For too long, the scholarship on the Anzac legend has been especially one sided, and the book What’s Wrong With Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History is a blast of fresh air for the more historically and progressively minded amongst us. For whatever your opinion of the Anzacs, there is much history that contradicts the official narrative that has often gone ignored, as this book ably documents. Read my review below:
What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History
By Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds; with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi.
UNSW Press, 2010, 192 pgs
Any book entitled What’s Wrong with Anzac? is bound to cause a stir. Especially one with a declared intention to demystify what the authors claim is a one sided and politically motivated view of the Anzac legend. The result of this legend has been the militarisation of Australian history which does not accurately reflect the actual history of the Anzacs. Subsequently, contradictory and unflattering accounts that raise challenging questions to the idea that a quintessentially Australian identity was born at Gallipoli have been ignored or sidelined. As such, the authors set out to dismantle and deflate the considerably inflated history of Anzac, and the manipulative use of national mythology to present a political agenda. This is referenced especially in regard to the opportunistic use of Anzac mythology by politicians of any stripe to justify war.
The book begins with a statement in the preface: “As Australian historians, we have written this book because we are deeply concerned about many aspects of the Anzac resurgence. We are concerned about the extraordinary government intervention in promoting Anzac Day, most of which has occurred without people knowing its true extent. We are also concerned about the misrepresentation and forgetting of our broader history.” Their main contention is that when Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed at Gallipoli in 1915, this battle was not the furnace in which Australian identity was forged. Nor did the nation pass its test of maturity and manhood, giving birth to mateship and courage in the face of crushing defeat. In short, the history of the Anzacs is much more complex and contradictory than what has been eulogised in books and speeches ever since. From this basic idea, the book launches into an exploration of whether nations are made in war, the anti-war movement against World War 1, and how Anzac Day actually became Australia’s national day, among others.
The first chapter which explores whether nations are created through war, by historian Henry Reynolds, dives right into the controversial corner. No doubt his comparison between the rhetoric of Prussian militarist Heinreich von Treitschke and the discourse about the Anzacs is bound to result in a flurry of angry letters. He quotes Treitschke as describing how ‘only in war… does a nation become a nation’ and that the self-sacrificial spirit of countrymen was nowhere so ‘splendidly exhibited as in war.’ Reynolds makes a connection between ideas about manhood and nation that proliferated at the time, liberally quoting poetry, the Australian press, and intellectuals to prove his point. The Sydney Morning Herald in 1916 declared that at Gallipoli, Australia had finally rid itself of its adolescence, and had ‘assumed the serious responsibilities of Man’s estate.’ This view was common among business leaders, politicians, and even the clergy. Freeman’s Journal, a Sydney Roman Catholic paper, asserted that after Gallipoli, ‘we are at last a nation, with one heart, one soul, and one thrilling aspiration.’ Reynolds is very effective at tracing the lineage of these old ideas, outlining the interconnection of militarist and Social Darwinist ideas to the Edwardian era in Britain, ideas whose offspring continue to haunt the present.
However, there were dissenting voices to the militarist drum beat. Indeed, there was a vigorous Australian anti-war movement in response to World War 1. Unfortunately, one of the problems of this book is that it does not actively examine the anti-war movement against World War 1. Instead it chooses to focus on the impact of the war upon Australian attitudes, which are still important to examine, but deprives the reader of the immediate context that gave birth to the anti-war movement. Perhaps the most cogent observation that the authors make is how divisive Anzac Day and World War 1 were for the Australian public, in comparison to the almost homogenous attitudes today. Indeed, as the authors explain, ‘revulsion against war and the rejection of long-held ideas that a nation’s worth must be proven through blood sacrifice were among the most significant outcomes of Australian participation in World War 1.” Perhaps the biggest voice missing from views about Gallipoli and the war are from the soldiers themselves. Even though they were “publicly feted as heroes, many returned soldiers clearly felt neither adequately compensated nor at all consoled by Anzac mythology. Their anger and sense of betrayal fuelled anti-war sentiment between the wars.”
These soldiers would have had much sympathy with the author’s arguments that Gallipoli was little more than a war on behalf of Imperial Britain, and was fought at the behest of then British War Minister, Winston Churchill. Its ultimate intention was to assist autocratic Russia against Germany by opening a new front. Not exactly the war for “freedom and democracy” that has been mythologised as part of the Anzac cause. The authors draw an explicit link between what they disparagingly call the “cult of the warrior” and a suffocation of critical opinion when Australians are engaged in overseas wars. Kevin Rudd is quoted in a radio interview in describing how, even though Labor didn’t agree with the invasion of Iraq, “serving troops should never be put in the middle of a political bunfight.” Concurrently, the authors note that in regard to Iraq, “There was indeed very little of the intense debate, once the troops were on the ground, about the wisdom or morality of the war, of the sort that occurred in the United States, with a constant stream of critical, well informed books and articles.”
What’s Wrong with Anzac? was a book that was bound to be released sooner or later, given the growing significance of the Anzacs and Anzac Day to Australia’s national narrative. It is a welcome bit of fresh air to the overwhelmingly one sided view about the Anzacs, and no doubt will inspire wider scholarship in this area. Whatever the reader’s views about the author’s interpretation of events, their historicity cannot be faulted, as they have drawn upon a large variety of primary and secondary sources of immediate relevance. Fortunately, the authors successfully manage to avoid an encumbering academic style which leeches life out of the reader with leaden prose, without ever sacrificing their academic vigour. What’s Wrong with Anzac? is a worthwhile read that appeals to both layman and expert, and will no doubt fuel the fire of many future arguments about Australia and its history.