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Anzac and Anzackery: have Australians normalised war?

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It has been a week of Anzac events; some of them solemn and some that might be described as “festivities”. Historian David Stephens has a word for the hijacking of Anzac Day – ‘Anzackery’. 

Stephens, the secretary of the Honest History coalition and a co-editor with Alison Broinowski of The Honest History Book describes Anzackery in this extract below.


Anzackery is hyperbole and empty rhetoric. Like this from Dr Brendan Nelson of the Australian War Memorial:

In these First World War Galleries, our nation reveals itself in the men and women whose story it tells. It is who we were and who we are. Facing new and uncertain horizons, it is also a reminder of the truths by which we live, how we relate to one another as Australians and see our place in the world … Every nation has its story. This is ours.

The second edition of the Australian National Dictionary defines “Anzackery” as “the promotion of the Anzac legend in ways that are perceived to be excessive or misguided.” The definition allows for a legend but alerts us to perversions or distortions of it. Might we wade through the emotional sludge of Anzackery to address some important questions about “our place in the world?”

Private and public

Anzac should be mostly private. It should be about the quiet, within-family, remembrance of – and caring about – people who have suffered in war, those who have been killed and not come home, those who have come home injured in body or mind, and those who live with the memory of the dead and the reality of the living. Anzac is about both the forever young and those who grow old. And their families. For most families, commemoration is not speeches by politicians, not parades and wreaths and children waving flags; instead, it is something families live every day and every week, forever and down through the generations. It is the reparations that families pay for the decisions that governments make to send men and women to war.

Anzackery, on the other hand, is public, very public. It is marches and flags and hymns and speeches. As far back as 2004 the writer Michael McGirr was saying, “The remembrance of war is moving from the personal to the public sphere and, with that, from a description of something unspeakable to something about which you can never say enough.” Nowadays, this means projections of pictures of soldiers onto the walls of the Australian War Memorial, promotions for “the rarest tank in the world,” battle-field tours and Gallipoli cruises and surf boat races, and boys and girls on their gap year wrapping themselves in Australian flags at Anzac Cove or getting drunk in the streets of Çanakkale and shouting “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi.” And endless commemoration of “the fallen.” Anzackery is also memorabilia and knick-knacks, the prime minister of the day describing the troops going off to Iraq as “the proud sons of Anzacs,” ministers and officials making emotional speeches to nostalgic audiences about the Anzac legend, Anzac football matches in various codes, and 11-year-old children recording the names of dead soldiers for playing on a continuous loop in the Roll of Honour cloisters at the War Memorial.

Anzackery is sentiment and nostalgia – and it is nationalism, which some people think is patriotism but is really jingoism. Anzackery tries to make simplistic sense out of war and its effects, to comprehend things that are not really comprehensible. It plays to our emotions because we prefer not to think too deeply about war. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust wrote that Americans after the Civil War had to find in the suffering a “transcendent purpose, a ‘sacred significance’.” King George V proposed such a purpose after the Great War. The words on the “King’s Penny” or “Dead Man’s Penny,” the commemorative medal presented to bereaved subjects, were “He Died for Freedom and Honour.” No need to question whether the death was worth it; the King had provided the comforting answer.

Resisting or questioning this amalgam of comfort and patriotism is not easy, even a century later. The journalist Kate Aubusson, born in the late 1980s, grew up feeling it was somehow un-Australian not to empathise with the version of Anzac she encountered then. She describes it now as “a learnt nationalistic sentimentality based on myth far removed from the reality of that visceral, horrendous experience and the repercussions for those who lived through it.” Radio and television presenter James Valentine (born 1962), felt stifled by the outpouring of commemoration in April 2015. “I’m being told repeatedly what I should feel,” he wrote. “Exactly how solemn I should be, which parts of the story I should mark and what lesson I should draw from them.”

