Stephens, Alan: Acts of remembrance or expressions of nationalism?

Alan Stephens

Acts of remembrance or expressions of nationalism?The Drum (ABC), 25 April 2013

Article (attracting 185 comments by readers) by an historian of the RAAF, arguing that

[a]t the start, Australia needed Anzac Day. We were a small, isolated nation, uncertain of our place in the world and of our worth as a people. World War I provided an opportunity to prove ourselves, and to demonstrate our loyalty to the United Kingdom, still regarded by many Australians as “home”.

Context is everything in history. In 1914, it didn’t matter to Australians whether the war in which we were taking up arms was one of necessity or of choice. Duty to king and country was an understandable sentiment for the times.

CEW Bean did much to shape the Anzac legend, although some of his writing seems today ‘uncomfortably close to propaganda’. World War II, a war of necessity, and subsequent conflicts, wars of choice, have reinforced the legend. The myth of the Digger has become so strong ‘that for many it is synonymous with what it means to be Australian’.

In the light of that development, the author asks how and in what context we should honour our servicemen and women. ‘Our concern’, he says, ‘should be that relentless, officially-sponsored publicity has made our commemorations not so much acts of remembrance as expressions of an aggressive form of nationalism’. He notes the proposed Anzac centenary commemorations and concludes:

By any measure, this will be an extraordinary promotion of military history and its implied values. Yet at the same time, we remain comparatively ignorant of the contribution and values of thousands of outstanding Australians in the fields of science, medicine, the arts, education, law, and so on. One hundred million dollars would go a long way towards redressing this careless omission and, you might think, how we perceive ourselves.

It is proper that we commemorate wartime sacrifice made in the national interest. However, the nature of that commemoration and its influence on our national identity must be kept in balance and context. If at the start we needed a national legend, now, Anzac Day has become a remembrance too far.

For a related article, see Alan Stephens’ 2014 review of the War Memorial’s Afghanistan exhibition. This was published in the National Museum’s now defunct journal, reCollections. The review concludes thus:

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Australians gain their basic understanding of war from visiting the Australian War Memorial. Regrettably, by telling them only half the story, the Memorial is failing in its responsibility.

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