Non-fiction review – What’s wrong with Anzac?

What’s Wrong With Anzac: The Militarisation of Australian History
Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi
University of New South Press

'What's wrong with ANZAC?' coverWhen Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds and others published this courageous demolition of the Anzac tradition, hostile replies came quickly. The Sunday Age published a critique by senior journalist Tom Hyland, while the Australian featured Geoffrey Blainey’s scathing review, ‘We Weren’t That Dumb’.1 The book seems to have struck a nerve with its challenge to the war culture permeating society.

Henry Renolds’ first chapter asks: ‘Are nations really made in war?’ He points to an insidious feature of the Anzac myth: its focus on the deaths rather than the actions of soldiers, which make it hard to challenge. ‘Sacrifice and dying are admired,’ Reynolds writes, ‘but what about the killing?’, citing a report that when the Anzacs’ blood was up they went ‘searching for fresh enemies to bayonet’.

Reynolds sees the recent Anzac revival as a return to the days when chauvinists thought nations were shaped by what Prime Minister Billy Hughes called the ‘purifying breath of self-sacrifice’. Associated with this was an argument that war transcended social divisions through mateship. That idea was not distinctively Australian. Before the first Great War, German militarist Heinrich von Treitschke wrote that battle ‘weaves a bond of love between men, since here all class distinctions vanish’.

Reynolds does not mention that World War I ended, ironically, with a mass radicalisation of workers. This reflects a weakness: the book explores gender and race but not class conflict.2 His account of anti-war activity describes ineffectual pacifist circles, with little mention of the heavily working class campaigns against conscription.3

Reynolds turns next to Australia’s early wars for the empire. Perhaps these seem strange: why would Australians fight in Sudan or the Veldt? Part of the enthusiasts’ arguments for sending troops came down to blind empire loyalty. When West Australian MP FCB Voster complained that people knew nothing about the justice or injustice of the Boer War, the Premier replied: ‘We do not want to know.’

Reynolds has legitimate fun with such passages, yet he risk confirming Blainey by treating Australians as ‘dumb’. Were there no practical interests at stake for the colonial rulers? Reynolds does cite an element of calculation, quoting NSW political leader Sir John Robertson: ‘if we expect England to stand by us in any trouble we ought to stand by England in her troubles’.

This sounds defensive, and it is true that invasion scares were common in the colonies, but Australian sub-imperialism was also at work. The colonials wanted to conquer New Guinea, Fiji, the New Hebrides – more enthusiastic imperialists than the mother country. Amid demands to seize the New Hebrides, Lord Salisbury at the British Foreign Office called them ‘the most unreasonable people I ever have heard or dreamt of. They want us to incur all the bloodshed, and the danger, and the stupendous cost of a war with France … for a group of islands which to us are as valueless as the South Pole …’ 4

The colonists needed to gain leverage with the British because local expansion was part of the ‘trouble’ they anticipated. We can now see why at the first news of war in the Sudan, Australian colonies rushed to send troops that Britain did not need. Far from being ‘pulled into’ Britain’s war, Australian leaders took the initiative. They had a number of reasons, but according to Roger Thompson’s study, one was that: ‘Demonstrating their willingness to come to the mother country’s aid also highlighted her recent failure to fully defend Australia’s interest in the Pacific and might make the Imperial Government more accommodating in the future.’ 5

Discussing the 19th Century sets the scene for considering the roots of World War I. Reynolds presents this in terms of British manipulation of yellow-peril fears, to secure a greater Australian commitment to Imperial defence – a tale of British perfidy. But weren’t the colonials operating just as cynically?

Reynolds quotes a Senator remarking that pre-war Australian armed forces were designed solely for defending Australia. Let us remember that defence of the new state was effectively defending the fruits of British imperial conquest, and state machinery built on Indigenous dispossession. In addition, however, the line between defence and offence was obscure. It was argued, and no doubt often believed, that to defend the Australian continent from threats from the north, it was necessary to seize the islands. ‘Australia’s imperial ambitions in the Pacific’ writes historian Stuart Ward, ‘flowed logically out of a perceived strategic vulnerability.’6 They were still imperial.

Either way, the historical discussion lays a basis to show that the Anzac initiative was deeply suspect. Continuing the analysis to more recent times would surely do the same for subsequent wars.