Individuals and the mass

An ideal Anzac would focus on individual soldiers, families and tragedies. Michael McGirr wrote that Anzac commemoration had drifted away from “quiet remembrance” into something noisier, much more boastful, more self-indulgent, more narcissistic. “People now seem to believe,” he said, “that in looking at the Anzacs they are looking at themselves. They aren’t. The dead deserve more respect than to be used to make ourselves feel larger.” More than a decade after McGirr wrote, it is even more urgent for us to get back to quiet remembrance of individuals. Historian Peter Stanley did this in his book Lost Boys of Anzac, about 101 Australians who came ashore on that first Anzac Day in 1915 and died on the same day. Half of Stanley’s book is about what happened afterwards, as families tried to discover the fate of their son or brother at Gallipoli. Because Gallipoli was chaotic and men died and fell into ditches and their bodies were never found: someone’s husband, someone’s son, both Ottoman and invaders.

Stanley’s central message about his Lost Boys was clear: they should not be abstractions in Anzac Day addresses. They were real people, with characters, flaws and strengths. They were not embodiments of an Anzac legend, not superheroes, but individual human beings. Anzackery, on the other hand, is about big numbers. Anzac speeches typically awe us with 9000 killed at Gallipoli, 23,000 casualties at Pozières, 61,000 killed in the Great War – but include only passing references to the individual men and women who made up the mass. The more we obsess about numbers, the more we obscure the individual and the family stories. One big number is stark, however: there were about three times as many families after 1918 living with returned, physically and mentally damaged soldiers as there were bereaved families. Yet it is clear where the commemorative attention falls, even a century on. We relentlessly and repetitively commemorate the dead, but only in the last few years, against considerable resistance from the Commonwealth bureaucracy, are we starting to digitise the World War I repatriation files so that we can research the lives of those returned men through the 1920s, the 1930s and after.

Consequences and avoidance

Anzac should confront the consequences of our national decisions to go to war, the reparations that families pay. Yet the clear-eyed and honest “One Hundred Stories” project at Monash University had to fight Commonwealth officials to tell stories – about soldier settlement, post-war despair, death and family tragedy, and the bloody-mindedness of government agencies – that were not “positive” and did not produce the “warm and fuzzy feeling” demanded by the official commemoration industry.

The fact that private organisations like Soldier On and Mates4Mates have had to be established to deal with the aftermath of our more recent wars suggests we are not doing much better today. Yet, rather than fully addressing the challenges faced by those returning from modern conflicts, Australia is spending around $600 million on commemorating the centenary of Anzac and “a century of service” by our defence forces, and a large proportion of that money is going to projects such as modernis- ing the galleries at the Australian War Memorial, refurbishing the various looming monuments in our capital cities, and building new monuments and memorial walks in suburbs and towns here and in New Zealand and – for $100 million – on the Western Front. War leaves behind the damaged living as well as the resting dead. We should know just as much about Albert Ward, the World War I survivor who spent the remaining 43 years of his life “living” in a bed with wheels and about the last mentally deranged men from that war (still around, living in secure wards, in the 1980s) as we do about Albert Jacka VC and the dead men of Fromelles.

Honesty and euphemism

Anzac should be honest and avoid euphemism. When talking about past wars, we have well-honed rhetoric about “the fallen,” “the supreme sacrifice,” “dying for freedom and honour,” and “nation-defining moments” amid blood and slaughter. We still use some of these terms today, along with neologisms like “put in harm’s way.” Anzac – the honest approach – would say “dead” or “killed” rather than “fallen.” If it used the word “sacrifice” at all it would say “they were sacrificed.” It would not be afraid to use the truest description of the soldier’s lot – not being put in harm’s way but being set up “to kill or be killed.” Euphemisms and dishonest terminology are the essence of Anzackery. When we hear that mantra, “They died for our freedom,” it is usually a sign that someone is trying to stop us asking difficult questions about what they really died for.

