Will Anzac Day 2020 give us time to think about why Australia goes to war? These pieces provide food for thought

Anzac Days in recent years have been notable for large crowds and occasional outbursts of triumphalism. With the quieter version this year might we have more time and head-space to ask the important questions: why does Australia go to war and, when it does, does the war turn out to be worth it, both for the country as a whole and for the men and women who fight and their families?

Pearls and Irritations (John Menadue’s blog) today has three thought-provoking posts from political economist, William Briggs, historian, Henry Reynolds, and Honest History editor, David Stephens.

The war was about nationalism and yet a global pandemic took more lives than all of the shells and bullets combined. Today we have a situation that could so easily lead to nationalist responses to global crisis erupt once more. Before the COVID 19 pandemic there was a failing global economy and a push by the US to bolster its fading position as economic hegemon. After the virus there will be an economic wasteland. Great power conflicts were being considered well before this. The conditions are ripe for a return to the same irrational, unintelligent way of confronting global problems as existed in 1914. Will the idiocy be repeated? (Briggs)

But there is much more to Anzac Day than a paean to lives lost in war. The centenary in 2015 entrenched ideas which have been with us for a long time and which have been endlessly fortified by association with heroic sacrifice. The rhetoric is familiar given its ubiquity. The Anzac landing, generations of children have been told, made Australia a nation. The shores of Gallipoli were where the nation was born.  The spirit displayed there has been an inspiration,  a touchstone, ever since. The message is so relentlessly repeated by national leaders that, to many people, it seems disloyal to subject it to sceptical examination. (Reynolds)

Australian prime ministers have been great spruikers of service and sacrifice, but their pitch has been above politics, above historical circumstances. For example, Prime Minister Abbott could seriously say at Lone Pine in 2015 that ‘duty, loyalty, honour and mates’ were ‘the virtues that outshine any cause’. He had just listed ‘country, empire, king, and the ideal that people and countries should be free’ as components of a cause, but it is those virtues – duty, loyalty, honour and mates – that take pride of place each Anzac Day. Don’t worry too much about complicated reasons why, folks; it’s all for mates. (Stephens)

In the same vein, recommended reading can be found in the articles from Griffith Review 48 Enduring Legacies (2015) and in retrieved pieces from the Honest History vault. That last link also includes links to two other relevant articles, one from Pearls and Irritations and one from Eureka Street. Finally, on the Honest History website there are more than 600 posts tagged ‘Anzac analysed‘.

Update 25 April 2020: Historian Greg Lockhart in Pearls and Irritations has more to say (see also the Stephens piece above) about the bits of Australian military history pre-Boer War and how they help us understand Australia today. ‘Best we remember’, says Lockhart, ‘that, as Anzac commemoration stands, it continues to support military missions that have no serious explanation – other than the one that they march straight out of our forgotten imperial past.

Vietnam veteran Noel Turnbull (also in Pearls and Irritations) looks at the early days of close examination of the Anzac tradition, with particular reference to Ken Inglis, and where we are today. ‘But we have now developed a new form of civic religion – one which has transmogrified from quiet reflection to Anzackery just as early Christian church architecture transmogrified from spare simplicity to the gaudy horrors of the Baroque.’

24 April 2020 updated

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