Reynolds, Henry: Has the cavalcade of commemoration finally halted?

Henry Reynolds

Has the cavalcade of commemoration finally halted?Pearls and Irritations, 16 November 2018

Leading historian says historians of the future will wonder where our obsession with war – made flesh in the Anzac centenary – came from and why we have spent more on the centenary of the Great War than any other country has. The constant theme has been how we fought, not why we fought. And our contribution to these wars is routinely overstated.

There are other related distortions and none more telling than the quite distinctive Australian focus on the service, suffering and sacrifice of individual soldiers. This not only distracts attention from the larger and more important questions but prevents us from any assessment of why our forces were involved in the first place and whether it was in our long term national interest. How can we have a serious debate about peace and war when each conflict is sanctified by the dead and placed beyond reach by rivers of sacrificial blood.

The obsession with military matters drives out other parts of our history, including what happened at home while the war was on. Also, children are misleadingly told that deaths long ago preserved our freedom and that this was the birth of a nation. Effectively, this has meant a conservative victory in the long-running culture wars. Finally, Reynolds poses this question:

Is the successful militarization of our history the most important local manifestation of the more general lurch to the right animating the politics of many comparable countries? Has it encouraged a growing impatience with parliamentary democracy? Several recent studies have found that a substantial minority of Australians aged between 18 and 29 believe that authoritarian government might be preferable in some circumstances or just don’t care what government they live under. It is just a coincidence that this is the generation inducted as never before into the Anzac Legend?

The comments on the article came (at the time of writing) from Douglas Newton, John Mordike, David Stephens, and John Constable, who perceptively said, ‘I wonder if, in 1915 and in the early stages of the war (when they still believed it might soon be over), did Britain celebrate in any way the centenary of Waterloo’.

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