Anzac’s wars: remembering and its resistances

Judy Hemming & Michael McKinley

‘Anzac’s wars: remembering and its resistances’, Honest History, 10 April 2015

A prefatory comment

This paper speaks of the regional responses by Australia and New Zealand to certain major wars. This does not imply that an Anzac spirit suffuses strategy and policy to the point of congruence. [1] Certainly, there are close affinities between the two countries; indeed, they are frequently held, in conjunction with New Guinea and neighbouring islands in the Pacific Ocean, to constitute a region known as ‘Australasia’. Moreover, myth, legend and historical narrative have also combined to suggest a remarkable identity of ability and interests in war fighting, from the Gallipoli landings through to the Vietnam War.

2014defencecapabilityplan(New Zealand Defence Force)

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, after facing a combined Australia-New Zealand infantry division in North Africa, is reported to have said, ‘If I had to take hell, I would use the Australians to take it and the New Zealanders to hold it’. As late as 1983, it was commonplace for both the political leadership and defence and strategic analysts in both Australia and New Zealand to proclaim ‘the two countries constitute a single strategic entity’. They are, nevertheless, also quite distinct – geographically, demographically, culturally, economically, socially, and strategically. Sometimes – perhaps chronically – these differences dominate.

The differences result in differences in style, too: whereas Australia is conscious of its continental size and riches arising from natural resources and is boastful of ‘punching above its weight’, New Zealand is generally given to modest interventions on the unassailable basis that its resources are generally modest. Henry Grattan’s observation on the attraction-repulsion nature of another asymmetric dyad, Ireland and England, is (geographically modified) applicable: the Tasman Sea precludes union just as the Pacific Ocean forbids separation. [2]

From the mid-1980s on, notable divergences have come to the fore, caused by such developments as the non-nuclear démarche taken by the New Zealand Labour Government under the prime ministership of David Lange. This had the initial effect of excluding New Zealand from the arrangements established under the ANZUS Treaty of 1951, forcing subsequent Governments in New Zealand to think somewhat more independently, with the effect that previous national characteristics in alliance and strategic thinking of a critical nature – evident but not emphasised during the Vietnam War – became more pronounced.

Then, reflecting strong public opinion against any military action against Iraq that was not authorised by the United Nations, the New Zealand Government compromised by providing a military contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom after 2001 in the form of a unit of combat engineers embedded with a larger British contingent of military engineers. While Australia joined the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in October 2014, the New Zealand Government delayed its decision to deploy 143 New Zealand military personnel in training and support roles until February 2015.

This last-mentioned move had a curious overture. In a visit to the United Kingdom, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key advised that his government was ‘exploring whether we will send a training contingent to probably work alongside the Australians in Iraq’. The rationale was that terrorism was a global threat which New Zealand had to help counter and, more importantly it seems, any support from New Zealand for the fight against ISIS would be ‘the price of the club’, in being part of the Five Eyes (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) intelligence arrangements. [3]

?????????????????????????????HMNZS Te Kaha sailing from Devonport Naval Base on 16 February for Gallipoli (NZDF)

While few would demur from the description of the threat which Key outlined, any suggestion that the commitment of New Zealand military forces to counter it was required to retain membership of ‘the club’ cannot be sustained by reference to the relevant agreements relating to it and the respective military histories of the signatories since its establishment. Moreover, following the announcement by the New Zealand Minister of Defence in November 2014 of a scoping mission to Iraq, what was allowed to drift into the public mind in New Zealand was the distinct possibility that, in the Gallipoli centenary year, New Zealand and Australian forces would once again be joined in a common campaign, if not a formal Anzac force in the Middle East. [4]

Subsequent statements by government leaders and commentators served only to create a sense of ambivalence: while the original Anzac force was invoked – inevitably – a certain caution, or reluctance to constitute an Anzac force in 21st century Iraq, was evident in Key’s statement that the joint training mission would ‘not be badged as an Anzac force’. [5]

In the light of the history of commitments to the British Empire and the Australia-New Zealand-US Alliance relationship, not to deploy some form of military force would have been unusual and fraught with anxiety. For the first half of the 20th century such a decision would have been unthinkable but, even since then, regardless of whether the overall strategy of the US was thought to be in error, or simply questionable, there is a sense in Wellington (as in Canberra) that there is a need for subordinate partners to keep faith with Washington by means and gestures which indicate a less than wholehearted commitment but which, at the same time, are substantial and involve the respective forces of both countries being placed in harm’s way. In the following pages, therefore, if Australia seems to be the focus of attention more than New Zealand, it is because the actions relating to the focus of this paper are more in evidence there.


