War songs and being awkward

Carolyn Holbrook, author of Anzac: The Unauthorised Biography and Honest History distinguished supporter, gave a speech the other day in Fremantle for MAPW. In the course of her remarks, Holbrook said this:

[W]hy does it matter how Australians remember war?  I would argue that it matters very much, because the way that we remember past wars has a significant effect on our attitude to contemporary wars. This argument seems particularly pertinent in a society that is obsessed with the Anzac legend …

I want to leave you with an example of the subtle ways in which the Anzac legend—with its tendency to appeal to our hearts rather than our heads—might lead us to be less cautious than we should be in our attitude to contemporary military conflict. Some of you might have heard of a recently released song by the popular country singer, Lee Kernaghan. The song is called “Spirit of the Anzacs” and features other popular artists like Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll, Megan Washington and Jessica Mauboy. The chorus of the song is based around Paul Keating’s eulogy to the Unknown Soldier: “He is all of them, He is one of us”.

The lyrics and the video seamlessly blend diggers old and diggers new. Thus, we hear of soldiers in “the trenches at Lone Pine” and “the Flanders firing line”, as well as the “nurse in Vietnam” and the soldiers “on patrol in Uruzgan”. In the video, images of diggers from World War One are mashed up with those of soldiers in Afghanistan. Old battle ships are mashed with modern jet fighters, navy ships and helicopters. It’s all part of one big, feel-good Anzac legend.

Both the song and the video are beautiful and brimming with emotion. But all of this emotion and national pride conceals a serious problem in the way we commemorate Anzac. The Great War happened 100 years ago. Perhaps it’s okay to feel sentimental about pictures of trenches on pot holders and oven gloves. But I don’t think that it’s okay to feel sentimental about images of modern jet fighters laden with missiles, or armoured vehicles with machine guns racing through the Iraqi desert.

By singing about Afghanistan and Iraq in the same breath as Gallipoli, we risk shrouding them in the same nostalgic mist. Contemporary wars must be assessed in the cold, hard light of day. They must not be allowed to hide from proper scrutiny in the belly of the Anzac Trojan Horse.

Less public than Holbrook’s speech but in its way just as significant was what happened next. As Holbrook recalled, ‘I had heaps of people come up to me after and say thank you and you are brave to speak out – I feel the same but I am scared to say anything about all this Anzac stuff because you get criticised!’

Received views – in this case, a khaki-tinged received view of Australian history – only become so because they are not contested. Anzackery, however well-meaning, will expand to fill the space available unless people who question it do so loudly and often. The legend on the King’s Penny, received by the families of soldiers killed in World War I, says ‘He died for Freedom and Honour’. That Freedom surely includes the freedom to have awkward views during the centenary of Anzac.

12 March 2015


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