Anzac should not turn soldiers into superheroes or saints, dying for grand causes. Anzackery does – or tries to. There are even euphemisms in quite sober books of military history. My uncle, Hector Charles Stephens, is listed in his battalion history as dying during “guerrilla operations” in Malaya in May 1943. Now the war in Malaya effectively ended in February 1942 with the fall of Singapore. But my uncle and a dozen others were separated from their comrades after the Battle of Muar and wandered in the jungle for more than a year thereafter, mostly without weapons, living on handouts from the local Malays and occasionally getting help from communist guerrillas. One by one, they killed themselves or, like my uncle, died of disease. So much for the euphemism “guerrilla operations.” Anzac should not let soldiers be gods. It should allow for human frailties and failures and fear, for knaves and villains as well as for saints, and for people who stumble around in the jungle, dying of disease and not looking much like soldiers at all. Lots of mess and confusion and uncertainty. Just like real life.

At the extreme, the well-documented Australian service mutinies (France, 1918) and murders (for example, the mass murder at Surafend, Palestine in 1918) are awkward facts amid the bravery and the comradeship. Anzac should not try to suppress debate or discussion of unpleasant events. Anzackery, on the other hand, does try to suppress and disguise. When ABC TV early in 2014 ran an item on the launch of the Honest History website – it was a scrupulously balanced piece but included Peter Stanley talking about the exploits of Australian soldiers in the brothels of Cairo – then federal Liberal backbencher Andrew Nikolic accused the ABC of lacking “situational awareness” for broadcasting such material during the World War I centenary years. Later that year, the then federal Minister for the Centenary of Anzac, Senator Michael Ronaldson, attacked the ABC for being “insensitive” towards the relatives of Australian soldiers in German New Guinea – 100 years on – when it broadcast an interview that suggested Australians might have massacred some of their opponents.

There is more involved here than concerns about sensitivities. Historian Frank Bongiorno has written that “[t]here is a long history of contention over the significance and meaning of the Anzac legend.” The problem is that anyone who would rather not be part of that tradition can buy lots of trouble:

To question, to criticise – to doubt – can become un- Australian … Anzac’s inclusiveness [trying to include everyone within the tradition] has been achieved at the price of a dangerous chauvinism that increasingly equates national history with military history, and national belonging with a willingness to accept the Anzac legend as Australian patriotism’s very essence.

Context, parochialism and the future

Anzac, the ideal, should have context. It should allow us to empathise with the suffering of other nations in war. It should recognise our common humanity with both allies and enemies. This includes our Indigenous warriors who fought to defend their country on their country, rather than overseas for an empire or for a large ally that had the safety of Australia some way down its list of war aims. And Anzac should encompass all of the civilians who were affected, which is a much, much larger number than those who wore a uniform. American scientist Milton Leitenberg has calculated that about 231 million people were killed in wars and conflicts around the world during the 20th century and about 80 per cent of those were civilians. Australian war deaths during the 20th century were only about 0.04 per cent of that total, and only a few hundred of them were not in uniform.

An Anzac ideal would also consider more explicitly the society that existed before wars and the very different society and community that existed after them; the changes that wars brought; how wars affected us as individuals, as families and as a nation. Before World War I, for example, Australia was in many respects a confident, socially progressive country, pioneering in labour and social policy and votes for women; afterwards, it was, in historian Joan Beaumont’s phrase, a “broken nation.” People in those early post-war years intoned “Lest We Forget;” people still do, but the words now mean something different. The obsession with remembrance has grown stronger as the number of living souls who actually remember total war has dwindled. What we are today urged not to forget is a false image – Kate Aubusson’s “learnt nationalistic sentimentality.” An honest Anzac would allow us to move on from this falsity. Yet the Anzackers – the purveyors of Anzackery – resist change. In so doing, they build in the possibility – even the probability – of war in the future.