This paper is written at a curious juncture in the history of Australia and New Zealand. April 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the failed Dardanelles campaign in general and the abortive Gallipoli landings in particular, from which events popular historical accounts have derived the advent of the respective nationhoods of the two countries.

33129-apANZAC Christmas card, 1915 (Encyclopedia of New Zealand)

The same month will see the 60th anniversary of another failure: Australia’s dishonestly justified commitment to the war in Vietnam. [6] Then, August will mark the 15th anniversary of the also dishonestly justified Australian commitment to Operation Desert Storm [7] and June will see the first anniversary of the ‘brazenly cynical’ initiatives by the Australian Government to increase the national commitment to the war against Islamic State. [8]

It is fair to say that none of these events will receive the attention that a self-critical democracy ought to devote when celebrating its war dead. Indeed, given that the status of the centrepiece of Australian security strategy, the Australia-US alliance, in which name these deceptions were pursued, remains essentially untouched. It is even buttressed by assistance from such pro-alliance organisations as the government-founded and partly funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Lowy Institute for International Policy (also partly government-funded), the United States Study Centre at the University of Sydney and the Australia American Leadership Dialogue (AALD), founded in 1992 by Phil and Julie Scanlan, with the support of President George H.W. Bush.

The last-mentioned, as noted in a recent analysis of its activities, is only ‘nominally an exercise in informal diplomacy dedicated to fostering mutual understanding’ but, in practice,

the AALD functions more like a pro-American lobby group as it seeks to preserve orthodox thinking and eschew dissenting perspectives. The AALD performs this function in three main ways: by carefully framing discussion and debate, by socialising Australian elites into the alliance orthodoxy and by serving as a “gatekeeper” of the status quo. [9]

The efforts of these bodies, of course, complement those of successive Australian Governments towards the same objectives. With the notable exception of Prime Minister Paul Keating’s public and controversial rejection of the Gallipoli experience as the birthplace of Australian nationhood, the political elite has taken great care to not only preserve that event in popular memory but also to nurture it as the ‘moment of genesis.’ [10] It is expensive and extensive: the Government has allocated at least $AUD325 million, and private donations of upwards of $AUD100 million are expected to be forthcoming to ensure the appropriate recall of the Anzac landings. In a critical vein, James Brown, a former serving officer of the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan and Iraq, notes as well:

In 2015 cruise ships will ply Anzac Cove as Bert Newton [television personality] narrates the war. One company has applied for permission to market an Anzac ice-cream, another here in Melbourne has been awarded $27million in contracts for Anzac events management. Government is crafting an Anzac merchandising plan to match. A century after Gallipoli, the Anzac spirit is being bottled, stamped, and sold. [11]

The prospect, according to Brown, is of Australians, ‘embarking on a discordant, lengthy, and exorbitant four-year festival for the dead’. [12] In a comparative context this is extraordinary. The money being spent by Australia is more than twice what Britain is spending and even in excess of what France has decided is fitting for its World War I commemoration. [13]

The historian Henry Reynolds provides a strong argument that all of this is to be seriously regarded as part of the militarisation of Australian history. Australia, he proposes, is obsessed with war and the desire to remember the war dead within a mindset that ‘is seemingly free from any consideration of the politics of a given conflict’. Of Australia’s Gallipoli moment he writes:

The commemoration of the Anzac landing lacks a searching assessment of the Allied powers’ territorial designs on the Ottoman Empire or the many dire consequences that followed and can still be felt. Australians seem to want to remember war without accepting moral responsibility for its ramified consequences. [14]

Coloured_illustration_of_Anzac_troops_after_the_fighting_at_Gallipoli_during_World_War_I_(1)Australian and New Zealand troops 1915 with cheerio from the King (Wikipedia)

