Honest History continually collects resources to add to our growing database on the theme of ‘not only Anzac but also (lots of other strands of Australian history)’. Of course, our interest – and the times – being what they are a lot of these resources will be analysing war and what it has done to us.
Sometimes a particular item sets the tone for our fossicking. Such was the case with Henry Reynolds’s September piece in Inside Story, titled ‘Militarisation marches on’. The following miscellany suggests that, while there is a lot of militarisation around, there is also some level-headed analysis of our war history. As there should be: myths like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus probably do not deserve analysis; myths to do with dangerous things like war require it.
‘Australia’, says Reynolds, ‘is obsessed with war’. He writes about the growth of publicly-funded commemoration, the addition of new commemorative anniversaries, the apparently compulsory attendance of politicians at military funerals and the socialisation of children into military history. He fears the emphasis on military exploits will drive out other aspects of our history and that the context and politics of our wars have been overshadowed by rhetoric about soldiers dying to ensure our freedom.
The implications fly off in all directions: nations are made in war not in peace, on battlefields not in parliaments; soldiers not statesmen are the nation’s founders; men of blood are more worthy of note than negotiators and conciliators; the bayonet is mightier than the pen; a few fatal days on the shore of the Ottoman Empire outweighed the decades of civil and political pioneering by hundreds of colonial Australians.
Reynolds believes the militarisation of our history is influencing the tendency of governments, particularly the current one, to appoint military officers to essentially civilian tasks from the governor-generalship to the protection of our maritime borders, from the search for one downed airliner to the recovery of bodies from another. (Ben Roberts-Smith VC has recently been appointed as chair of the Australia Day Council.) It has also affected our attitudes to war today.
The historical prestige now accorded the military influences national debate about war in general. It makes it easier for Australian governments to commit to conflict and harder for critics to engage in a serious national debate. The heroic image of the digger inhibits any assessment of the costs and benefits of war. To question the wisdom of engagement is seen to diminish the sacrifice and suffering of participants. (On this, see also Elizabeth Samet and Hugh White.)
There is an apparent eagerness in government to launch into new wars and Reynolds quotes a revealing interview with the Defence Minister not long after the Minister came to office. (There is more of that interview in the Appendix to this post.)
The phrase “lest we forget” [Reynolds concludes] is the most revered one in national discourse. But the current, enhanced awareness of past conflict may make it more rather than less likely that the same pattern will be repeated over and over again.
Reynolds’s important piece picked up themes he has written about elsewhere, most recently in Forgotten War. Unfortunately, it went mostly unremarked. Yet other material appearing since has suggested there are many shades and nuances in the way non-official observers, at least, deal with our military past.
At the seamy end of the spectrum there was publicity for the world-leading performance of Australia’s Great War soldiers in contracting venereal disease. This was a theme in Peter Stanley’s Bad Characters and an earlier reference to it mightily upset a retired Brigadier MP. Professor Stanley had more to say on Late Night Live about VD. Raden Dunbar’s book on the incidence and treatment of the disease was fully exposed in Fairfax Media. A book about ‘khaki crims and desperadoes’ also got a run on the ABC.
Remembrance Day brought out unusual war stories, such as the experiences of an Australian POW who was near Hiroshima when the atomic bomb fell and the victimisation of US talk show host, Phil Donahue, for anti-war attitudes at the time of the Second Iraq War. Also in the category of unusual was an encomium on the website of the Australia Defence Association of the quality of Australian strategic defence thinking during the Great War. Analyses of why Australia went to war in 1914 are rare enough to make this piece notable.
Among more conventional stories, those with a strong sentimental tone, were the one on a new book about war memorials in small towns and the stories of the men commemorated thereon. Graham Seal (unsentimentally) entered the internet world of lists with ‘ten things you need to know to prepare for the Anzac centenary’, ending with the suggestion that, like Ned Kelly and Waltzing Matilda, Anzac is never going away. Professor Seal expressed no opinion about Anzac’s obnoxious cousin, Anzackery.
The other side of the world might not be as far away as it was in 1914 but it has been well into Great War commemoration, as Daniel Nethery wrote from Berlin. Tuncay Yilmazer had a piece about Turkish-Australian friendship a century on. Dissenting voices seem to be louder in Britain than in Australia, despite the 800 000 poppies outside the Tower of London. Alby Fogg lambasted Sainsbury’s for an advertisement ‘making the first world war beautiful to flog groceries’ and Lindsey German was not alone in refusing to wear a red poppy because of the way Remembrance Day was being exploited by politicians and commercial interests, including arms manufacturers. (See also our earlier Remembrance Day collection.)
Meanwhile, the phenomena that Reynolds skewered have rolled on. The Age reported on cultural expressions of commemoration fever, including a critical analysis of how artists are induced towards participating in ‘soft propaganda’ associated with the Anzac centenary.
There is little doubt the military and political hierarchy recognise the power of culture in such an anniversary, from the design of war memorials to the pageantry of veterans’ marches and the ubiquitous blood-red poppy. The arts’ ability to make remote historical events vivid and poetic, and to provoke emotional responses from respect to horror, sympathy to nationalistic fervour, has long been exploited. Yet some influential cultural figures urge vigilance about the tone of centenary-themed events – many funded directly or indirectly by the public – serving contemporary political ends.
Like Reynolds’s piece with which we began, this article by Sonia Harford deserves a close read as an indication of where we are heading. It could be a long war.
20 November 2014