Memory and the anti-politics of Anzac

Anzac Day celebrates forgetting.

Its revival, the transformation of a ceremony nearly extinct in the 1980s into today’s turbocharged festival, coincides with the excision from national consciousness of the most important aspects of the Great War.

In their book What’s wrong with Anzac?, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds document the funding that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs pours into resources promoting Anzac Day. Yet despite such educational campaigns, how many Australians can answer the simple question: what was the war about?

Conservatives, and most liberals, tell us that Anzac Day stands above politics. That’s true, in a fashion. But the event’s not apolitical so much as anti-political.

Where Carl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of politics by other means, Anzac celebrates the battlefield as a realm entirely removed from political life. The Great War spurred an unprecedented degree of social polarisation in Australia, and yet the obsessive retelling of the Gallipoli landing never corresponds to any equivalent interest in, say, the populace’s remarkable rejection of conscription in two ballots in 1916 and 1917. The Bush/Blair/Howard War on Terror rendered that period more relevant than ever, since obvious parallels can be drawn between the hysterical patriotism of the ‘Freedom Fries’ days and the jingoism during which most Australian cities renamed their streets (if you live in Victoria Street, there’s a pretty good chance it was once called Wilhelm Road), while the state-sanctioned suspicion of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 corresponds to the widespread persecution of Irish and Catholics in the wake of the Easter Uprising, and the unparalleled freedom granted to security agencies echoes Billy Hughes’ promulgation of the open-ended War Precautions Act.

Yet Anzac Day functions not to celebrate but to prevent that kind of history. It lauds bravery yet allows no room for what Bismarck called ‘civil courage’, a trait that many non-combatants showed in abundance when, against all the newspapers, politicians and mainstream political parties, they opposed the slaughter in Europe.

Again, in these endless discussions about the young men of that time, how often does anyone point out that Australians saw one of the very first anti-war protests anywhere in the world, when the Industrial Workers of the World called a rally on the Domain the weekend the conflict broke out? Everything that the IWW predicted about the war came to pass, just as everything that the official jingoes said proved entirely wrong. But amidst all the Anzac headshaking about the horrors of Gallipoli, there’s no room to mention those who tried to stop the killing taking place.

The anti-politics of Anzac Day not only diminishes the experiences of the millions of Australians who did not fight, it renders entirely monochromatic the experiences of the soldiers themselves. We can tell, for instance, the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 but only because a certain version of the story supports Anzac’s presentation of war as a time out of time, an experience in a realm where normal rules did not apply. The perversity of men shaking hands and wishing each other luck before obediently ducking back into the trenches to commence hostilities supports Anzac’s general depiction of combat as a social anomaly, a mysterious business entirely disconnected from what Archbishop Mannix called ‘a sordid trade war’. That’s why there’s much less emphasis on the context of those unofficial armistices, which were, initially, made possible because so many ordinary Germans had been working in Britain and felt no particular animosity to the men in the opposite trenches, and which were systematically broken up by authorities terrified that if the soldiers fraternised it would be impossible to make them fight. Indeed, even if you only focus on combat (rather than the widespread mutinies that later took place), it’s possible to tell the story of the Great War in terms of measures by officers to force their men to kill. In his fascinating book Trench Warfare, Tony Ashworth documents the regularity in which ordinary soldiers on both sides adopted what he calls the ‘live and let live’ policy, allowing unofficial truces punctuated by ritualistic exchanges of gunfire at certain times and certain places, exchanges specifically designed not to kill anyone and thus avoid retribution. In Ashworth’s argument, the official tactics adopted by commanders were attempts to break down these proto-political refusals, to force the men into contact each other and thus ensure that they would fight.

In other words, even in the most extreme circumstances, the Great War was a social conflict, shaped by internal contradictions. That’s why, if the origins of the war are now never discussed, there’s an equally determined silence about how the slaughter ended, with revolution in Russia and Germany, and near insurrections in many other countries.

