Lest we forget that history repeats

There is a scene in the film of Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys in which Irwin, the new, young teacher out to make a name for himself, takes his pupils to a First World War memorial. The boys know all of the poetry – Brooke, Sassoon, Owen. They can rattle it off like a bus timetable because they know they’re going to need it if they’re to pass their Oxbridge entrance exams. They have probably walked past the memorial a thousand times but have never given it much thought. Irwin draws them in close. ‘It’s not lest we forget,’ he tells them, ‘it’s lest we remember. That’s what all this is about – the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.’

We are just past the starting line of a four-year marathon of Great War commemorations. We have already observed the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (June 28) and the British (and, by extension, Australian) declaration of war on Germany (August 4). There are more milestones to be remembered in this centenary year (the first battles of Marne and Ypres, the departure of the first convoy of Anzac ships from Albany) but we Australians will not break into a sweat for another seven months or so when we mark the passing of one hundred years since the arrival of Australian and New Zealand troops at Anzac Cove on what has become our national day, 25 of April.

Preparations for race day began some time ago. In late 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the establishment of a 21-person Anzac Centenary Advisory Board, chaired by Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston. By that time, a Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Centenary of Anzac had been in place for months (there is still one in the current government). As James Brown put it in Anzac’s Long Shadow: ‘Preparation for the four years of the Anzac centenary is, in every sense, monumental. Governments, rarely able to lift their gaze beyond daily, even hourly, media cycles, have meticulously prepared for this anniversary for nearly half a decade.’

Successive governments have put their money where their mouths, and ministers, are. The cost of the centenary to Australian state and federal taxpayers – to say nothing of an expectedly vast contribution from private donors – will be in the region of $320 million.

To put that into perspective, the UK has set aside ‘just’ £55 million (around $100 million) for the commemorations, despite the fact that its military casualties vastly outnumbered those of Australia: 750,000 deaths as against 60,000.

It would be crass beyond belief to attempt to assign a monetary value to each of these lives lost but it seems to be agreed by everybody, one way or another, that the scale of the First World War remembrances, as defined by state expenditure, matters. Angela Merkel’s German coalition government was roundly criticised when it became apparent that the cost of its commemorations would not exceed €5 million (around $7 million). It doesn’t, I think, take a cynic to wonder if the same politicians and historians who disapproved of Germany’s parsimony would have been outraged by the country’s bellicose nationalism had it spent, in their view, too much money.

These large numbers, in the end, aren’t all that illustrative. To get a true sense of Australia’s overall investment in First World War commemorations, it is necessary to both drill down into, and look beyond, the $320 million figure. A considerable proportion of that money has been allocated for the Local Grants Program through which, according to the official Anzac Centenary website, ‘funding of up to $125,000 is available for each Federal Member of Parliament (MP) to support projects in their electorate commemorating the First World War’. There are 150 electorates in Australia; if projects in each received the full amount, the total cost would be almost $19 million.

Here is a sample of the kinds of projects that, so far, have been supported in my home state of South Australia: a period infantry and light horse camp at Morphettville and a uniformed march and commemoration ceremony ($34,968); the publication of a book which identifies and provides biographical information of all South Australian doctors who enlisted in the First World War ($6000); the installation of a full-size steel silhouette of a First World War Australian soldier adjacent to the Salisbury RSL sub-branch ($500); five presentations of ‘Do Not Forget, Australia’, a theatrical production for school students by Page to Stage Ltd. ($14,850). It may be added that additional hundreds of thousands of dollars of state and federal money has been poured into commemorative TV dramas Deadline Gallipoli, The War That Changed Us and Anzac Girls.

There is, it seems, little danger of anyone forgetting that Australia fought in a war a hundred years ago. The question is: which aspects of it are we being impelled to remember? Last month, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told schoolchildren at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra that ‘the war shaped our country and our reflection on it will shape our future’. Abbott reflected on the ‘tragic waste’ that was ‘for a good cause’. It is doubtful any of those children went away with the least inkling of what this cause was.

As Jeff Sparrow has pointed out, the events that are central to the Anzac legend (chief among them, the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign) have been thoroughly dehistorified, filtered through an anti-politics that disallows conversations around the war’s origins.

We are rarely called upon, either, to reflect on those who deserted, mutinied, suicided, were irreversibly traumatised or who fought a different kind of battle – for peace, or the dissolution of empire. The conflict’s human dimension, if it comes up at all, is discussed in a language that is narrowly experiential.