A more difficult war

Or would it? Geoffrey Blainey’s most telling point is that the authors ‘concentrate on those wars that suit their pacifist and peace-march assumptions’ while ‘World War II is neatly skipped over …’ Which is regrettable because Anzac Day has siblings. The Kokoda Trail, like Anzac Cove, has become a militaristic tourist trap. Paul Keating started it all with a 1992 speech,7 and the hyperbole even pervades the children’s novel Angels of Kokoda:

I’m not knocking the Greeks at Thermopylae, or the Yanks at the Alamo, or even our own Gallipoli…but they don’t rank against the Battle of the Kokoda Track that saved Australia. Not anywhere near. There’s never been anything like those battles. Nowhere. Never…Aussie Aussie Aussie. Oi Oi Oi.8

Second World War myths both reinforce, and sometimes compete with Anzac. Kokoda offers a seeming fallback for those who grasp the obvious flaw in all the gush about Gallipoli: the fighting at Anzac Cove was not, by any stretch of the imagination, about the defence of Australia. Most people assume the warfare in Papua was about precisely this, and some take it further, linking it to commemoration of a wider ‘Battle for Australia’.

None of this has much connection with historical reality. The ‘Battle for Australia’ never happened, because – another myth exploded – it is now clear Japan had no plans to invade here.9 Yet the Rudd Government provides support for the ‘Battle for Australia’ through the Department of Veterans Affairs.10 So far it is only token support compared with the immense patronage the Department allocates to promote Anzac Day – a scandal Marilyn Lake exposes. However another Keating-type government might embrace it seriously, in which case we will have to confront World War II.

And why not? The second World War was, after all, a continuation of the dynamics that brought us the first one. It had its origins in a cycle of imperialist conflict, to which Australia’s own ruling circles contributed, and the Allied war effort itself was undoubtedly imperialist, as I argued in Overland last year. 11 When Japanese militarism raised its ugly head in this region, it was gouging territory previously controlled by western colonialists. Most people think back on it as a war for democracy, yet these colonies were hardly democratic, and neither was the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people.

To recognise these facts still leaves open some complex issues, such as the fascist nature of the enemy regimes in Europe and Japan’s cruel occupation of China, which seem to make the war a special case. Moreover one can support Mao’s Red Army in China against Japan but also support the Indonesians against Australia’s Dutch allies, while bitterly opposing the bombing of Hiroshima.

So Blainey is mischievous to ask whether the authors support participation in World War II. This complicated question requires separate investigation. But we don’t need to resolve it to identify ‘Anzac patterns’ in the war.

Like the Anzacs, this war was about brutality as well as sacrifice. Popular memory is full of noble and heroic moments, but quickly glosses over Australian killing of prisoners for example. The tale quoted by Reynolds of Anzacs when their blood was up is matched in the Pacific war. An Australian officer recalled a New Guinea bayonet charge as ‘the most thrilling minutes of my life. We were all obsessed with this mad race to slaughter with the bayonet. For a while we stopped being ordinary blokes and became blood-lusting creatures.’12

Carina Donaldson and Marilyn Lake lament an ‘emphasis on the youth and innocence of soldiers’ in the latest Anzac ideology. A similar tale has untrained 17–18 year-old youths of the 39th Batallion fighting at a crucial stage of the Kokoda campaign. In fact the average age for the soldiers killed then was about 24.13

The war was as seminal for Australian ‘national identity’ as Gallipoli. The Anzac tradition became a pillar of conservative nationalism, but the left largely opposed this. Between the wars much of the left, in Ian Turner’s words, believed that ‘the worker had no fatherland, patriotism was the last refugee of the munitions-maker … all men were brothers, and nationalism stood on the lunatic fringe…’ 14 The Soviet entry into World War II changed all that, with Australian Communists throwing themselves into the war effort. In the process they embraced the nation-building project – not excluding, at times, its racism. It is sobering today to contemplate the Communist Party’s ‘Jappy Ending’ cartoon published a week after the bombing of Nagasaki.15

The miserable aftermath of conflict about which we hear so much when it comes to returnees from World War I and Vietnam, was just as bad for those returning from World War II, including the sense of betrayal. As a veteran called ‘Rusty’ told researcher John Barrett:

Those who died and were maimed have been cheated, though I suppose it was naïve to think it would be different. But the political and amoral ideologue have won the day, along with the capitalist money-grubbing class. Never mind, there’s still Anzac Day.16

For Rusty, the day was a consolation. We should be sensitive towards such sentiments, but there must be better consolations. The book’s authors are right to protest against one bloody passage of butchery being chosen to define society. They want something better: to ‘reclaim the best of our social and political traditions that had long defined the aspiration towards economic, social, sexual and racial equality as definitive of Australian values’. This is a vastly more civilised alternative, but it too raises questions. Are these really specifically Australian values? If it is nonsense to see mateship or courage under fire as unique to this country, do we not we look equally foolish claiming these common progressive aspirations as distinctive national traditions?

Marilyn Lake says historians must ‘distinguish between history and mythology’, but is it not mythology to claim equality and justice as an ‘Australian ethos’? The latter statement sits oddly with her quote from historian WK Hancock: ‘The policy of White Australia is the indispensable condition of every other Australian policy.’ She writes of ‘history as a critical practice, committed not to the inculcation of national pride, but to stimulate historical understanding…’ Yet she is not immune to pride, even writing astonishingly of this country’s ‘pioneering achievements’ in ‘extending equal rights to … Indigenous Australians’.

