The Vimy Trap rings Anzackery bells (review of McKay & Swift)

The Vimy Trap rings Anzackery bells’, Honest History, 25 July 2017

David Stephens* reviews The Vimy Trap Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift  

The Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April 1917) saw four Canadian and one British division take high ground in Northern France with the loss of 3598 men (plus 7004 wounded), as well as an unknown number of German casualties. Over time, Vimy came to be seen as the birth – or at least the ‘coming of age’ – of a united Canadian nation (50 years after the Dominion of Canada was created).

9781771132756_500_648_90The growth of ‘Vimyism’ in Canada is the subject of The Vimy Trap, a book by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift. The book offers many opportunities for comparison with the growth of the Anzac legend – and its extreme version, ‘Anzackery’ – in Australia. The Vimy Foundation website summarises:  ‘The message of Vimy Ridge is one of bravery and sacrifice. The battle … is commonly highlighted as a turning point in Canadian history, … the beginning of Canada’s evolution from dominion to independent nation’.

McKay and Swift detect

a kind of founding myth that the nation’s rights and freedoms were established by our Great War soldiers … [A] great and unifying “myth of Canada”, whose founding heroes were gallant male soldiers and whose founding moments were victorious battles … By Vimyism we mean a network of ideas and symbols that centre on how Canada’s Great War experience somehow represents the country’s supreme triumph – a scaling of a grand height of honour and bravery and maturity, a glorious achievement – and affirm that the war itself and anyone who fought and died in it should be unconditionally revered and commemorated – and not least because it marked the country’s birth.

Down Under, the idea of bloody national birth has been around since the Gallipoli campaign. It slops over into Anzackery, defined briefly in the Australian National Dictionary as ‘the promotion of the Anzac legend in ways that are perceived to be excessive or misguided’.[1] Anzackery is replete with what Paul Fussell called ‘high diction’, the use of euphemisms like ‘sacrifice’ and ‘the fallen’ to describe ugly death in war. In Canada also, where McKay and Swift describe the décor of the Memorial Hall in Kingston, Ontario, a military town: ‘The men killed “gave their lives for liberty”. They are “the fallen”. This is the old rhetoric that attempts to describe war in terms of sacrifice, valour, and honour.’ Australian Anzackers, like Canadian Vimyists, still roll out this tired and deceptive language.

Vimyism – like the Anzac legend and Anzackery – has waxed and waned over a century, been questioned, been written about (most of the authors mentioned in the book will be unknown to Australians) but has persisted, and indeed become stronger. (Honest History committee member Carolyn Holbrook tracked a similar history in her Anzac: the Unauthorised Biography.)

Although an outpouring of jubilation occurred at the conclusion of the war in 1918 [McKay and Swift write], the predominant tone of commemoration in the years immediately following the conflict was one of grief. Then, as the burdens of bereavement eased, a powerful current of critical remembrance arose – as Canadians en masse, veterans foremost among them, came to question both the purposes and the conduct of the war. Only in the last quarter of the twentieth century did martial values and virtues, the lionization of warriors, assume their present-day dimensions.

By the second decade of the twenty-first century, Vimy had become Canada’s national fable. Particularly under the reign of the Harper Conservatives [2006-15], through carefully selected words and images, the Canadian state worked overtime to re-enchant Canadians about the war – to encourage us to remember it as a time of gallant mounted cavalrymen, determined macho generals, submissive women, and undivided national purpose …

The comparison in those paragraphs with Australia is not perfect – the Hawke Labor government preceded the Howard Coalition government in lionising the men of Anzac – but it should ring some loud bells for connoisseurs of Anzac and Anzackery.[2]

Has Vimyism – or Anzac/Anzackery for that matter – then become a state ideology? Frank Bongiorno and Peter Cochrane have written of the pressure to conform to received views of Anzac; Yassmin Abdel-Magied could back them up.[3]

In recent decades [according to McKay and Swift] Canadians have witnessed a sustained effort to make one view of past wars hold sway over all others. The view is that Canadian wars are exercises in selfless sacrifice, struggles for freedom. When one such view takes a firm hold it assumes a position of hegemony, which means that it comes to dominate discussion and policy in ways that are seemingly so commonsensical, so ever-present, that it becomes more or less invisible. This is the stuff and the strength of myth.

‘Struggles for freedom’ sounds familiar. In Australia, the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan Nelson, said in 2015 that all our soldiers over a century have fought for ‘righteousness and liberty’.[4] Children visiting the Memorial and other Australian commemorative sites are coached to leave messages that dead soldiers ‘died for our freedom’.

IMG_2189-1024x768Australian War Memorial advertising at Canberra Airport (photo by author), with the caption ‘For we are young and free’ and the annotation ‘proudly supported by Northrop Grumman’, one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers. In Canada, arms manufacturer Raytheon sponsored a speaker series at the Canadian War Museum in 2015-16.

McKay and Swift refer to ‘the aggressive editing of the historical record to produce the effect most desired today’, the erasure of alternative views, the simplification of complexity. ‘They all attempt to make official, indeed unquestionable, an ethereal, almost religious national narrative at odds with persuasive historical evidence.’ In Australia, the War Memorial’s marketing slogan for some years was ‘Every nation has its story. This is our story.’ Simplification of complexity. The Memorial’s new slogan is ‘for we are young and free’, a line from the National Anthem, linking the simple war-centred story with the past and future of the nation. In Canada, the Canadian War Museum (opened 2005), say McKay and Swift, ‘is selling a particular set of ideas about Canada and war. It also tries to mould a sense of the Canadian self “inseparable from the nation’s military history”.’

Do all Canadians ‘get’ Vimyism, though? In Australia, Honest History and others have suggested that Anzac and Anzackery are particularly white, masculine and Anglo-Celtic.[5] In Canada, McKay and Swift describe the received version of Vimy as

akin to a fairy tale for overaged boys who want their history to be as heart-thumping and simplistic as a video game … Vimy as the national origin story can be welcomed without inner reservations mainly by those Anglo-Canadians who retain a fond regard for the British Empire …  Vimyism – promoted by a powerful, determined, and affluent minority – fills a cultural void. Indeed, members of other less privileged minorities can be told that they have a place in this tale.

Again, the comparison with Australia is not complete: Canada is probably more diverse than Australia, with the francophone Québécois the key point of difference. But the comparison becomes stronger when one looks at the targets of this national origin story, peddled by gung-ho Canuck – or Aussie – blokes (and some women), some of them even wearing service medals, on school visits, or speaking at commemorative services, or as tour guides. ‘Vulnerable schoolchildren unequipped to place nationalistic tales in critical perspective are increasingly preyed upon by aggressive campaigners for blood-and-soil nationalism … Inculcated in the very young, [Vimyism] can become accepted as part of the taken-for-granted common sense of the country’s history.’

Young blokes are particularly vulnerable.

A romanticized Great War offers a suitable venue for the perpetual restaging of male coming-of-age stories … The membrane between the remembrance of war’s hardships and the glorification of those who prevailed over them is … indeed very thin … The gutsy war hero, winning his spurs, overcoming his fear, undergoing heart-pounding adventures and emerging triumphant over his enemy, has been a staple figure in a multitude of cultures, [Canada’s] emphatically included. He is not going to exit the stage any time soon. War remains profoundly attractive, especially to vulnerable minds addicted to its romance and spectacle. It appeals especially to immature young males with short attention spans. It offers a chance for people to imagine themselves as heroic adventurers fighting against evil.

What else can we say about this intriguing book? At 392 pages in the hard copy edition, it is far too long and not well-organised. Arguing against received views is a tough enough gig without being turgid and repetitive about it. But the book still repays the effort for non-Canadian readers, for the many ‘aha!’ moments it produces.

26a9ebe0edbf25fd2366e71caee70b61Sir Arthur Currie (Pinterest)

Besides the birth-of-a-nation trope, the over-the-top sentimentalism, and the inherently political use and misuse of bloody wartime events, there are other Canada-Australia comparisons worth noting. Canada’s most famous soldier, Arthur Currie, an embezzler, was more of a rogue than John Monash, who just went in for a bit of self-promotion and an affair on the side; Currie is perhaps closer in type to Thomas Blamey, who had a rocky road between the wars.

Canada’s Great War soldiers were portrayed as frontiersmen and lumberjacks more than they actually were, just as, following Charles Bean, Australia’s were painted as men from the bush more than their origins justified. Currie had a thing about the Canadian soldier’s ‘broad shoulders, deep chest and strong, clean-cut limbs [which bespoke the] invaluable gifts of our deep forests and lofty mountains, of our rolling plains and our great waterways, and of the clear light of our Northern skies’. Cue, perhaps, Monty Python’s The Lumberjack Song (look for Tom Hanks).With all due respect.

