Brown, James: Anzac’s Long Shadow

Brown, James

Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2014; also available electronically

“A century ago we got it wrong. We sent thousands of young Australians on a military operation that was barely more than a disaster. It’s right that a hundred years later we should feel strongly about that. But have we got our remembrance right? What lessons haven’t we learned about war, and what might be the cost of our Anzac obsession?”

Defence analyst and former army officer James Brown believes that Australia is expending too much time, money and emotion on the Anzac legend, and that today’s soldiers are suffering for it. Vividly evoking the war in Afghanistan, Brown reveals the experience of the modern soldier. He looks closely at the companies and clubs that trade on the Anzac story. He shows that Australians spend a lot more time looking after dead warriors than those who are alive. We focus on a cult of remembrance, instead of understanding a new world of soldiering and strategy. And we make it impossible to criticise the Australian Defence Force, even when it makes the same mistakes over and over. None of this is good for our soldiers or our ability to deal with a changing world. With respect and passion, Brown shines a new light on Anzac’s long shadow and calls for change. (blurb)

Honest History’s President, Peter Stanley, has reviewed the book as have Jeffrey Grey and Derek Parker. Other media coverage and reviews of the book has been extensive: Tony Wright in The Age; ABC PM; ABC Radio National Breakfast; News Limited; Wheeler Centre lunchtime, forthcoming 27 March; the author in The Monthly; ABC 7.30; Nine MSN; Marcus Fielding in United Service; Jo Hawkins and thoughtful comments from readers in The Conversation; Russell Eldridge in Inside History; the author in The Age; the author in conversation on ABC with Richard Fidler; Paul Daley; Lisa Hill’s Anzlitlovers blog; John Hirst. (Research by volunteer researcher, Gerry Schulz.)

Government spokespeople discuss Brown’s claims. Brown speaks. A review on a Trotskyist website. The author and Mark Dapin discuss at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in September 2014 (audio only). Elizabeth Samet makes similar points. James Fallows makes similar points about American attitudes to their military.

The whole book deserves a close reading and re-reading but particularly notable are:

  • the Prologue which traces the near-suffocation of the modern military by Anzac myth-making, the ‘sea of nostalgia’ which commemorative parades generate, and the shame felt by modern soldiers who feel unable to measure up to the Anzac super-hero;
  • the Introduction, which details the ignorance of today’s civilians about modern soldiering and criticises the ‘Anzac arms race’ to find bigger and better ways of commemoration;
  • chapter 1: Selling remembrance, which mentions particular examples of commemorative expenditure and notes the politicisation of Anzac;
  • chapters 2 and 3: examines the reality of fighting in Afghanistan and how Australian appreciation of that war has focused mainly on the deaths of soldiers, rather than strategy and justification;
  • chapters 4 and 5: considers how the obsession with Anzac has not prevented a widening gap between civilians and the military and a lack of understanding about the needs of modern warfare;
  • chapter 6: looks at popular images of veterans and how today’s soldiers match up to the Anzac prototype;
  • chapter 7: about the need for reform of veteran charities, which benefit from a false image of how much support they provide;
  • chapter 8, Anzac Day: contrasts the low-key approach taken by serving personnel to Anzac Day with the inflated public treatment of it, including the way it appeals to children, in a way analogous to Christmas and drawing heavily on the now discredited mythology of Simpson and his donkey; after years of neglect, the treatment of Anzac Day has been overcorrected in the direction of ‘jingoistic commemoration’ and risks being hijacked by commercial interests; there needs to be more effort put into¬† ‘studying the future of conflict’ rather than into nostalgic commemoration;
  • finally, chapter 9: imagines how future conflict might unfold, for example in the East China Sea, given the absence of attention to strategy; he concludes we still fail to ‘own’ the defeat at Gallipoli.

The book contains notes and a comprehensive bibliography.

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