happened. In 1915 it was perhaps easy to gloss over the horrors of war, its folly and the true costs, and our subservience to more powerful allies; today it is not so easy, and it could be that this is reflected in our generally negative attitudes to more contemporary wars in contrast to those of the past.

That the identity of modern Australia has been partly built on the lost lives of beautiful young men and women is clear; what is not so clear is how we understand this phenomenon. Is our understanding even historically accurate? For example, an important symbol of the ANZAC myth is that of Simpson and his donkey rescuing wounded soldiers, a story that has recently had its historical foundations questioned.

What if this story is untrue? It is likely that we will never know for sure, but perhaps more important is the question – does it matter?

Some in the popular media who responded to challenges to the historicity of the Simpson story asserted their belief that it doesn’t actually matter. But of course that leads us to a place in which history has little to no bearing on our collective identity, where we (or at least our leaders) are free to construct our own identity based on an idealistic view of our past, and on the hopeful insistence that our ancestors did not have their lives taken in vain.

The same can be said of our supposed struggle for freedom. Again, David Day says it well in regards to the Second World War:

Yet [our] abiding fear of invasion was misguided. The only invading force that ever headed for Australia was led by Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788. Even when Japan had the chance to do so, it chose to send its forces elsewhere.

There was never really a point in modern Australia where our soldiers could be unquestionably said to have fought for our freedom. Still, the myth goes on and it shapes our self-designated underdog battler identity.

It seems the ANZAC myth has taken on a life of its own, liberated from the bounds of pesky historical accuracy and the scepticism that now plagues every other aspect of public life.

In this light ANZAC can embody all the things Australians value but do not actually practice. Take mateship, perhaps the most common value to be derived from the ANZAC myth nowadays. This value is too often absent from our collective social life, as are others like service, loyalty and courage (one only has to look at our politicians for paradigmatic examples). It is unclear how the “ANZAC spirit” which supposedly embodies these virtues is actually alive in contemporary Australia in any consistent and characteristic sense.

In an age of nihilism it seems that not even history is immune. In the case of ANZAC Day it is the beautiful lives that have been sacrificed by the powers that be which are caught under the wheels of our desperate attempt for a meaningful identity. While the increasingly small number of soldiers remember their friends who lost their lives, the rest of us are confronted with questionable-but-largely-unquestioned narratives about our collective identity.

I suppose I could be accused of saying these things because I am anti-war. I don’t see, however, any reason why one who stands in opposition to my anti-war ethic could not also stand in solidarity in the conviction that we need a more historically thorough appraisal of the ANZAC myth. None of this devalues those who lost their lives (they should be remembered) since being anti-war does not mean being anti-soldier; accuracy does not undermine respect.

The challenge for us is whether we will take seriously the problems of our history, and whether we will take seriously the morality of our future.

Judging by much of the current debate it seems that history must give way to ideology and emotion, and anyone asking questions is doomed to be marginalised, dismissively labelled “unAustralian”. ANZAC Day has taken on the status of an ahistorical religion, holy and unquestionable, free to be shaped as its adherents see fit. Are we happy with that?


Posted on April 25, 2012, in Conflict and Nonviolence, Current Events and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’d want to add this piece by Jeff Sparrow, who I don’t always agree with but do in this case. I’ve been engaging the myths of Anzac for years and it’s ended in nothing but frustration, and I suspect he’s right about why. Anzac Day is not so much an historical event (which can be argued against with more accurate history) or even, dare I say it, a cultural event (though it has aspects of that) but an *aesthetic* event, engaging the imaginations and experience of people (particularly young people). Which is a huge challenge to the imagination of those of us trying to build cultures of peace. How do we build an aesthetic of peace as compelling as the Anzac myth? Because any other argument is just talking past the majority of people.

    • I only just got to read that piece now. Quite brilliant.

      Where Carl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of politics by other means, Anzac celebrates the battlefield as a realm entirely removed from political life. The Great War spurred an unprecedented degree of social polarisation in Australia, and yet the obsessive retelling of the Gallipoli landing never corresponds to any equivalent interest in, say, the populace’s remarkable rejection of conscription in two ballots in 1916 and 1917.


      It’s a central part of Anzac’s anti-politics: the hellishness of war separates it from ordinary life, transforming Clausewitz’s ‘politics by other means’ into a transcendental experience at which civilians can only marvel. Whereas for the writers of the twenties and the thirties, the Great War disappointed by representing, in concentrated form, the violent banality of industrial society, today the very bloodiness of the conflict is used to highlight the contrast with our own day-to-day life. The narrative therefore shifts from social critique (why did we allow these atrocities to happen?) to a veneration of sacrifice, the nature of which is largely irrelevant.

      The Gallipoli pilgrimage provides the obvious example. The attendees at the dawn service do not ask themselves why Australians died invading a country thousands of miles away. No, that particular issue’s rendered inherently irrelevant, since the backpackers go there not to think about history but to marvel at the height of the cliffs and the sharpness of the rocks, and to feel an awe at people their own age experiencing horrors that they couldn’t imagine. The question arising from the pilgrimage is thus not ‘why did it happen?’ (a query that leads not only into history but into politics) but rather ‘what did it feel like?’, an aestheticisation of the past that’s explicitly anti-political.

      Such an important challenge for those of us in “peace movements”, as you say Simon.

Leave a Response

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: