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April 25th 2010 print

Robert Lewis

Culture warriors against Anzac

When Henry Reynolds presented his condemnation of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs materials to an audience of history teachers in 2008 he had to acknowledge that he had not actually read any of the materials he was condemning.

What’s Wrong With Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History (New South, 2010) is a polemical work that argues that the Anzac legend has an exaggerated and unhealthy predominance in Australian identity, and especially in Australian schools. 

This is a perfectly reasonable case to argue — though the authors feel they are particularly brave in making it. 

The main chapter from a teacher’s point of view, the one that is meant to ‘bring home the bacon’ by showing how the distortion is coming from propagandist, conservative, politically-inspired government resources that are undermining teaching and learning in classrooms, is written by a person who produces very little evidence to support her argument. It is virtually all assertion — all hat and no cowboy, as Paul Keating might have said. 

The problem is not that they mount an argument against the Anzac legend, but that the argument is consistently a weak one, or worse. This is not helped by a complete failure to define the key assertion: what exactly is meant by the ‘militarisation’ of history. 

Let’s look at the overall argument, showing briefly how each chapter seeks to support this argument, how most chapters fail to do this, and how one chapter, the key chapter, fails spectacularly. 

The argument goes:

  • Australian national identity is too much focused on the Anzac legend
  • It excludes other key elements such as the development of democratic traditions, Indigenous people’s rights, and women’s equal rights
  • What is learned about the Anzac legend is terribly distorted, ‘militaristic’ and romanticising the idea of war
  • This distortion is caused by the teaching materials sent to schools by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA)
  • These materials are promoted by a conservative government plot to foster a conservative nationalism rather than a more socially critical one. 

The first five chapters provide some historical discussion of various elements of the development of the Anzac tradition or legend. 

Henry Reynolds argues in ‘Are nations really made in war?’ that the idea that a nation had to go through a ‘baptism’ of blood is one that should not still be echoed today — as it supposedly is in our commemoration of Gallipoli as a nation-forming event. It is an argument that suggests that students still believe this. However, what students do say is that people at the time believed and said that this had happened, they saw Gallipoli as a nation-creating event. Students do not believe in Edwardian militarism, but they do believe that Edwardian militarism was accepted by people at the time. 

In his second chapter, ‘Colonial Cassandras: Why weren’t the warnings heeded?’ Reynolds lists a variety of anti-war activists and movements. Nothing new here. Why weren’t they heeded? Because theirs was not the accepted view. Most people at the time believed that being part of the British Empire was a part of their Australianness. We today might think that was unfortunate and undesirable, but good history is not about these 20/20 hindsight judgements — and even then, an argument can be put that Australia’s interests required out commitment to Britain in the war. 

Carina Donaldson and Marilyn Lake adopt a similar approach in ‘Whatever happened to the anti-war movement?’, arguing that the peace movements of the twenties and thirties, and then the fifties, should have been listened to, but their voices were stifled by the conservative and reactionary RSL. There were protests in the sixties and seventies, especially feminist anti-rape protests on Anzac Days. Their own article suggests that these minority voices were just not accepted by the majority, and faded with the new emphasis on the individual soldier and nurse in Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years and Patsy Adam-Smith’s Anzacs. It seems the people decided that they did not accept the views of the minority. 

Joy Damousi asks ‘Why do we get so emotional about Anzac?’ (A good reason is 100,000 dead Australians in wars!) She suggests rather that we should be focusing on the political divisions of the conscription campaigns, and that focusing on the individual is de-politicising critical evaluation of the wars. She wants us to oppose wars, not to commemorate the dead. This is a very traditional sixties/seventies/eighties approach, born out of the protests against the Vietnam War. This is a battle that the Left is still fighting today. 

Mark McKenna poses the question: ‘Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s national day?’. He sees the ‘new wave of patriotism’ of the twenty-first century’ emerging out of the ‘politics of nationalism in the 1980s’. Perhaps it did, and Australia Day has increasingly been recognised as a flawed celebratory day (although a more obvious point is that it has always really been more a Sydney thing). He also claims that ‘there are few better examples of the way in which each generation moulds the Anzac legend for its own purposes: furious killers in 1915, cool and confident killers in 1940, and by 1990, brave boys loyal to their mates, whose virtues the nation might now emulate’. Why is this a criticism? Every generation rewrites all its history in the light of its own values and culture. A nice example of the double standards that exist throughout this book is the way the authors support the proposal that Australia was a democratic nation in the early 1900s, and that these are the achievements that we ought to focus on — yet elsewhere several of the authors have attacked that period for its racism and sexism! 

So far, each chapter has something to offer, though usually nothing new or compelling, and nothing that has not been argued better elsewhere. 

Now we come to the main chapter, written by Professor Marilyn Lake, asking ‘How do schoolchildren learn about the spirit of Anzac?’. This is the chapter that is designed to show how DVA materials are creating the ‘militarisation of history’ in our classrooms. 

One problem I have is that the authors never define what ‘militarisation of history’ means. Sometimes it really means ‘military history’, but most of the time it suggests or implies a creeping romanticisation of war, something that you would expect of a country such as Nazi Germany, and not of Australia. Interestingly, there is never any definition of the ‘spirit of Anzac’. This is a notoriously difficult idea to define, but no attempt at all is made here. It is, I think, just assumed that we will all accept it as meaning what it did in 1915. More of this later. 