At the same time, one of the curious consequences of the anti-politics of Anzac is that the celebrations embrace the literature of disenchantment that emerged from the war, albeit with a distinctive twist. The war is now told, not in the bloodless narratives of contemporary Empire propagandists, but as a compendium of tropes taken from Sassoon and Owen and Remarque and Barbusse. Every schoolkid knows about shell shock and bodies hanging on barbed wire and rats feasting on corpses and the rest of it, yet these details, which in the original texts contrasted what had been promised with what war delivered, are now used to bolster the presentation of combat as an experience entirely divorced from normal social relations.

As William James noted, the ‘possibility of violent death [is] the soul of all romance’, which is why showing war’s horrors does not, in itself, foster antiwar sentiment, since ‘the horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis’.

It’s a central part of Anzac’s anti-politics: the hellishness of war separates it from ordinary life, transforming Clausewitz’s ‘politics by other means’ into a transcendental experience at which civilians can only marvel. Whereas for the writers of the twenties and the thirties, the Great War disappointed by representing, in concentrated form, the violent banality of industrial society, today the very bloodiness of the conflict is used to highlight the contrast with our own day-to-day life. The narrative therefore shifts from social critique (why did we allow these atrocities to happen?) to a veneration of sacrifice, the nature of which is largely irrelevant.

The Gallipoli pilgrimage provides the obvious example. The attendees at the dawn service do not ask themselves why Australians died invading a country thousands of miles away. No, that particular issue’s rendered inherently irrelevant, since the backpackers go there not to think about history but to marvel at the height of the cliffs and the sharpness of the rocks, and to feel an awe at people their own age experiencing horrors that they couldn’t imagine. The question arising from the pilgrimage is thus not ‘why did it happen?’ (a query that leads not only into history but into politics) but rather ‘what did it feel like?’, an aestheticisation of the past that’s explicitly anti-political.

Or, rather, it’s anti-political, in one sense. In another, it’s entirely compatible with the trend toward militarisation in the wake of 9/11, not simply because it fits entirely with the new consensus that there’s something inherently underhand in debating the politics of war (recall how long the Afghan conflict had been running before Parliament convened a formal discussion) but because the question ‘what did it feel like?’ always implies a follow-up: ‘I wonder what it would be like.’

Senator Scott Ludlam’s fascinating diary from his visit to Afghanistan illustrates how this plays out in recruits. Speaking of the soldiers he meets, he writes:

All the same, there’s an eagerness to prove themselves. The further forward you get, the happier crew are to be there and the less interested in being pulled back into safety. Having spent years training, most of them really, really want to be in theatre.

“This is a great battle lab for us.”


“I’d do this whether you paid me or not.”

If its horrors make war a transcendental experience, the contrast with the banality of late capitalist life make combat a perpetual source of fascination, in precisely the way James describes.

What are the consequences of this recognition of Anzac as an anti-politics?

Most obviously, it implies a certain futility about debating its meaning, even through posts like this.

Because Anzac’s not an argument so much as an aesthetic event, it’s largely impervious to critique. Everyone knows the newspaper formula: you devote most of your space to praising the diggers and republishing various twenty-first century versions of the ‘old lie’ – and then you give half a column to someone to ponder what it all means. The ritualistic debates about the nature of Anzac are, to a large extent, part of Anzac, a means for keeping the commemoration in the centre of Australian life.

Which is not to suggest that critiques should not be mounted, nor that it’s not important to foster genuine historical debate about the Great War, but simply to suggest that the terrain will not shift substantially without the re-emergence of anti-war movement that offers a different way of thinking about conflicts.

If you look back at the shifting attitudes to Anzac, that’s the real correlation. Alan Seymour’s One Day of the Year, usually cited as evidence of post-war disenchantment, obviously emerged from the anti-Vietnam movement, just as the near collapse of the celebrations in the 1980s stemmed from the rise of the anti-nuclear movement.

Contrary to conservative revisionism, peace activism has never involved an indifference to the plight of soldiers themselves. We’re often told that anti-war activists spat at conscripts returning from Vietnam. What we don’t hear is that huge numbers of the soldiers themselves supported the movement, both once they returned and, sometimes, while they were actually in theatre. In terms of the memory of the Great War, many of the most interesting studies of what was done to the troops have come from writers influenced by the peace movement, precisely because they’re more likely to eschew the top-down approach of reactionary historians.