Former minister Ronaldson was fond of saying that today’s children have a responsibility to carry forward the torch of remembrance; they “must understand” that the freedom they enjoy today was “paid for in blood.” Ronaldson’s remarks only make sense if we expect children to have to lay down the torch and take up weapons. The readiness to fight wars in future is affected by how we look at past wars. West Point academic Elizabeth Samet has written about the sentimentality of the way Americans – and, we can add, Australians brought up on Anzackery – talk about war, how “emotion … short-circuits reason,” how people become “exhibitionists of sentiment” about war, and how sentiment stops them asking hard questions – Was that war worth it? Did those men die in vain? – about war, because they are afraid of being seen to disrespect the dead. Most importantly, Samet says, this attitude effectively supports jingoism – the inclination to wrap ourselves in the flag and go cheerfully off to war again. Wallowing in sentiment – pickling ourselves in Anzackery – makes it more likely that we will do it all again next time. Only fools glorify war; Australians tend to normalise it

This is an edited extract from Chapter 9 of The Honest History Book, edited by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski and published by NewSouth. The chapter has detailed endnotes containing references. 

You can buy the book here

28 responses to “Anzac and Anzackery: have Australians normalised war?

  1. Richard Tognetti and the ACO’s “Reflections on Gallipoli” is the most moving and raw portrayal of what it was like back then, and makes one understand why families would want the space and privacy to reflect and remember. I think the whole concert is available on YouTube.

  2. At Blackboy Hill, Perth, WA, the last camp before WW1 soldiers (including the 10th LIght Horse) left for Albany to board the ships to Europe, the ANZAC Day service has NO politicians, NO speeches, NO priests. People gather in silence; as the sun rises, the Last Post and Reveille are played live; wreaths are laid in silence. Service over.
    Is this the last major (it attracts a huge crowd every year) dawn remembrance service that does not provide a platform for politicans and priests?

    1. Lynn, Why did you bother? And who is forcing you to either read the article or buy the book? It’s obviously been written by people with intellectual and academic credentials for a readership which is prepared to question the way in which ANZAC Day has become something which it was never intended to be. But your short and snappy and sneery little comment definitely places you in another readership with other intellectual and academic credentials. Enjoy inhabiting your bitter little bubble of outrage.

  3. By the sound of your intellectual self-flagellation, you need to get out more and mix with ordinary Australians. There’s too much of this style of over analysis of historic events and trying to make the general populace feel guilty of being Australian and our imperfect past. ANZAC day is a day all of us should get together, honour all who have served our country, past and present and yes dare I say it. celebrate our independence and who we are. Looking at our geographical position and current world events, we should always be prepared to defend what we have. Yes, this country, freedom and democracy is worth dying for. Just be grateful we have people who are prepared to fight for you.

    1. Oh, for heaven’s sake, read the article, Daveo. There is no criticism of Anzac Day; the argument is against jingoism and sentimental remembrance without asking important questions.

    2. Daveo,
      “Intellectual self-flagellation” – what exactly do you mean by this and how are the writers engaging in this?
      Who are the “ordinary Australians” you seem to be writing on behalf of?
      In what way is the article making “the general populace feel guilty of being Australian?”
      And how, does ANZAC Day “celebrate our independence” – independence from what?
      And how is this article demonstrating that the authors are not “grateful we have people who are prepared to fight for” them?
      And what exactly should we “be prepared to defend” – especially in the context of how ANZAC Day marks a failed invasion by the Allies of a sovereign country?
      What about you try and “get out more” and away from the very narrow cognitive and intellectual space you inhabit and approach ANZAC Day in a manner which pays true respect to all who have suffered and died in war.

    3. “Intellectual self flagellation”? And what is an ordinary Australian?- your version sounds exactly like the very people the article questions – jingoistic, flag drapers .
      My father served in New Guinea during WW11 and his brother, my uncle, was a prisoner of war on the Burma railway who survived.
      They both hated all of the bullshit that surrounded ANZAC day.
      And they never forgot, especially the horrors my uncle experienced, until the day they died.

  4. The touring ‘Spirit of ANZAC Centenary Experience’ currently at the ICC Darling Harbour is a prime example of the Government spending wads of taxpayers money on Anzakery projects.
    Not one mention of civilian casualties and plenty of jingoism.

