Lake, Marilyn, Henry Reynolds et al: What’s wrong with Anzac?

Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi

What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, New South, Sydney, 2010

The book caused considerable controversy on its release and since, although many of the themes in it had been thoroughly aired in previous pieces by the authors. Chapter headings include ‘Are nations really made in war?’ ‘Why do we get so emotional about Anzac?’ ‘Anzac Day: how did it become Australia’s national day? and ‘How do schoolchildren learn about the spirit of Anzac?’

The book suggests that ‘the Anzac obsession distorts our understanding of the past, replacing historical fact with mythology’. (blurb) A sample of reviews and comments: here; here; here; here. Reynolds returns to and updates the arguments in 2014. A 2011 critique of the book within a broader study of the context of 1914 is by John A. Moses (pdf supplied by author).

The book’s key argument is summarised.

For several years now Australia has seen the relentless militarisation of our history: the commemoration of war and understandings of our national history have been confused and conflated. The Anzac spirit is now said to animate all our greatest achievements, even as the Anzac landing recedes into the distant past. (p. vii)

Anzac Day and other commemorative days have undergone a resurgence, supported by prime ministers, politicians, government departments, the mass media, publishers and schools. There has been an outpouring of books, documentaries and other material.

Yet the sudden rush to embrace 25 April as the Australian story has resulted in a crowning irony: in transforming Anzac Day into a sacred myth, we have forgotten our rich and diverse history of nation-making and distorted the history of Gallipoli and its Imperial context and consequences. (p. vii)

Like the many Australians who are concerned with the homage paid to the Anzac spirit and associated militarisation of our history, we are concerned about the ways in which history is used to define our national heritage and national values. We suggest that Australians might look to alternative national traditions that give pride of place to equality of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice: the idea of a living wage and sexual and racial equality. In the myth of Anzac, military achievements are exalted above civilian ones; events overseas are given priority over Australian developments; slow and patient nation-building is eclipsed by the bloody drama of battle; action is exalted above contemplation. The key premise of the Anzac legend is that nations and men are made in war. It is an idea that had currency a hundred years ago. Is it not now time for Australia to cast it aside? (p. 167)

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