Lest we forget
Professor Marilyn Lake
Originally published in The Age on 23rd April, 2009
I have been pondering the Anzac myth. Clearly it continues to exert power. It taunts and troubles us. It looms larger than ever in Australian historical memory — with the generous help of the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But this business of memory-making demands analysis from historians, not cosy collaboration. A schoolboy selected to join the Government's annual pilgrimage to Gallipoli said he wanted to see the place where Australian history really happened. Really? To see the sites of Australian history you have to go to Turkey? Popular memory and scholarly history are clearly at odds here.
The observation that Gallipoli was a military disaster is beside the point. Anzac serves as Australia's creation story: in proving their manhood, Australian men proved our nationhood — a nation was born on that day of death. So the legend ran. And it ran like wildfire among anxious colonials seeking British approval. As the British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett reported: "These raw colonial troops … proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres and Neuve Chapelle."
The myth will remain our creation story until the nation is reborn, until we have the courage to detach ourselves from the mother country, declare our independence, inaugurate a republic, draw up a constitution that recognises the first wars of dispossession fought against indigenous peoples. Thus we can truly make history in Australia.
The Anzac myth has become more significant in recent years, having been mightily subsidised by the Howard government. War stories have figured ever more prominently in our culture, our schools, on our TV screens, in our bookshops — but they do not usually tell of the "perpetual state of warfare", as one colonist described it, entailed in the colonisation of Australia.
Rather, modern Australian history has been defined by the exploits of the expeditionary forces sent to engage in military operations overseas, which began with the Boer War in South Africa.
Before 1996, there was no historical commemorations program. Rather, there was a war graves program to "commemorate, individually, the sacrifice of those Australian men and women who gave their lives during, or as a result of, their service to Australia and the Commonwealth in war, or who were prisoners of war, and to maintain these commemorations".
Since 1996, the Department of Veterans Affairs has spent millions on inculcating history lessons to "ensure that Australia's wartime heritage is preserved and the community better appreciates the significance of wartime experiences to our development as a nation".
When participation in foreign wars becomes the basis of national identity, it requires the forgetting or marginalising of other narratives, experiences and values. The Anzac myth requires us to forget gender and racial exclusions, the long history of pacifism and anti-war movements, the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia; to forget that at Gallipoli we fought for "empire" not the nation, symbolising our continuing colonial condition.
Anzac was a celebration of race and manhood. The Australians, proclaimed the Argus newspaper, "have in one moment stepped into the world-wide arena in the full stature of great manhood". Aboriginal men were legally barred from enlistment — many enlisted anyway and were denied repatriation benefits. Later attempts to include women in the Anzac legend — as nurses, servicewomen, Land Army girls, as grieving mothers and widows — should not prevent recognition that the myth seeks to locate our national identity in the masculine domain of military warfare.
The myth ignores the fact that participation in foreign wars has always generated opposition, and that many wars have been deeply unpopular. The Anzac tradition has been paralleled by an anti-war tradition, often marked as feminine, that embraces, among others, suffragists such as Rose Scott, the Women's Peace Army of World War 1 and Save Our Sons during Vietnam.
If the power of Anzac derives from its status as our creation myth, what about Federation? Clearly, if the nation was born at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, then Federation didn't do the job. The Anzac myth highlights its limits as a nation-building exercise in real and symbolic terms.
Unlike the American colonies — whose example of independence was implanted in historical memory and always before the constitution makers of the 1890s — the Australian federal fathers failed to achieve the heroic goal of manly independence. Absences can be illuminating. Australia has no equivalents of the American monuments to political liberty: the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial.
What this nation does have is war memorials. Our landscape has been transformed by war memorials, small and large, local and national, statues of diggers in the hundreds, obelisks, cairns and cenotaphs. The cult of Anzac has been naturalised in Australia, but, to a newcomer, the monumental honouring of war dead might look excessive.
What other creation stories are available to Australians? We also have a vision of democratic equality and social justice enacted by the Commonwealth and endlessly articulated by liberals, socialists, feminists, labour leaders and trade unionists in the decades before Gallipoli.
Before World War 1, Australia had an international reputation as an egalitarian democracy and progressive social laboratory, a place that legislated to secure the equal rights of women and men, state pensions for the aged and for invalids, the rights of mothers, the recognition and remuneration of citizen soldiers and citizen mothers, all paid from general revenue. Australia enshrined the idea that workers should enjoy better conditions and be paid a decent living wage. As an advanced social democracy, this country led the world.
As one contemporary said, we had "infinite potentialities".
In the next few years, as we prepare to inaugurate a republic, we have a rare opportunity to focus on that potential as we give birth to a nation committed to the values forged over many decades of activism in civil and political society, of democratic equality and social justice, joined by a desire for reconciliation and restitution. Our first independence day will honour Anzac as one of the many experiences that shaped the nation. But while honouring the past, we will know too that the time has come to transcend it.