Some 16 million people died in the First World War. It is an extraordinary statistic. In the face of such overwhelming suffering, such tremendous devastation, the only decent commemoration entails ensuring that nothing comparable ever happens again.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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    1. Thanks for putting this link on here. I have always been anti-glorification of wars, but this article and its replies really clarify the argument for me.

  1. A valuable critique.
    For a good account of class differences in “the experiences of the soldiers themselves” see Alistair Thomson ‘Passing shots at the ANZAC legend’ in Burgmann, V. and Lee, J. (eds) A Most Valuable Acquisition McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Ringwood 1988 pp. 189-204. It deserves republication.

  2. All I can say is that
    you’ve captured succinctly why I’m always uneasy on this day.
    Thank you. Rosie

  3. Excellent piece. Unfortunately history textbooks have moved away from a critical perspective of both WW1 and WW2. Schools are swamped with durable colour resources from DVA. Quite a few teachers I’ve worked with are anxious to ensure students are inculcated with a solemn veneration for Australia’s involvement in these wars.
    I think the answer may be more critical thinking in teacher training courses.

    1. That’s not going to happen. Teachers are turned out with as much critical thought capacity as you average army private soldier. Don’t question, just regurgitate.

      1. Why am I using here reading this article with my students then? Gross generalisations tend not to indicate a capacity for critical thought.

        1. same here. starting to revile ANZAC day and the adulation it inspires in so many students’ eyes.

          Good articles and a powerful antidote to war for this particular teacher as well.

  4. Great piece Jeff. Articulates some of my thoughts and views in a way I have been unable to and also some new ways to think about it all. Very much agree with the triumph of spectacle over content.

  5. Alan Seymour’s play premiered in 1958 before the Vietnam War years.

    I think of it every Anzac Day.

    Standfast’s press release is also very useful: Veterans group condemns hollow ANZAC Day: “‎You do not honor the dead through mindless flag waving, rewriting history or promoting new wars…Which war gained women the right to vote? Which war gained the 8 hour work day? Which war gave people the right to hold public demonstrations? There isn’t one, our freedom has always been fought and won by the people, civilians, standing up to their own government. The myth that if Australian troops fight they are automatically fighting for our freedom needs to be busted because it lets warmongering politicians off the hook when they slaughter our youth.”

  6. Excellent piece, Jeff. How we remember war in this country is increasingly disturbing, and with the centenary of WWI approaching the collective amnesia is only set to get worse.

    I have more than a passing interest in the myth-making surrounding war. Last year I was fortunate to share the Asher Literary Award – an award that celebrates women writing in any genre with anti-war message or theme. My novel explored how war is remembered, and the damage involved in misremembering.

    In Australia, we have perversely adopted as our national foundation narrative an act of war that occurred nearly a century ago on the other side of the world. Claiming that as our nation’s creation myth allows us to celebrate sacrifice on the beaches of the Turkish peninsula, whilst comforting ourselves that such slaughter has never bloodied our land.

    This is dishonest and destructive, elevating tales of heroism and mateship in order to sanctify the brutal truth of an imperial war. By quarantining the bloodshed overseas we allow ourselves to forget the violence of white settlement.

    Remembrance without reflection – Lest We Remember a more fitting aphorism.

  7. “One Day of the Year” was first performed by an amateur group in Adelaide in 1960. The first professional production was in Sydney in 1961. In 1962 it was produced for television and broadcast on Channel 7.

  8. One caveat Jeff – re your reference to Seymour’s “One Day Of The Year” – it was written in the 50’s. It didn’t emerge from the anti Vietnam war movement.

  9. Excellent piece Jeff. As an aside, Veterans Affairs recently released a study it commissioned examining community attitudes to Anzac Day. The report received scant and mostly negative coverage in the MSM, probably because its findings, based on focus group surveys, revealed a fairly jaundiced view of the commemoration. In particular, it was seen as another national day on which drinking to excess was encouraged. Beer and nationalism go hand-in-hand. Footy is the perfect foil. I couldn’t find the report on the VA website.

  10. Thanks for the insightful and intelligent commentary. Now that I have lived in Europe for many years, the bizarreness of Australians’ glorification of the futile loss of life at Gallipoli is thrown into even starker contrast.

