Stephens, David: Tangled up in red, white and blue

David Stephens*

‘Tangled up in red, white and blue’, Honest History e-Newsletter no. 5, September 2013

War remembrance and days of commemoration bring out extremes of rhetoric, little gems of hyperbole that even the speaker might reconsider had they given them the thought that public utterance normally deserves. Nominating Anzac Cove for the national heritage list, for example, the then Prime Minister, John Howard, said, ‘You feel as an Australian it’s as much a part of Australia as the land on which your home is built’. This remark must surely have tested the tempers of the Turks; it was in a rather different league from ritual reciprocal renamings of small stretches of water (‘Anzac Cove’ at Gallipoli matched by ‘Gallipoli Reach’ in Lake Burley Griffin).

More recently, there was a campaign (ultimately unsuccessful) to build in Canberra new memorials to the dead of the two world wars, despite the conspicuous and iconic presence of the Australian War Memorial in the capital. The proponents of the new memorials referred to the two great conflicts as ‘the wars that matured our nation’. Nothing about democracy, depressions, industrialisation, the growth of cities, globalisation, universal education, mass communications, improved crop yields, the eradication of diseases, the Pill, subsidised health care, immigration, and all the other forces that most countries see as influences on their development and which might be expected to get a mention here, as well. Just those two wars.

On Anzac Day 2012, the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard added her own bit of rhetoric: ‘All of us remember, because all of us inhabit the freedom the Anzacs won for us’. It is never made clear in such remarks whether the threat to our freedom came from the Ottomans of 1915 or whether the efforts of the men of Anzac so impressed potential threateners of our freedom that they have left us in peace ever since.

Normal logic seems not to apply on such occasions. Mythology takes over: people whom we elect to apply intelligence to problems instead tell us fairy stories; well-intentioned but historically ignorant pressure groups and bureaucratic empire-builders overcommit to foolish commemoration projects. The impact of such ill-judged verbiage is potentially profound. This impact relates not just to what we as Australians have been and done in the past but what we will be and do in the future. It is not just about national history but about national identity. The most important part of war is not whether we ‘win’ or ‘lose’ but the imprint it leaves on us, what it does to us as a nation, as families and as individuals.




Album of identification photographs of enemy aliens (civilian and Prisoner of War) interned at Liverpool Camp, NSW, during World War I [index number 84, Phillip Oswald; index number 87, Robt Himger] 1915 (source: National Archives of Australia, 31013738, 31013741, P1)

Ultimately, what is important is not what our fathers and grandfathers did in war but what war did to them and to us. And here there is an important difference: the generations who fight wars suffer directly; the soldiers go where they are sent and their families wait. But later generations – us – have some control over the impact of war. We choose our own history, which bits of the past we wish to burnish and which we prefer to leave alone. This applies particularly to war history and, within that strand, particularly to military history, the exciting bit, the bit that describes the heroic acts of blokes in khaki.

We are choosing wrong. We are doing war remembrance badly. We have become obsessed with past conflicts in a way that threatens to damage us and our children. This obsession has been driven by the successive anniversaries of the Anzac landing, the much-chronicled deaths of elderly veterans, the mawkish sentimentalism of some remembrance exercises, the rise of military tourism, the sending of expeditionary forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, the celebrity status accorded to Victoria Cross winners, the recruitment of children as aficionados of past battles through the Discovery Zone section of the Australian War Memorial and the promotional and educational work of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) and, finally, the desire of politicians to be associated with military events, even military funerals.

The rhetoric and the performance art flows through to political action and expenditure of public money. Next year, 2014, will mark the beginning of five portentous years of military commemoration, marketed by DVA. There will be services at home and abroad, local projects, support for artists and institutions ‘to develop commemorative displays and artistic creations that showcase our military history’, the restoration of World War I memorials and the building of new ones, a travelling exhibition of war memorabilia and a restaging of the first convoys of soldiers to Egypt and Gallipoli.

The Anzac Centenary website lists 250 military events as potential subjects for commemoration. While the focus is ostensibly World War I (1914-18) these events are dated 1899 to 2008. (The centenary embodies both overkill and confusion, like war itself.) All this to ensure that ‘the Anzac Centenary is marked in a way that captures the spirit and reverence it so deserves and that the baton of remembrance is passed on to this and future generations’.

The centenary will be difficult to opt out from and there is an implication that it will be unpatriotic to do so. It is likely to be buttressed by what Canberra Times columnist Ian Warden described in January 2013 as ‘very bad books’, ‘very bad journalism’ and speeches of ‘simpering balderdash’ from our political leaders.

When a single thread of our nation’s story is teased out to excess, it strangles the other threads. We should not today give our military history more weight than it warrants. Australian history is social and cultural, political and economic, religious and anthropological, archaeological and scientific, as well as military. It is made by women, men, individuals, families, artists, philosophers, scientists, business people, public servants, soldiers and politicians.

We carry the imprint of the First Australians, the builders of the CSIRO, the Sydney Opera House and the Snowy scheme, the pioneers of the bush frontier in the nineteenth century and the urban frontier in the 1950s, and ‘boat people’, whether convicts, post-war ‘ten pound Poms’ and ‘New Australians’ or asylum seekers. Australian history is to the credit – and the fault – of all of us, not just our Diggers.