What mandates this? It is a question that has many answers and not all of them are relevant to this paper. It is tempting to derive some of the answers from critical understandings of the current Liberal-Nationals coalition government of Australia: evidence indicates that the government is remote from the general anxieties of the majority of the population but so was its Labor predecessor and so are many governments in the so-called democratic West. [15]

More specifically, the government can – again, like many of its predecessors – be termed ‘adolescent’, by which is meant that foreign and defence policy issues are generally subordinated to domestic interests and used for points-scoring. The treatment of these issues, moreover, lacks the gravitas the issues deserve. [16]

A contribution from the discipline of political psychology has, with abundant evidence, gone considerably further. Lissa Johnson, a clinical psychologist, begins her analysis by noting that the country has a Prime Minister

who threatens to shirt-front the Russian president, a finance minister who calls the opposition leader a girlie-man and a government advisor for whom ‘Abos’, ‘darkies’ ‘muzzies’, ‘chinky-poos’ and ‘whores’ rolls comfortably off the tongue . . . [17]

Johnson then frames other empirical observations of the government in the literature of political psychology. These include a promotion of inequality, resistance to change, the need for cognitive closure, a suspicion of science and the arts, and an aversion to new experiences, complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity in favour of that which is familiar, predictable and simple. Her conclusion: ‘If the Abbott government was an individual, he would be a psychopath’. [18]

Several well-organised, research-oriented and persuasively argued attempts to counter these pathologies have been mounted for the purpose of effecting reform either of the historical record, or of the political processes leading to war, but it has to be said that, judged by the criteria of widespread change in public attitudes and understanding, they have been largely unsuccessful.

Among such projects are two which, although organisationally unrelated, share certain broad aims concerning Australia’s record of and involvement in wars. They are Honest History and the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry (CIWI). [19] The former, ‘a coalition of historians and others supporting the balanced and honest presentation and use of Australian history’ whose ‘focus now is on the centenary of World War I because Australian history about that period has been highly politicised, for many different reasons’. Accordingly, Honest History ‘promotes balanced consideration of Australian history, by making contesting, evidence-based interpretations available to students, teachers, universities, journalists and the public.’ [20]

To be noted regarding Honest History is the fact that this initiative was largely undertaken by individuals who had previously come together to preserve the position of the Australian War Memorial against an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort by a private company to build rival memorials to the two world wars. [21] At the time of writing (April 2015) Honest History’s supporters included both military historians and peace activists and its regular newsletters went to more than 1000 addresses and visitor numbers to its website were rising steeply. [22]

CIWI (now called Australians for War Powers Reform) has two primary objectives: first, the simple claim upon any practicing democracy that Parliament should decide on the deployment of the Australian armed forces and, secondly, that the Australian Government should establish an official inquiry into the processes and procedures whereby the ADF was committed to the war in Iraq in 2003. [23] Notwithstanding historical practices of a contrary nature, or perhaps emboldened by them, all attempts by CIWI to persuade the Coalition Government and the Labor Opposition with regard to both issues have been rebuffed, the former on the grounds that it would dangerously restrict the Executive in war.

2-148862willisNew Zealand nurses who accompanied the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to German Samoa in August 1914 (New Zealand History)

What should be noted is that CIWI and Honest History, though discrete in their respective interests, memberships and associations, have attracted support for their objectives from individuals who, at first glance, are surprising. Indeed, these supporters include prominent and distinguished names from what would otherwise be seen as the foreign and defence policy establishment. There are several retired high profile senior diplomats of ambassadorial rank, a former Secretary of Defence (Dr Paul Barratt), a former Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the ADF (General Peter Gration) and a former Prime Minister (the late Malcolm Fraser).

Fraser, also a former Minister for the Army and Minister for Defence, went so far as to publish a plea for a ‘truly independent Australia’ and a repudiation of what the Australia-US Alliance has become. [24] His argument is rooted in the chronic and obsessive dependence Australia developed in imperial times, before Federation and it quotes the prophetic warnings given by HB Higgins in the late 19th century to the effect that such an overweening sense of dependence would result in Australia being unquestioningly embroiled in the wars of Empire without any reciprocal obligation being incurred by Britain and, by implication, the United States. [25]

Interestingly, the sole endorsement on the dust jacket of Fraser’s book, matched by a longer version immediately within the front cover, is provided by a former political opponent, Gareth Evans, Labor foreign minister from 1988 to 1996 and President of the International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009.