Canadian spruikers also peddled stories of how commanders from larger allies reckoned the Canucks were the best fighters; so did Australian spruikers regarding the Diggers. (Big countries regularly use lines like this to little ones: American presidents claim that ‘the United States has no stronger ally than [insert name of country]’.) Similarly, spruikers have overplayed the significance of battles involving Canadians: Vimy for non-Canadians is just a piece of the long-running Battle of Arras; the Gallipoli campaign is much less important for any other nation than for Australia – with the exception of Turkey, and possibly New Zealand.

Canadians seem to be just as narcissistic about their wars as Australians are about ours. [6] ‘In our zeal to make the Great War a collective “selfie” – it was all about us, we sometimes seem to be saying – we Canadians tend to forget that it was a war that killed an estimated ten million soldiers and seven million civilians.’ Yet, looking after the Canadians who came home from that war, Canada ill-treated its Aboriginal soldiers, as did Australia ours.

Then, we can follow the money. In recent years, Canadian shysters have been right into Vimy dollars, just like Australian shysters with Anzac, and have been particularly adept at enlisting animals, faithful and furry, to put a soft spin on war: the Canadian War Museum and the Australian War Memorial produce or sell similar cloying videos and booklets and possibly buy their soft toys from the same Chinese factories. Shops and websites in both countries flog crass mementoes, Vimy and Anzac. In 2014, the Canadian Museum and the Australian Memorial agreed to work closely together.

600422_VimyCap_e_2017_med-200x200Vimy Baseball cap, $CA15.99 in English or French (Canadian War Museum Shop)

Students in Canada go in for the Vimy Prize (actually the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize) as students in Australia do for the Simpson Prize and various Anzac prizes. Immigration brochures in Canada stress Vimy as something that intending Canadians need to mug up on, just as the equivalent booklets in Australia spruik Anzac. Finally, Canada has had its stable of gung-ho, jingoistic historians, like Australia. Canada has Pierre Berton, Australia Peter FitzSimons.[7]

Of course, the big difference between Vimy and Gallipoli was that Vimy was a win – sort of – and Gallipoli wasn’t. Which leaves us with the question for Australia: would Anzackery have been worse in Australia if the ANZAC force had ‘won’ in 1915?

* David Stephens is secretary of the Honest History association, editor of the Honest History website, and co-editor of The Honest History Book.


[1] A more extensive definition was put together in 2015 for Honest History by a retired Brigadier, a retired Colonel, and three military historians:

Anzackery ~ n. 1. a nationalistic, laudatory and distorted portrayal of Anzac history with little regard to accuracy or context; 2. hyberbolic rhetoric extolling the Anzac place in history; 3. the use of these approaches to promote patriotism, and national or personal agendas, as in inflating the contribution of the Anzacs and their native-born commanders in campaigns without regard for the contributions and achievements of allied commanders and nations; 4. arrogant, jingoistic praise of Anzac exploits and myths, usually at the derogatory expense of other combatants, especially the British; 5. the shameless exploitation of Anzac commemoration and sentiment for commercial gain.

See also: David Stephens, ‘Anzac and Anzackery: Useful future or sentimental dream?’ David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, ed., The Honest History Book, NewSouth, Sydney, pp. 120-34. Edited version.

[2] On the bipartisan politicisation of Anzac, see Frank Bongiorno, ‘A century of bipartisan commemoration: Is Anzac politically inevitable?’ Stephens & Broinowski, ed., The Honest History Book, pp.106-19.

[3] Peter Cochrane, ‘The past is not sacred’, Griffith Review, no 48, Enduring Legacies, 2015, including quotes from Bongiorno. A collection of resources relating to the furore surrounding remarks by Ms Abdel-Magied. Includes a Guardian Australia op ed from David Stephens.

[4] Brendan Nelson, ‘800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta [14 June 2015]’, Australian War Memorial.

[5] See: Gwenda Tavan, ‘From those who’ve come across the seas: Immigration and multiculturalism’, Stephens & Broinowski, ed., The Honest History Book, pp.151-66. Tavan argues that Anzac is an integral part of the dominant Anglo-nativist or Anglo-Celtic narrative in Australia.

[6] For discussion, see: Stephens, ‘Anzac and Anzackery’, pp. 123-24; Alison Broinowski & David Stephens, ‘Conclusion’, Stephens & Broinowski, ed., The Honest History Book, p. 289.

[7] McKay and Swift attempt comparisons with Australia and Anzac but their Australian references are dated, being confined to Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds, What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, NewSouth, Sydney, 2010.

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