McKenna, Mark: Lest we inflate

McKenna, Mark

Lest we inflate: Why do Australians lust for heroic war stories?The Monthly, December 2012

The author notes the proliferation of military books in the last decade, including some 150 with ‘Anzac’ or ‘Gallipoli’ in the title, and many of them written with subsidies from government or the RSL. He is critical of some authors in the field, notably Peter FitzSimons. He quotes the concern of Marilyn Lake that the ‘avalanche of military history is suffocating our intellectual life and stultifying the possibilities for knowing the richness of our past’.

Among general remarks about the unique role of Anzac in Australia (‘No other nation has established its founding moment 15,000 kilometres away from its own soil’) McKenna warns of the risk of writing in the present tense ‘stories’ about the past, a practice of writers like FitzSimons.

But history is more than storytelling. Its most crucial quality is the deeply read, critical interpretation of the past in its fullest context. For the historian, the past is past. The danger of repackaging it in the present tense is that we risk creating the past in our own image, judging it not by its own standards but by our present-day concerns, as we have airlifted the Anzacs out of their imperial world and recast them as more naive incarnations of our contemporary selves – a group of innocent larrikins who sailed off to the Dardanelles to fight the good fight for “Australian values”.

McKenna goes on to emphasise how distorted our attitude to Anzac has become.

Our popular memory of the Great War has become increasingly ahistorical. Much like Australia Day, Anzac Day has shifted from a day of commemoration to a day of celebration. The imperial nature of the Gallipoli campaign is airbrushed out or simply overlooked. Far more important is the politically led, emotional embrace of a history of melancholy, loss, honour and pride…

In little over 50 years, we have so dramatically transformed our conception of what happened at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 that the men who clawed their way up those steep hills would not recognise themselves in the images we have created of them. As the centenary approaches, the chasm between what occurred at Gallipoli and what we remember grows ever wider.

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