Overall, the concerns of these projects have been reflected and articulated by historians and other analysts whose particular anxiety is the level of misunderstanding in Australian society of the country’s military history and the consequences which flow from them. Between 2010 and 2012 two specific anthologies intended for a broad, not necessarily academic, audience were published: Zombie Myths of Australian Military History and Anzac’s Dirty Dozen. [26] The cover of the first work illustrates the extent of the authors’ dismay:


noun 1. A dead body brought to life by a supernatural force. 2. A person having no independent judgement, intelligence, etc.

These offerings to one side, reform of the public memory, historical record, Parliament’s role in sending the ADF abroad, and the Australia-US alliance more generally, have only proceeded slowly, if at all. There have also been proposals that Australia will need to either resist or accommodate the rise of China and that this will inevitably cut across the ties of the alliance. The most prominent of those making these assertions is Hugh White, a former high-ranking defence and foreign policy official and currently Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. [27]

From the first appearance of White’s ideas in public, most mainstream commentators have met his writings and presentations on this subject with forms of rejection normally associated with denunciations of heresy by the established Church. [28] White is aware of this and his outline of who they are, and the problems they create for just debate to be entered, is exceptionally relevant to the themes of this paper:

[These] people – some of whom I admire . . . believe Australia’s commitment to its alliance transcends the ebb and flow of events. For them, the US alliance is more than just a policy instrument, to be kept while it works and discarded when it doesn’t. For them, the alliance is an end in itself, an object of loyalty, part of our identity. For them, an Australia that abandoned the alliance would no longer be Australia. For them, no price is too high to pay to keep it going. [29]

800px-ANZAC_Day_service_at_the_National_War_Memorial_-_Flickr_-_NZ_Defence_Force_(20)Anzac Day at the National War Memorial (Flickr/NZDF)

Essentially, White describes a disposition to reflexively commit to wars and expeditionary forces ordained, essentially commanded, and controlled by the United States, without any reference to the history of past involvements or whether they were ethical or just. It is again curious, therefore, that the conclusions White reached in 2005 regarding Australians and war provoked little reaction in what might be loosely described as the ‘strategic studies community.’ White found that:

  • ‘Soft’ wars – defined as low cost conflicts in terms of casualties – have made Australians more bellicose.
  • The perceived need to preserve the American alliance makes most wars acceptable in Australia.
  • Australians are reluctant to focus on the purposes of war.
  • Australians celebrate the experience of war – with Anzac being central – while downplaying the reasons for fighting particular wars.
  • Romanticising war makes future wars more likely. [30]

For these reasons – and many others of a similar nature could be adduced if space permitted – government decision-makers in Australia are unconscionably generous with the blood of others. Furthermore, the only rule that seems to matter is to follow and fight. Memories are either erased or regarded as impedimenta. Ignorance is embraced and knowledge of the unpalatable is discounted. The personality required is that of a Rambo with Alzheimer’s disease.

Progressively, as the American alliance has developed, the present has become a time of deep foreboding because the public mind has become violently disordered. Richard Lichtman is most apposite when he concludes that ‘not only can individuals be dysfunctional and pathological but that societies can be irrational, self-destructive and given to denial, self-deception and violent self-contamination’. [31]


[1] For the full version of this paper, see Judy Hemming and Michael McKinley, ‘Major wars and regional responses in Australia and New Zealand: international relations as apologetics and exegesis (and inadequate),’ 56th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, New Orleans, LA, 18 February 2015, .

[2] The distance from Wellington to Melbourne is 1598 miles, slightly more than the distance between London and Moscow; between Auckland and Sydney the distance is 1338 miles.

[3] ‘John Key: The price of being part of Five Eyes is joining ISIS fight,’ One News, TVNZ, 21 January 2015, (accessed 22 January 2015).

[4] Tracy Watkins, Vernon Small, Hamish Rutherford, Aimee Gulliver, Michael Daly and Blake Crayton-Brown, ‘NZ military personnel headed for Iraq’,, accessed 18 March 2015.

