McKenna, Mark: Patriot act

Mark McKenna

‘Patriot act’, Australian, 6 June 2007 (also in the Australian Literary Review)

Long (5000 words) article anticipating the author’s chapter in What’s Wrong with Anzac? Contains seminal critique of the Anzac myth as a political tool, wielded by both political sides. The author notes, however, that the phenomenon of using war memory in this way is not unique to Australia.

The author claims that a defining feature of the Howard years since 1996 has been the emergence of a new Australian nationalism, encouraged by government. This has accompanied the resurgence of Anzac Day.

Increasingly, Australian society is characterised by the culture of public display: of patriotism and allegiance, of faith and of wealth. The art of modern political leadership is to cast the nation’s image, past and present, in that of the leader’s political philosophy, to make party-political language and the vernacular of national imagining blend so seamlessly that the only alternative is re-election. Howard has largely succeeded in defining the nation in the image of Australian liberalism: individual freedom, never-ending prosperity and uncritical nationalism. Pride and achievement are his watchwords.

Instead of being the one day of the year that reminds us of the horror of war, Anzac Day has become a day for celebrating national values forged in the crucible of battle, a day that obscures the politics of war and discourages political dissent. Although these changes have occurred on Howard’s watch, both the Coalition and the Labor Party have become fond of wrapping themselves in the flag, particularly on April 25.

Anzac Day has helped ‘silence dissent over the Iraq war. As anthropologist Bruce Kapferer remarked last year, Anzac Day is now entrenched as a “symbolic extension of state authority”‘.

It seems impossible to deny the broader militarisation of our history and culture: the surfeit of jingoistic military histories, the increasing tendency for military displays before football grand finals, the extension of the term Anzac to encompass firefighters and sporting champions, the professionally stage-managed event of the dawn service at Anzac Cove, the burgeoning popularity of battlefield tourism (particularly Gallipoli and the Kokoda Track), the ubiquitous newspaper supplements extolling the virtues of soldiers past and present, and the tendency of the media and both main political parties to view the death of the last World War I veterans as significant national moments …

Since the early ’90s, Australians appear to have lost the ability (or inclination) to debate Anzac Day. It has become an article of national faith and communion, a sacred parable we dare not question, yet another indication of the narrowing of political debate in Australia.

In Turkey, there has been a move to recast the Dardanelles campaign as an example of Islamic resistance and it is ironic that similar phenomena are occurring in both of the former combatant countries of 1915.

What is different about Australia, however, is Howard’s ability to give a particular inflection to the new militarism, one that increasingly pushes Australia back towards more male-centred and traditional Anglo allegiances that revolve not around the empire but old and trusted friends: Britain and the US …

The growth of Anzac drives out conflicting national stories.

The new love of Anzac is not about Australians paying more attention to their history, as is often claimed; rather, it is about the making of historical myth as a source of national pride and independence, the foundation stone of a new sentimental nationalism.

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