    In Europe the realities of bloody war were a part of day to day life in the form of lost homes and livelihoods as well as dead friends and family members. Throughout much of Europe the memories are still very real and there is nothing to celebrate. The World Wars are remembered with horror and even chagrin by some nations, and people still live with the legacy of their shell-shocked grandparents and psychologically damaged fathers.

    While we should remember, regret and respect the misery our troops went through, we should condemn the insanity of telling this as a glorious sacrifice. It was a senseless waste, and Gallipoli in particular was an epic military stuff up that killed people’s fathers and sons.

  11. Red Poppy / Red Carnation? Politically, April 25 means a lot more to the Portuguese than it does to most Australians, as seen in the contrast between the two celebrations.

  12. Yes, any objectivity went out the window when we turned mother’s apron stings into a lasoo for any powerful imperialist. As a child conceived in a Nazi camp, and a Vietnam Vet, I see so little critique of the event that is the continuance of national politics as violent foreign policy.

    I commend to any and all “Her Privates We” by Frederick Manning, but nothing from the Kremlin of orthodoxy seen as the Australian War Memorial, whose Council of Trustees are but Generals and tools of the system…

  13. OK, so I accept your condemnations of the way modern Australia celebrates ANZAC Day.

    But that’s all it is. Condemnation of the young for daring to change. An assault on the society those old men died helping to create because it’s not turned out the way you think it should have.

    Instead of lambasting it, how about offering your solution to having your points included in the teaching and remembrance of ANZAC Day?

    Of course, you’d argue you’re a critic, and critics aren’t supposed to offer solutions, but what that fallacy fails to recognise is this attitude is precisely why nobody gives a shit about what critics have to say in our modern interconnected world.

    So stop simply pointing out problems, because any idiot can do that and they do every day, and instead offer solutions, because that’s the hard part of being intelligent.

  14. An excellent piece Jeff. The resurrection of the Australia martial spirit in recent times has to be seen in the context of our own armed forces’ reorganisation, massive and increased military spending, increased ‘security’ services spending, and the geo-poitics of our national jostling for imperialist status in the Asia-Pacific region. Goverment spending has, over the last couple of decades, specifically targeted schools and schoolkids with war-based teaching aids and martial propaganda to help create a youth sector imbued with the martial spirit. It always bugs me that people can sit around complaining about, and hating, governments for accepting global warming as fact, for trying to implement mining taxes, carbon emission legisation, gambling reforms etc, but when the same governments and the same politicians throw on a war, it’s bust a gut to get in there and ‘do the job’. When it comes to war, it is Governments that create wars, and they are responsible for the killing, maiming, destruction that follow. Part of the ‘magic’ of the Anzac myth and legend is the way it avoids asking who was to blame for the wars it commemorates, and insulates the war-makers from accountabilty. Sadly it also dooms future generations to give their bodies and souls unquestioningly to future martial adventures.

  15. I have been to the dawn service at Anzac Cove and while also putting myself in their shoes etc – i did also ask – why did this happen? As a lover of history I went there informed, as many others do, and learnt a lot more from the Turkish perspective from going there. Have you actually been there, Jeff? Not everyone that goes to Anzac Cove are mindless backpackers looking at awe at the cliffs and sunrise as you have generalised. Give us some credit.

  16. Thanks for the piece, Jeff and the many contributors above. My take on Alan Seymour’s One Day of the Year is that it shows the cost of war in the absence of men; physical absences and emotional absences/silences that play out in their families and separate generations. A new element in Darwin this year was the addition of US soldiers to the Anzac Parade, in uniform and under their own banner (but not the flag). The soldiers were from the contingent on permanent rotation that is now based in the Top End and perhaps also the battleship docked in the harbour for R & R. It was in the media the day before, too soon for any kind of response. American sailors and pilots died in the defence of Darwin and the practice of commemorating them is established. But marching on city streets! And we’re still told there isn’t a US base here.

  17. A very minor point (and an excellent article), but at the end you confuse deaths with casualties – deaths caused by the war were more like 16 million in total, not 35 million (the total dead + wounded). Doesn’t detract from the argument, of course, just worth correcting.

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