As author Simon Jenkins has said of Britain’s centenary commemorations: ‘The repetition of virtually identical “stories from the trenches” becomes banal, a nightly pornography of violence.’ There are now not even any living veterans to tell these stories and so they seem to slip further into the realms of mythology, obsessively and graphically restated like some contemporary version of the Iliad. In this way, a particular kind of remembrance of the First World War is implicitly fostered, one that has the effect of bringing the conflict in so close that all there is to look at is minutiae, without a history, without an aftermath – and without a politics. There remains nothing to be exposed about the war’s grim quotidian reality and so its tropes and clichés safely ossify into legend.

This aestheticised, depoliticised brand (and branding) of commemoration serves to not only obscure the past but also the present. If, after all, we are to accept that the nation’s character really was defined by war – the spirit of its people ‘proved with shot and steel’ as AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson put it – then where does that leave debates about contemporary global conflicts? The dearth of parliamentary discussion around the war in Afghanistan, and the Howard government’s disdain for the mass opposition to the commitment of Australian troops to the grand folly of George W Bush’s Iraq crusade, point to the usefulness of the Anzac myth in the promotion of an unchallengeable militarism.

Politicians endlessly repeat that we should not forget the lessons of the wars we wage but the more significant truism is that history repeats. Our failure to even discuss these lessons – let alone commit them to memory or act as though we have understood them – ensures it. Robert McNamara, the former US defence secretary, has observed that the invasion of Iraq ignored every lesson of Vietnam. The result, at a cost exceeding US$1 trillion: the deaths of (at least) half a million Iraqis and 4,500 American troops.

These facts have already been forgotten. As I write this, Tony Abbott is considering sending Australian soldiers back into Iraq; these soldiers would, in essence, be there to counter the horrific blowback that has resulted from the original invasion. Which future conflicts will ignore the lessons that we refuse to face up to today even as ‘lest we forget’ continues to roll effortlessly off our tongues?

We may not have to wait long to find out. Former CIA spy and now open source advocate Robert David Steele told the Guardian’s Nafeez Ahmed in a recent interview that there are: ‘five major overlapping threats on the immediate horizon. They are all related: the collapse of complex societies, the acceleration of the Earth’s demise with changes that used to take 10,000 years now taking three or less, predatory or shock capitalism and financial crime out of the City of London and Wall Street, and political corruption at scale, to include the west supporting 42 of 44 dictators. We are close to multiple mass catastrophes.’ It’s a view with some traction at the moment. In a piece for the Atlantic last month titled ‘Yes, It Could Happen Again’, Roger Cohen argued that the geopolitical preconditions for an unlikely but not unthinkable third global war are already in place.

Amid the din of next year’s Gallipoli commemorations we may also pay too little heed to another anniversary that ought to be rife with lessons to be learned. In August 2015 it will be seventy years since the era of nuclear weapons was inaugurated with the dropping of the bombs Fat Man and Little Boy on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It is, as Eric Scholsser’s important new book Command and Control reminds us, a matter of extraordinary good luck that the world has yet to be subject to an apocalyptic exchange of nuclear weapons.

Barack Obama has always talked a good game on disarmament but what lessons has his administration learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Cold War arms race? None, evidently, which have been sufficiently absorbed to prevent the US committing to spending as much as US$1 trillion over the next 30 years on upgrading its nuclear arsenal. Britain will spend tens of billions of pounds over the next 25 years, no matter who is in power, on maintaining its hundreds of sea-based nuclear missiles.

This marathon of remembrance in which we find ourselves may yet turn out to be a long sleepwalk into another catastrophe for all humanity if the lessons the First World War’s 16 million dead have to impart are transfigured into mere myth, pomp and nostalgia.

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

More by Ben Brooker ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. The whole Gallipoli, Kokoda cult makes me sick. It’s war porn and I think it’s time we grew up and stopped making myths out of tragic mistakes. And the truth is, the US spends one trillion dollars a year, every year on the military and that’s in what any other era would have called peace time. They have 700 military bases all over the world and have they made us safer? On balance they have not. If they want peace and security they should invest in justice, not war. War is by its very nature unjust and only leads to anger, extremism and more wars.

  2. Not that it helps, but I was thinking the other day how barbaric war was, is and always will be, until war itself is laid to rest, both as tragedy and farce. ‘Peace in rest!’ I say.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.