[5] ‘John Key’s Ministerial Statement on Iraq’,, accessed 18 March 2015.

[6] For a short account of this decision, see Michael Sexton, War for the Asking: Australia’s Vietnam Secrets (Penguin: Ringwood, Vic., 1981).

[7] See Michael McKinley, ‘The “bitterness of being right”: Reflections on Australian alliance orthodoxy, the Gulf War, and the New World Order’, Ch. 7 in Michael McKinley (ed.), The Gulf War: Critical Perspectives (St. Leonards, NSW, and Canberra: Allen & Unwin in association with the Department of International Relations, RSPAS, ANU, 1994), p. 171.

[8] See Richard Tanter, ‘Australia in America’s Iraq War 3.0’, NAPSNet Policy Forum, November 20, 2014,

[9] Vince Scappatura, ‘The role of the AALD in preserving the Australia – US alliance,’ Australian Journal of Political Science (49, 2): 596-610.

[10] Renee Lockwood, ‘Sacrifice and the creation of group Identity: case Studies of Gallipoli and Masada,’ A Library of Social Science Essay,, accessed 22 January 2015.

[11] James Brown, ‘Excess in the Anzac centenary overlooks other military endeavours,’, accessed 22 January 2015.

[12] James Brown, Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession (Collingwood, Vic.: Redback, 2014), p. 24.

[13] Cindy Sheedy and Steve Offner, ‘Cover story: busting the Anzac myth,’ uniken,—busting-Anzac-myth, accessed 18 June 2014. Research into the corresponding amount for World War I commemorations in New Zealand wasinconclusive at the time of writing this paper (January 2015). By far the greatest publicity has been devoted to the $NZD17 million provided by the Lottery Grants Board; nevertheless, it is the case that many directly-funded government projects have been completed or are under way in the form of dedicated capital works or expansions and refurbishments of established war memorials and museums.

[14] Henry Reynolds, ‘Militarisation marches on,’ Inside Story, 25 September 2014,, accessed 22 January 2015.

[15] Richard Cooke, ‘The people versus the political class,’, accessed 22 January 2014.

[16] See Peter Hartcher, The Adolescent Country (Melbourne: Penguin Australia, 2014).

[17] Lissa Johnson, ‘What makes them tick: inside the mind of the Abbott Government,’ New Matilda, 26 October 2014,, accessed 22 January 2014.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Disclosure: the authors subscribe to the Honest History publications and have been published on its website; both are also members of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry.

[20], accessed 23 January 2015.

[21] Peter Stanley, ‘Monumental mistake: is war the most Important thing In Australian history?’ Ch. 12 in Craig Stockings (ed.), Anzac’s Dirty Dozen: 12 Myths of Australian Military History (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2012), pp.278-284.

[22] See .

[23] A small book, How Does Australia Go to War? edited by Alison Broinowski and with a foreword by the late Malcolm Fraser, is to be published shortly by Australians for War Powers Reform.

[24] Malcolm Fraser with Cain Roberts, Dangerous Allies (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2014).

[25] Ibid, pp. 24, 39, 68.

[26] Ibid, and Craig Stockings (ed.), Zombie Myths of Australian Military History: The 10 Myths That Will Not Die (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010.

[27] In greater detail, Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. His work focuses primarily on Australian strategic and defence policy, Asia-Pacific security issues, and global strategic affairs. especially as they influence Australia and the Asia-Pacific. He has served as an intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessments, as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, as a senior adviser on the staffs of Defence Minister Kim Beazley and Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and as a senior official in the Department of Defence, where from 1995 to 2000 he was Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence, and as the first Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Source: .

[28] See, for example, Hugh White, The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). The titles of numerous other publications can be found at: .

[29] Hugh White, ‘As China rises we must look beyond U.S. alliance,’ The Australian, 13 September 2010, available at, accessed 23 January 2015.

[30] See David Stephens, ‘Hugh White on Australians and war,’ a report of an interview with Hugh White by David Stephens and Richard Thwaites on 21 November 2013, and available at , accessed 19 March 2015.

[31] Richard Lichtman, ‘The violent disorder of our public mind,’, accessed 23 January 2015.


Click here for all items related to: , ,
To comment or discuss, Log in to Honest History.

Leave a Reply