2010, 167 p.
I doubt that this book will be reissued in the next two years. I’m sure that the publishers have had an asterisk against 2014 and 2015 as bumper years for military history, with the centenary of WW I in 2014 and the Gallipoli centenary in 2015. This book, originally published in 2010, is not likely to sit comfortably on the shelves with big books with big blokey authors that would have been scheduled specially to take advantage of all this interest. But many of the sentiments expressed by the historians who have contributed to it will continue to bubble along underneath all the ceremony, emotion and hyperbole. You can find it manifested in the Honest History website.
In 2009 historian Marilyn Lake was invited by the History Teachers Association of Victoria and the University of Melbourne to give a lecture on ‘The Myth of Anzac’ in a series on mythologies. A condensed version of the address was published in The Age soon afterwards.
In it, she argued that in the 21st century Australia should reclaim the values of equality and justice which in an earlier era was thought to define a distinctive ‘Australian’ ethos. She suggested that it was inappropriate for “a modern democratic nation to adopt an Imperial, masculinist, militarist event as the focus of our national self-definition in the twenty-first century.” (p.3)
A furore erupted online- a “mixture of hostility and support, personal abuse and thoughtful reflection”. In her introduction to this book, she briefly mentions the abuse but outlines in more detail some of the more reflective responses posted onto the Comments section of the Age website.
This book is a compilation, then, of chapters written by a number of authors (both male and female) in response to the questions raised by Lake’s article and the commentary that surrounded it.
In Chapter 1 ‘Are nations really made in war?’ Henry Reynolds addresses the assertion that Australia became a nation through Gallipoli. What then, he asks, was the first 100 years of white settlement about? He points out that before 1915 Australia was a remarkably successful society: peaceful, well-governed, prosperous, with progressive reforms that placed them at the forefront of democratic advance. (p. 26). He emphasizes that the symbolism, ceremony and language of Anzac relate back to Edwardian ideas circulated prior to 1914, drawn from the popularization of Social Darwinism where the fit would survive and triumph while the weak would be crushed and swept aside. But it was not the only discourse at the time. There was a strong peace activist movement at the turn of the century, peaking with the Universal Peace Congress in London in the summer of 1908.
Reynolds’ second chapter ‘Colonial Cassandras: Why weren’t the warnings heeded?’ looks at the Boer War at the turn of the century, and the disquiet it elicited about Australian involvement. The Boer War induced British military planners to look to Australia, Canada and New Zealand for potential manpower. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905-6 was even more influential in eliciting Australia’s fears of the ‘yellow horde’, fears that could be easily manipulated by Britain to encourage Australia to maintain an armed presence for local purposes. Nonetheless, when war broke out in Europe, Australia’s leaders dutifully accepted the Imperial argument that Australia’s fate would be determined by what transpired in north-western Europe, and Australian troops flowed to campaigns on the other side of the world.
In Chapter 3 Carina Donaldson and Marilyn Lake use Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year as a barometer of sentiment about Anzac. Donaldson and Lake back-track to examine the history of the anti-war movement in the 1920s and 1930s Australia, and its connection with international bodies. By the 1960s Anzac Day was largely treated with indifference, captured well by The One Day of the Year, which opened the Adelaide Arts Festival in 1960. The 1960 version condemned the militaristic values of the Anzac legend and the uncouthness of its annual celebration. Participation in Anzac Day celebrations fell away further during the late 1960s-early 1970s as Anzac Day became a focus for the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. But a new narrative for Anzac was being written, exemplified by Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years and Patsy Adam-Smiths Anzacs which cast the young soldiers as innocent victims of law. The inclusion of children, grand-children and great-granchildren of the fallen and the aged in the Anzac Day rituals brought about the ‘new Anzacs’, free to celebrate ‘the Anzac spirit.’ And so, Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year was rewritten in the mid-1980s, placing the blame for the excesses of militarism not on the old diggers themselves but the ‘top brass’ in the RSL.
Joy Damousi in her chapter ‘Why do we get so emotional about Anzac?’ looks at the public emotional responses that have overlaid Anzac Day. In particular she looks at the merging of military and family history, where an ever-multiplying number of people are encouraged to ‘claim’ their family members of the past . “Those who speak from the perspective of a familial connection seem to claim a special authority to speak- sometimes as those who inherit the Anzac tradition”. (p. 97) This emphasis on forging a personal, emotional reaction to a family member seems to be a particular focus of commemorative activities that are reaching fruition right now, aimed at school children.
Mark McKenna’s chapter ‘Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s national day?’ picks up on some of the themes raised in Lake and Donaldson’s chapter but from a political perspective. He argues that the increasing awkwardness over Australia Day commemoration has led to the search for an alternative national day, and that politicians have fallen on Anzac Day with relief. Paul Keating wrote Kokoda onto the Anzac legend, arguing that the ‘modern image’ of Australia was formed not in the imperialist WWI but in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, in our own neighbourhood. Howard returned to the older view of Gallipoli, on steroids.
In the final chapter Marilyn Lake asks ‘How do children learn about the spirit of ANZAC?’ She points out the heavy investment of the Department of Veterans Affairs in publication funding and educational programs. It’s a chilling chapter.
The book closes with an epilogue co-written by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds. It returns to the ‘Myth of Anzac’ lecture that prompted the whole debate, and closes with this exhortation:
Like the many Australians who are concerned with the homage paid to the Anzac spirit and associated militarisation of our history, we are concerned about the ways in which history is used to define our national heritage and national values. We suggest that Australians might look to alternative national traditions that gave pride of place to equality of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice: the idea of a living wage and sexual and racial equality. In the myth of Anzac, military achievements are exalted above civilian ones; events overseas are given priority over Australian developments; slow and patient nation-building is eclipsed by the bloody drama of battle; action is exalted before contemplation. The key premise of the Anzac legend is that nations and men are made in war. It is an idea that had currency a hundred years ago. Is it not now time for Australia to cast it aside? (p. 167)
This book prompted much controversy when it was published, not just of the sort that Lake describes in her introduction, but amongst historians as well. In particular, Inga Clendinnen took issue with it, feeling that Ken Inglis, whose work is cited but not engaged with, has been misrepresented through the book.
Reading this book four years on, and on the cusp of Gallipoli-fever, the observations of the book seem even more pertinent, most particularly regarding the funding of commemoration that strongly relies on emotion and personal identification. This is most striking in the commemoration activities planned involving schoolchildren. However, with our current government, the suggestion that an alternative national story about progressivism and social justice be championed seems further off than ever.
I am posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website. I am well aware that it is co-written by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, who also co-wrote Drawing the Global Colour Line recently. Three of the chapters are written by male historians as well.
However, I think that there’s a good argument for placing a link to this review on the AWWC site. The reality is that women academic historians often collaborate with their male colleagues, and it does a disservice and is simply not correct to assume that male author is the lead author. Moreover, in this book in particular I suspect that some of the viciousness that Marilyn Lake attracted through her lecture and newspaper article were because she is a female and an academic. This book does not step back from the controversy at all.