Commemoration of war also drives out commemoration of other subjects. The more we Australians commemorate war, the more it looks as if we define ourselves according to our experience of war. There are lots of other things and people we should be affirming and reaffirming as the things that define us, our scientists and their discoveries, our artists and their works, our inventors and their inventions, our doctors and nurses and teachers, our writers and their books and poems, our great public servants, our union leaders and business people, our ordinary Australians. There is nothing wrong with commemoration in itself, provided it reflects the diverse strands of our history and is not skewed in a particular direction, as it is now.

Even some forms of war commemoration are supportable. Uneasiness about mass commemorative circuses should not preclude private remembrance of loved ones who did not return. Some traditional ceremonies, like the Anzac Day dawn service at the Australian War Memorial and the new daily evening service, have a dignity that contributes in appropriate proportion to our national story; the commemorative splurge promoted by DVA threatens to sink these worthy occasions in a sludge of banal ‘remembrance’.

But marketing only works if the market lets it work; top-down promotions by government are just a waste of money if people do not respond. Why do so many of us lap up this stuff so readily? Are we desperately trying to come to grips with a phantasm or chimera, something that we who did not fight cannot understand? Michael McGirr, author and former Jesuit priest, used the term ‘creeping Anzacism’ to describe

the way in which the remembrance of war is moving from the personal to the public sphere and, with that, from a description of something unspeakable to something about which you can never say enough. As fewer and fewer Australians actually know somebody who fought in World War I or World War II, the commemoration of war has changed from a quiet remembrance of other people to an unrestrained endorsement of ourselves. As ideology comes to replace history, there are fewer and fewer faces to go with the stories. They have been replaced by a lather of clichés, most of which are as much about filling a void in the narcissistic present as lending dignity to the past. People now seem to believe that in looking at the Anzacs they are looking at themselves. They aren’t. The dead deserve more respect than to be used to make ourselves feel larger. (Bypass, 2004)

If Anzac has become a nationalistic talisman is this partly because we see it rose-tinted? We might come closer to understanding if we were more honest in our quest. Any history has confronting aspects as well as ones deserving commemoration. There are sinners as well as saints, rogues and wastrels as well as men and women of principle and achievement, things worth celebrating and others worth regretting or forgetting.

Among Australian military examples, if we re-enact the departure in August 1914 of the first convoys will we re-enact also the return voyages of these young men, maimed, blind or insane, their burial in foreign fields or at sea or their fraught relations with their families post-war? If we remember the 2000 men who died at Fromelles in 1916 why not remember and try to understand the battalions who mutinied in 1918 under the pressure of war and privation? Fromelles appears in DVA’s list of 250 events, the mutinies do not.

P09385.001Portrait of Agnes ‘Nan’ Biggart in patriotic costume holding an Australian map on a stick, 1917 (source: National Library of Australia Trove/Australian War Memorial, P09385.001; Photo: John Biggart)

We should not edit out the less heroic parts of our military history. For every John Monash, every Victoria Cross winner, every brave stretcher-bearer, there were incompetent officers, stupid sergeants and misbehaving privates. Heroes were sometimes criminals as well and no less heroic for that. Our forces contained a mixture of humanity like any other military force, including the army of the Ottoman Empire, whose soil we invaded on 25 April 1915.

Nor were our wars fought just by adult males. There were women serving overseas and parents, partners, sisters and children at home. They also suffered, at the time and afterwards. Yet very little of the centenary’s ‘reverence’ seems directed at them. (If this is not so, if we are to commemorate equally all aspects of our Great War, the home front as well as the front line, then let us hear from DVA about what it will be looking for among the proposed local projects upon which it will be providing advice to the Minister. The more information that is made public about these projects – to cost nearly $19 million if all the allocated money is spent – the less chance the program will have of degenerating into pork-barreling by local MPs, who choose the local recommending committees, or subsidies to local RSL clubs, which will be well-represented on the committees. DVA might also care to explain why a department which began life after World War I as a dispenser of welfare for deserving ex-servicemen and women has become a promoter of tours, a provider of educational material and a rewriter of national history – a model which so far seems not to have caught on in other jurisdictions around the world.)

Beyond vainglorious puffery, beyond distortion of our history, beyond expenditure on commemorative exercises that would be better put to alleviating the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers returning from Afghanistan, there is the potential effect of ‘Anzackery’ on our children. The hyperinflation of Anzac, the ‘militarisation’ of our history – and the risk that these phenomena will accustom us and our children to war – should not be the legacies of the Australians of 2015. Normalising war by relentless and ubiquitous commemoration is more insidious than glorifying it but ultimately just as damaging.

Our military past needs to be recognised appropriately, as it is by the dignified elements of the Australian War Memorial, which deserve our continuing support as the national focus of commemoration. Constant plucking on the khaki strand, however, distorts the whole fabric and us. Australia was not born or did not ‘come of age’ at Anzac Cove in 1915 just as it was not ‘born’ at Sydney Cove in 1788. Our history is far too complex for such convenient lies. The men of Anzac were not superhuman; they were like us. Over-commemorating Anzac has been a phenomenon of the last 25 years; we need to shrink the Anzac motif to its deserved but proportionate place in our national tapestry.


* David Stephens is a committee member of Honest History. This article expands two pieces previously published in Online Opinion in April 2012 and the Canberra Times in April 2013.

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