The Tomfoolery of "Anzackery"

“Anzackery” does not exist within its own epistemological, apolitical vacuum. Now that Tony Abbott has trampled upon the Science portfolio, but elected an Anzac Minister, the purpose of the Anzac myth must come under public scrutiny. Australia will commemorate the Anzac Centenary between 2014 and 2018, marking 100 years since our involvement in the First World War. Commemoration will occur with all the seriousness and grandeur that is deserved by soldiers who courageously gave their lives by request of their nation. Disregarding value judgments that arise from Australian involvement in foreign wars, this article examines the consequences of this memorialisation.

Gallipoli is our undisputed baptism by fire. Lacking a unique political identity, with our apron strings still wrapped tightly around our Motherland’s waist, we grasped desperately at the Anzac legend. It was the birth of our nationhood, and became a symbol with no worthy challenger. With our foreign policy informed by anxieties of Asian invasion, geographical isolation and small population, we have increasingly turned to the language of warfare. It is a language that is intrinsically linked with an Otherisation, a deep-seated xenophobia. It has established an insurance policy: a gas mask of cultural norms, security interests and political power struggles, fastened to the mouth of the Anzac.

Politicization of the Anzac has since arisen as a consistent ebb and flow. Every twinge of geo-political insecurity has pushed the Prime Minister of the day to shriek, “Anzac”, and hurl our soldiers onto foreign soil. Riding on the coattails of our
“big and powerful friends”, we entered two World Wars, the Vietnam War, Korean War and two Gulf Wars. The horror of the highly televised atrocities in Vietnam should have prompted a revision of our military tradition, but we became belligerent. Howard whispered, “Anzac,” twice in the Australian ear, and out sprung two lightweight wars in the Gulf, fought mostly at a distance. Semantics of defense and protection are now entrenched in the political process.

The 2005 Cronulla riots represent an unease that lies at the bedrock of our socio-cultural strata. Racism targeted against people of Middle-Eastern heritage inspired a violent conflict between Lebanese and Anglo-Saxon Australians, resulting in flag-burning. To punish Ali Ammar (the flag-burner) for his crime, he was compelled to walk the Kokoda Track. Essentially, the message received was that treason against Australia is treason against the Anzac spirit, that what constitutes the Australian identity can only be found in the blood and guts of the Anzac.

In 1993, Paul Keating’s Remembrance Day Speech re-envisaged the Anzac story, as “a legend of free and independent spirits whose discipline derived less from military formalities and customs than from the bonds of mate-ship and the demands of necessity.” Keating tried to reshape the myth so that that the values of courage, honour and loyalty that the soldiers demonstrated transcended race, nation, religion and gender. However, the masculine Anglo-Saxon narrative that has evolved and sprung roots in Australian soil remains firm. The current asylum seeker debate has been premised upon dehumanization and self-interest, establishing that we do not, in fact, “have boundless plains to share.” If we are to assume that nations need myths to allow for a unifying identity, then the boyish larrikinism of the Anzac myth has proven itself as inflexible to changing community standards and expectations. It is not malleable. It contains a racist undertone that undermines our democracy and welfare state.

Elephantine and monolithic, “Anzac” crushes contestability underfoot by oppressing other histories. This article does not presume to make a value judgment on the courage and contribution of the Anzac soldiers. Instead, this article asks for the valuing of other narratives in conjunction with the Anzac story.

An objective enquiry should not be approached by which way that history develops, but that it does develop at all, pursuing many streams of thought. Dr. David Stephens from Honest History finds that “Anzackery and the over-inflation of military exploits is a backwater in Australian history. Australian history is more about a contest between themes that are as diverse as the impact of climate on our country and the impact of more than a hundred countries on our culture.” What it means to be Australian is a complex question that cannot be answered simply with, “the Anzac spirit”, or one strand of history alone. However, if we do not acknowledge the alternatives, “Anzac” will expand to fill the space.

According to Dr. David Stephens, “History is a competition between ideas, the aim is debunking the singular theme.” To advocate for one strand of history to the oppression of all others allows for a history restricted to the realm of fiction.

For instance, climate has always been a game-changer, both beautiful and monstrous in its ransacking of the terra firma. Michael Cathcart provides an evocative illustration of water in Water Dreamers, while Paul Collins captures the inescapable horror of bushfires in Burn. As per military and socio-political events, Peter Stanley argues that if the Gallipoli myth is unsuitable, perhaps instead the Australian Front would pose a legitimate alternative. Marilyn Lake looks at labour laws and the women’s suffragette movement as defining moments in Australian history. Andrew Leigh puts forward Eureka as a founding myth.

Personally, I believe that multiculturalism should be reintroduced as part of the dialogue. To an extent, labour immigrants have been the foundation upon which modern Australia has flourished. Carmen Lawrence’s Fear and Politics examines the Otherisation that has dominated Australian discourse since its conception. Setting aside the White Australia Policy and the racist naissance of Section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution, multiculturalism could be a valuable looking glass for future foreign policy initiatives.

We need to seriously consider what the Anzac myth truly means for future generations that can fight wars at a distance with the strange disconnect of drone strikes and rushed control-room assessments. The poet, Osbert Sitwell, wrote, “What more fitting memorial for the fallen
/ Than that their children /
Should fall for the same cause.” If we are not critical of government manhandling of the mainstream artery of opinion, we permit Howard’s negation of the black armband view of history. The youth are led to believe that war is an extension of a theme park and an inevitable part of life rather than confronting its harsh reality.  We permit Christopher Pyne’s education curriculum, preoccupied by a single Judeo-Christian thread: Australia’s development as a Western civilization. We create a climate of egocentrism, with us at the centre of narrow-minded decision-making.

Australia’s xenophobic insecurity due its presumed geographical isolation and small population has framed a chauvinistic foreign policy. Let us remember that, “We are young and we are many, from all the lands on Earth we come.” Memorialisation is the last gasp of the Anzackers. Australia needs a history that recognises competing streams, that does not emphasize flag-waving as opposed to the unpleasant side of politics. Relentless and ubiquitous commemoration normalises and even glorifies war.

If Australia is to progress in parallel with the nuances of globalization, we need to recognize a holistic history of competing voices and not embrace a mono-cultural, misguided fiction. I am not a descendant of the Anzacs. I am an immigrant. I am an Australian citizen. I will celebrate Anzac Day and I will respect the sacrifice of the fallen. To shelve the sacrifice Australian soldiers made at Gallipoli is senseless and irreverent. However, in an ecosystem of increasing interconnectedness, let us embrace the fluidity of our construction.