The lynchmob has been out these two days for Steve Barton and his effort to debunk the claim that Kokoda was 'the battle that saved Australia'. Barton's certainly dug pits for himself with his rant about an ALP agenda and other gratuitous political grenades - e.g. that a Japanese occupation of Queensland would have been tolerable (in view of ultimate allied victory), or that the diggers in New Guinea weren't fighting in defence of Australia's liberty. But the heat his basic argument has received does suggest that the 'ANZAC legend' has become a sacred cow in Australian cultural life.
See these threads at Larvatus Prodeo and John Quiggin.
ANZAC Day, as the media constantly reminds us, is the closest to a national day that Australia gets. The salience of overseas military endeavours and Gallipoli in particular in our national mythology is unique, and quite beyond the imaginings of the young men who stormed ashore at the Dardanelles a hundred-plus years ago looking for the 'soft underbelly' of the Central Powers. They didn't find it, but a lot of men died in the process, on which point it's worth noting that Australian dead were outnumbered by Brits (2:1) and even 'Frenchmen' (i.e. conscripted Algerians), not to mention Ottoman troops (10:1).
It appears that this wastage of human life is what most impresses those who make the Gallipoli pilgrimage, or indeed anyone who tries genuinely to tap the spiritual significance of the ANZAC heritage (as opposed to just using it for beating up on ethnics). Claims that ANZAC Day 'glorifies war' are reductionist and distract from more pertinent critiques of its cultural symbolism. One is that it indulges Australian chauvinism, most obviously by asserting an Australian monopoly on such virtues as self-sacrifice and 'mateship' through the vehicle of the ANZAC soldier. On the other hand, there is growing recognition of the other side's story in any given conflict; with Gallipoli for example it's now common - more so among ordinary folks than politicians - to discuss the Turkish contribution and in particular that of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), one of history's underrated statesmen.
Another stock complaint is that Australian military commemoration sets up a 'hierarchy of sacrifice', a constant bugbear for veterans of less popular conflicts: Korea, Vietnam, the postwar occupation of Japan. But most significant is the charge that ANZAC remembrance has become an anachronistic touchstone of national identity.
My sense is that Anzac Day has grown in appeal in inverse proportion to confidence about our common identity, future prosperity and national security.
History ... perpetuates collective self-awareness. The Anzac legend offers a comfortably prescriptive notion of who we once were.
The irony here is that Gallipoli marked a break in Australian self-awareness, not immediate but fundamental: the end of Empire and the sense of a separate nation making its own way in the world. Arguably this would have occurred without the experience of having the flower of the country's youth sacrificed on the map-tables of Whitehall, but that's what happened and, as they say, the rest is history. The contemporary issue is whether the ANZAC legacy can be converted into a tradition of general service to the world community, as attempted by today's Australian editorial, or will become the foundation of an oppositional and exclusivist definition of Australian identity.
It can't be coincidence that the swelling youth interest in ANZAC history has occured against a backdrop of globalisation, the growing prominence of 'Asia' and (more recently) a political discourse of clashing civilisations. One can argue over what role the Howard government's promotion of an authentic and monistic national identity has played, but on one point the Prime Minister is definitely wrong. The ANZAC story, like the broader Australian one, is not a closed book but a work in progress.