  5. Thank you very much for this excellent article. The political exploitation of Anzac Day since the Howard government was in office has left us with a version of the Anzac story that is a masterpiece of propaganda with an aura of religious fervour surrounding it, which has been deftly constructed by politicians in need of support. This means that critical, even calming voices are seen as equivalent to treason or heresy. Your points about the inequity of this cynical exercise in manipulation of the public which has resulted in huge increases in spending on events and memorials while returned soldiers continue to be neglected, reveal the lack of genuine human compassion that this Anzackery is founded on. Blackboy Hill sounds worth visiting on Anzac Day. Long may it survive.

  6. Having read the article I can only agree. As I watch school children beginning to outnumber veterans marching at some of these parades they begin to feel like recruiting tools for the next generation of Australian soldiers. Having grown up marching in parades as a child in the late 70’s I understand the the emotional power of them and 40 years on they have become a recruiting juggernaut for the defence force. Another observation is that ANZAC day now appears to be the only national “Holy Day” in our nominal christian country. (Not even Easter, Good Friday and Christmas day can shut the shops like ANZAC day.)
    Finally war will always be fought as it has existed as long as human history and we need a defence force to protect ourselves, however I believe we still don’t ask enough questions and have more informed debates about why we are going to war before we commit our troops to be kill or be killed.

  7. After spending almost twenty years living overseas, I’ve now experienced the last two ANZAC Days back in Australia. And the bitterness of the cultural wars raging here and how the outrage and anger of those on “the right” reach a crescendo on and around the 25th of April is astonishing. Australia is not really a country known for intellectual rigour in its public debates, but last year I thought that the attacks from “the right” couldn’t get any lower and dirtier. But now the question is just how far will they go in 2017 to surpass the stupidity of their outrage of 2016? Maybe they’ll form a revolutionary movement based upon the strict observance of ANZAC Day as determined by their orthodoxy and drag all those who don’t mark the day in accordance with their wishes out onto the streets to be punished by the true believers and true patriots.
    I wonder if they realise that their aggressive policing of ANZAC Day deprives it of any meaning for so many who wish to mark the day in ways described in this article.

  8. What happened in WW1 is a permanent ache in the nation’s heart. To see it increasingly subjected to tub-thumpery and glorification, along with cynical manipulatiion by self-serving politicians, makes it more unbearable. Thankyou for this.

  9. An interesting perspective, but not one that I completely agree with. My awareness of “The Anzac’s” started in primary school in the late 1960’s when the senior classes of all the schools in the area went to the civic Anzac Day service. Later, in the 1970’s I was nominated by my history teacher to do the Anzac Day readings at our high school assembly, and part of our studies was to see a performance of the play “The one day of the year”. That play opened my eyes to the personal affect of the horrors of war.

    Now, in my late 50’s I have toured the Western Front twice. There are many from our extended families that served & died there…my reason, to pay my personal respects as the family “historian”, but I don’t need to go to Anzac Day services overseas, I will go to a small one in my local community where the services of our dead and living are remembered and respected. I don’t need to get drunk and play 2-Up either.

    I have a tattoo on one arm that says “Lest We Forget”, the other arm has a tattoo to honour my Irish Defender convict history…both are for me, not others.

    This is my perspective, and I seek knowledge of the stories that my elder family members know. I remember my father’s stories about being a child during WW2, and later being called up for “nasho”.
    I also remember my grandmothers stories of doing her “duty” while my grandfather was an army truck driver.

    I dislike the current nationalistic, right wing narrative. One unwise person made a reference to saying something about the other Anzac’s, but not the Australian ones!!! For me, that summed up their ignorance. Some people believe that it’s to be “owned” by some Australians, but not others.

    For me Anzac Day means a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean everything. I just wish to pay my respects to all who have been of service to our country.

  10. Thank dog someone had the spleen to cal them out. Those mealy-mouthed sycophants who spout such pap. It is the same
    syndrome where the national anthem is played at sporting events when the event IS NOT an international one.
    Next we’ll be placing our fists over our hearts a la Donald “Duck” Trump.