A touch of confusion is unsurprising. Patriotism is inherently mythic and irrational because at bottom nations are arbitrary constructs. White Australia provided cement to hold together the nascent federal state of 1901 because – especially after the class conflicts of the nineties – few people felt that much else united them in this thing called ‘Australia’. Where racism was insufficient, militarism filled some of the gaps: hence Gallipoli and Kokoda. Drawing a bloodline is very effective in separating off a national bloc against the rest of the world, so nations are often made in war, for reasons that should make us question nationalism itself. Attempts to base that divisive structure called the nation on progressive values will not wash, for these reflect the best in all of humanity, not just in us.

Tom O’Lincoln’s book The Myth of Liberation: Reconsidering Australia’s Pacific War will be published by Scribe in October.

  1. Tom Hyland, ‘Myths and Legends’, The Sunday Age, 24 April 2010, 19; Geoffrey Blainey, ‘We Weren’t So Dumb’, The Australian Literary Review, 7 April 2010, 3.
  2. For a class analysis of Anzac Day between the wars, see Kyla Cassells, ‘Politics and Meaning: Melbourne’s Eight Hours Day and Anzac Day, 1928-35’, Marxist Interventions 2, 100ff.
  3. Mick Armstrong, ‘Australia 1917: From World War to Class War’, Socialist Review, Melbourne, 4, Winter 1991.
  4. Roger Thompson, Australian Imperialism in the Pacific: The Expansionist Era, 1820-1920, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1980, 129.
  5. Thompson, Australian Imperialism, 102-3.
  6. Stuart Ward, ‘Security: Defending Australia’s empire’ in Deryck Schreuder and Stuart Ward (eds) Australia’s Empire, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008, 237.
  7. Hank Nelson, ‘Gallipoli, Kokoda and the Making of National Identity’.
  8. David Mulligan, Angels of Kokoda, Thomas C. Lothian, Melbourne, 2006, 206-7.
  9. Robert Stanley, Invading Australia: Japan and the Battle for Australia, 1942, Viking, Melbourne, 2008. The title is presumably ironic; Stanley argues that there was no invasion plan.
  10. The Battle for Australia Commemoration National Council thanks the Department of Veterans Affairs for assistance.
  11. Tom O’Lincoln, ‘Kill or be Killed’, Overland, 194, Autumn 2009.
  12. Quoted in Timothy Hall, New Guinea 1942-44, Methuen Australia, Sydney, 1981, 134.
  13. Stanley, Invading Australia, 192.
  14. Ian Turner, Room For Manoeuvre: Writings on History, Politics, Ideas and Play, Drummond, Melbourne, 1982, 26.
  15. Reproduced in Phil Griffiths, Australian Perceptions of Japan: The History of a Racist Phobia, Socialist Review, 3, Summer 1990, 54.
  16. Quoted in John Barrett, We Were There: Australian Soldiers of World War II Tell Their Stories, Penguin, Melbourne, 1988, 430.

Tom O'Lincoln

Tom O’Lincoln is a lifelong socialist and political activist who has written eight books and numerous newspaper and magazine articles over fifty years. His most recent book of political memoirs, The Highway is for Gamblers, was published by Interventions in 2017. Tom is currently living with Parkinson’s disease in an aged care facility in Melbourne.

More by Tom O'Lincoln ›

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    1. Thank you, Tom, for this thought provoking, considered and well-researched post. I keep thinking of a fellow I met on the train, this ANZAC Day past – he had medals, so I asked him what they were about. He was a Vietnam Vet. He told me how lucky he was – he’d come home, married, had terrific kids (now adults) and grand-children. He spoke about some of his fellow soldiers who had not fared so well – were alcoholic wrecks, social outcasts, terribly depressed: and the importance of ANZAC Day and other memorial days to them as the only time they really felt connected to other human beings. It was a moving conversation, on the Lilydale line. In the realignment of history, as ‘truths’ come to light, I hope the deconstruction of the ‘myths’ (all to the greater good) manage to take care for those who were/are swept in the maw of nationalism and their suffering. Alongside this concern, I look forward to a day when no nationalist greed-driven ideology can convince us to create armed forces; for without soldiers, there are no wars – and books such as the one you have reviewed, your post and your upcoming book are all seeds for this new, conscious flowering. Thanks.

  1. Full of typical pacifist missinformation eg the age of the diggers on the track, the average was probably 24 because the bulk of the deaths where from 21st brigade AIF diggers (the 2nd 16th actually had a Boer war vet in their ranks) Most of the 39th where probably 19 or 20.
    Bob Iskov 2nd 14th who is still killed a Japanese Colonel at Gona and found a detailed map of Darwin in his pocket.

