Tuesday, April 25, 2006

ANZAC Day, Australia Day



















Update 26 April

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.

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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.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Anzac Day does glorify war. You can unpack the notion of war in all sorts of ways, which here are peculiar.

Containing the paranoid notion of a clique of "mates" which were worked over by a parental command structure who didn't even like the indiscipline of the Anzacs.

That story happens to be true, but it still embodies a psychopathalogical response, into which we are now frozen.

I always wonder about the concept of gallipoli being fundamental to our nationhood. I think its a concealed attempt to assert the anglo history over the non-anglo history of our citizens, now slightly opened up but only for the Turks at Kokoda.

I think the notion of embodied nationhood/ blood sacrifice etc is too coarse. What about the Light Horse? The Western Front.. etc etc..

Thoughtful place you have going here.

- barista

John Lee said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John Lee said...

"I think its a concealed attempt to assert the anglo history over the non-anglo history of our citizens"

One can certainly argue that ANZAC Day is morphing from commemoration of past service into a vehicle for a crude, semi-jingoistic brand of Australian nationalism. The fact that last year's Cronulla rioters called themselves 'sons of ANZACs' may not seem significant to John Howard but it rings alarm bells for me.

Anonymous said...

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.

Given that these offensive and stupid claims have been the main focus of criticism, I don't see why reference to a lynch mob is justified here, or why people criticising him should be presumed to be protecting sacred cows.

JQ

John Lee said...

I'll grant that my use of 'lynchmob' was a tad sensationalist. But I do think that much of the reaction shows intolerance for a contrarian view about Kokoda's significance in the larger context of WW2. That qualifies it as a 'sacred cow' in my book, regardless of the merits of Barton's argument.

Btw I wasn't referring to your blog post JQ, I had in mind (inter alia) Beazley's claim that Barton is trying to "take Anzac Day out of the Australian legend". Perhaps Beazley was being quoted out of context by The Australian, an outcome that wouldn't surprise me.

Anonymous said...

Certainly, Beazley's views on Australia's war history are deplorable, as you would expect. I duly deplored them here

JQ