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’.
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