    My Great Uncle Joe said, upon his return from WWI, “I don’t need a special day to remember my mates who were all shot
    and shelled to hell…I remember them every waking minute of every damned day. It’s not that I ‘ll ever forget,
    it’s more that I cannot!

    His attitude towards the RSL was simply they were charlatans. and like the Government “were dining well off the carrion table”
    That they were actively encouraged by various governments to prosper and proselytize, so as to ensure returned soldiers didn’t
    ever threaten the established order. “The political class go to war on their arse!” was another of his adages.

    When asked why he didn’t join, the RSL, his rebuttal was savage. “Is this the same RSL who wouldn’t allow my abo mate Trev.
    to become a member because had a darker tan tan? A whiter man never graced George Street!”

    Harsh, perhaps. But he called ’em as he saw ’em.”

  11. Davi d Stephen,
    Thank you for your excellent article.

    Historical literacy is not a skill that is imparted to the wider Australian population, and your article goes some way to helping to address that.

    Our knowledge of many significant moments in our history within Australia, in the past 150 years or so is generally, poorly understood. The study of history, as a critical inquiry is not highly valued in this country.

    I would invite critics of your article to read John Beaumont’s painstakingly researched book on the impact of World War 1 on this nation 100 years ago and afterwards, and then come back and talk with you.

  12. Thank you for this excellent article. I was born in a post war environment into a loving family who lived with demons. From the grandfather,whom I have found out in recent years, was nearly executed from running from the horrors of the Western Front to the father who as a teenage found himself on some Pacific Island and the women who lived alone, managing and then trying to support their damaged partners returned to the family. Suicide, alcoholism and separations resulted and the consequences filtered through each generation.
    I try annually to frame my respect in an appropriate manner. I refuse to be defined by the jingoistic rhetoric which abounds each Anzac Day. My story is different and valid and I rail against the insults which follow any respectful challenge I may make against what feels like a dominant discourse.
    Australia Day and Anzac Day have both become problematic but articles such as yours give me hope for a way forward.

  13. I was offering pastoral care at the Repat hospital Outpatients Dept on 9/11 and saw first hand the impact that continuous showing (on TV) of the destruction of the twin towers in America had on veterans and those receiving medical treatment that day (from multiple nations, multiple cultures and multiple religions). After about an hour of showing this footage on TV every 5 minutes, I turned the TVs off … with palpable signs of relief coming from the people being subjected to its violence. The last thing that these same people would have wanted is for ANZAC Day to be “gilded” in the Australian myth that has emerged. The idea that this day should be a ‘sacred’ day speaks of a desire for people to seek out a narrative that transports them away from the human condition and its narcissistic tendencies.

    But transported to where? … uplifted into nationalistic fervour and identity (we can see where that ends up) … or a downward spiral into the misery of the human condition without hope of transcendence or a commitment to a compassionate, humane concern for each other? What else could you expect from a patriarchal, hierarchical structure and system (as the Defence forces are) that trains human beings to undertake inhuman actions such as killing other human beings? People do not seem to be able to discern the difference between these two paths …

    The idea of intentional, silent, holding up of remembrance with intentional upholding of peace seems the appropriate stance for ANZAC DAY. Let’s show our children and grandchildren the way of wisdom in our own lives on Anzac Day, and highlight, where possible, the Anzackery at work in the public space. Thank you for this great article.

  14. This is just revisionist nonsense.

    No real evidence to support most of the assertions (which all of the cheerleaders here are also guilty of).

    Public commemorations are solemn events mixed with gratitude. I wonder which events David Stephens attended?

    1. Brett
      The discipline of history is a contest between interpretations; so revisionism is built in. If people had not been prepared to consider the received view and ‘revise’ it on the basis of evidence, then we would all still believe the world was flat.
      Evidence is in the endnotes – buy the book and read chapter 9.
      Agree with your third point and we have on the website a couple of descriptions of such events (Wallendbeen, Norfolk Island). But the events commandeered and run by the official commemorations industry are often sentimental exhibitions, worthy of criticism like that levelled at them by McGirr here. They are more ‘look at us’ than ‘remember them’.

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