  2. I’ve only read the intro, then skimmed through the rest of the book, so perhaps I’m missing something. But Lake’s alternative land-of-the-fair-go national myth does seem identical to what Paul Keating and Stuart Macintyre presented in the early Nineties as a distinctively Australian egalitarianism and commitment to “social justice”.

    This presumably includes all the familiar inconography: the Harvester judgement, arbitration and conciliation, early manhood and female suffrage, anti-conscription etc. One theme of this myth has the ALP as the true defender of the “national interest”, with the conservative parties prone to “forelock tugging” and mindless Empire loyalty.

    This then inevitably drags in all the stuff about the fall of Singapore, and Curtin looking to the United States, “free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship” with the UK. (In “True Believers”, the ALP history edited by Macintyre and John Faulkner, Graham Freudenberg describes the fall of Singapore as “the defining moment in Australian history”.)

    So it doesn’t surprise me that Lake and Reynolds are silent on the distinct interests of a subordinate Australian imperialism. And Blainey may have been mischievous, but I think he was right to mention WW2. It’s one foundational myth of that alternative nationalism which the authors (briefly) argue for.

    Gallipoli may have chronological priority over Kokoda, and certainly hogs most of the attention. But the enduring ideological importance of WW2 was to cast all subsequent military enterprises as pitting “democracy” against “totalitarianism”. This even retrospectively modified the popular interpretation of the Great War. In that sense the Anzac myth isn’t the main one we must contend with.

  3. I notice television news at my folks’ refer to our contemporary soldiers as ‘diggers’ – all wars have melded into the ‘fight for good/democracy over evil/totalitarianism’ and are somehow wrapped up in the ANZAC symbols, do you think?

      1. A couple of brief replies to some stimulating comments.

        Nick, I agree Blainey has a point about the failture to discuss WW2, what is mischievous is the demand for a categorical answer to “should we have fought the war”. He thinks that will wedge us anti-militarists, and I fear Lake and Reynolds think the same. But there’s no need to avoid the whole topic just because it’s genuinely hard to answer this one question.

        Clare, I recall they called the troops in Vietnam “diggers” too. It’s become standard stuff, but I think as a result it’s been neutralised and to most people it just means “Australian soldier” now. I’ve used it a few times in my own book on WW2. Was that rash?

        1. All those footnotes point away from ‘rash’, I suspect. Thinking about the ‘digger’ = Australian soldier equation: it reinforces the ‘heroic’ idea of brave mateship et al and also the ideology of defending what’s good from what’s ‘evil’ – useful associations for recruitment and maintenance. These days the ads paint a picture of humanitarian works being shouldered by our diggers … which begs the question: why not put all those resources into humanitarian outreach and leave the guns at home?

  4. At various times, the rhetoric about Anzac and the rhetoric about Kokoda have been in conflict, most obviously under Keating, who explicitly wanted to commemorate the pacific war as a left nationalist alternative to Gallipoli. I think now, though, they’re more or less rolled into the same discourse .

    1. A good review Tom .I have not read the book but will remedy that as soon as I can. It certainly brought forth a farrago of vituperation in Quadrant.
      I am looking forward to seeing your promised book in October.
      A point on whether Japan intended to invade Australia-again I have not read Stanley’s book but I am aware of his arguments and am persuaded that it is likely that it was not on Japan’s agenda-at least at that time.I do not know whether that was known at Government level – I am sure that the population at large believed in and greatly feared the reality of such a threat.
      On the term diggers I think the left should reserve that for the English revolutionaries or the group that fed in the hippies in the summer of love.

  5. Greg, John Curtin knew by late April 1942, but kept it quiet. Reasons suggested for this include: 1) he didn’t want to tip off the Japanese that their signals had been decoded; 2) he was a chronic worrier and kept worrying that maybe it wasn’t true; 3) he wanted to keep demanding sacrifice from the populace, as in his “Season of Austerity” speeches in August-September. The third point has got to be an important part of it.

    A majority of the population believed in the invasion threat, but not everyone. A Sydney newspaper survey found that 54 per cent of respondents expected Japan to invade — hardly overwhelming.

  6. It becomes hard to honour the kokoda campain when Australia allows indonesia to take their land and force foriegn laws upon them, we allow the indonesians making them suffer after all they done for us, I cant support war when we disregard people who helped us and now we forget and let their country be stolen, wars not about justice, its about death and greed, the pupuans must be wondering why they helped us

  7. Reflections on‘if we expect England to stand by us in any trouble we ought to stand by England in her troubles’ automatically defer to(in a similar economico-politico-historico climate)‘if we expect the United States to stand by us in any trouble we ought to stand by the United States in their troubles’. The noose of war tightens all ways.

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