Her assertion is that a ‘veritable tidal wave’, a ‘torrent’, a ‘bombardment’ of DVA education resources (four of which I have written over the last five years) are militaristic propaganda created by the evil John Howard to promote his vision of a reactionary nationalism and disarm progressive thought and social action. Her claim is that, through the DVA materials, ‘History has been appropriated in Australia for militarist purposes and comprehensively re-written in the process … The relentless militarisation of Australian history has effectively marginalised other stories, different historic sites and other conceptions of national values.’ (Page 138) 

How does she support this? She lists DVA resources and other government programs (many of them from Labor Governments, by the way). And, undoubtedly, there have been a lot. 

So a historian would say: ‘Let’s analyse these resources, and find out what ideas about war and the Anzacs they actually present. What are these resources doing, how are they creating this relentless militarisation?’ Sounds like a reasonable approach — I just wish Lake had done this. 

Does Lake describe these resources to the reader? No. So most readers who will not have any ideas what these resources are like will remain in ignorance, being carried along by Lake’s implied representation of them. 

Does Lake show how the resources present a militaristic or romantic view of war? She does not. Does she offer any critical analysis of the resources? Not a word. She does not say one specific thing about the educational nature of the contents of any of the materials she condemns— except, very strangely, to quote their description by the DVA as being written by ‘professional history educators … employed to produce state-of-the-art materials that would make school teachers’ preparation of lessons so much easier’ (page 150), and using ‘State-of-the-art enquiry-based methodologies … equipping students for life-long learning’. (Page 148), I’m sorry — can you please explain to me how this is a bad thing? 

Does she show how the resources stifle debate? No. Does she discuss the inquiry-based approach of the resources, and show how they in fact only pretend to encourage student inquiry, but in fact are subtle and effective propaganda? Not done. Does she show how many of these resources are actually used in the classroom? No figures given, nothing said about it. Does she discuss what other resources are available, and how they are used? No. Not at all. 

How’s that for a strong and persuasive and informed approach! How can you say that the DVA resources are ‘militarising our history in schools’ (page 137) when you do not analyse them in any way, and do not consider any other possible classroom influences? 

Ah, but she does quote from Anna Clark’s study History’s Children. Evidence at last! Clark interviewed hundreds of students and teachers about their history education experiences in the classroom. Lake quotes Clark expressing surprise at how many children ‘now assume a “militarised national identity” is “intrinsically Australian”.’ Clark certainly does say that in the first half of her analysis of Anzac in schools, and also that she was ‘concerned that these lessons were generating nationalist sentiment rather than “historical understanding”.’ (Page 137). And we could all agree that this is an important concern. But, surprise, surprise, she does not go on to quote Clark’s equal emphasis in the second half of the same chapter, that many students and teachers are critically analysing the Anzac legend, looking to decide for themselves what it means and if it is appropriate. Selective quoting does not make for a convincing argument, and is not, I would say, good historical method. 

Nor is anonymous quoting. Here is Lake: ‘Many school teachers are concerned at the way in which the militarisation of Australian history has come to dominate the curriculum’ — no footnote, no evidence given, no source for this information, no names quoted, and no analysis of who studies what in history classes, or even what is required in the curriculum. Yet these anonymous teachers ‘are acutely aware of their dependence on the extensive resources now supplied by the DVA’! Dependence! Come on, is Lake suggesting that there are no other educational resources on Australia and the wars that teachers can use? If so, she is being terribly gullible! I suggest she looks at the catalogue of any major publisher’s website and looks at their range of history text books. Look also at the way they represent war and the Anzacs, and she will not find the mindless romanticisation that she says is in students’ minds as they walk out of their classrooms. 

She will also, by doing this, realise the ridiculousness of her claim that the areas she would like to see more emphasised, ‘Australia’s pioneering achievements in building a democratic society and a welfare state, in extending equal rights to women and Indigenous Australians, in fostering multiculturalism and racial equality’ (page 156), are not being addressed in classrooms. They are in fact very well covered in these same texts, and in ways that she would find compatible with her own agenda. Yet she claims these areas are being ‘silenced’ by the DVA resources — presumably the wars are all that are taught every year! Look at the curriculum documents, Professor Lake! 

Let’s finish by considering the implications of what Lake is saying. If these propagandist DVA resources are flooding classrooms, corrupting the students, creating little Hitler Youth (or Howard Youth), suppressing independent thought, and pushing Indigenous Australians, women and democrats out of the curriculum — then who is overseeing this? Teachers! Teachers, you are either complicit in encouraging this, or so dumb that you cannot see what sort of lessons you are giving. That is the logic of Lake’s claim. 

Of course we need to be worried about those students who glorify war and romanticise the Anzacs. Of course we need to teach the reality of war. Of course we need to see other historical influences in what we choose as part of our national identity. That’s why the DVA produces the materials, to counter ignorance, distortion and unthinking and uncritical acceptance of ideas about war and the Anzacs and Australian identity. 

The DVA materials she criticises include much primary source material on the realities of war, the existence of racism and sexism among troops, the existence of brutality and of self-inflicted wounds, the physical and mental pain that endures long after war’s end. And, all this and more is presented in a way that asks students to think for themselves, to come to informed and balanced conclusions of their own. Lake just does not see it there, the blinkers of her ideology are just too narrowing. 

Lake, when challenged with this claim that she is knowingly misrepresenting the nature of the DVA resources in constructing her argument, says that we are ‘missing the point’. She says the real criticism is that the DVA should not be sending any resources out, it’s not about the quality of the resources. Her point about the role of a government department in developing classroom resources can be debated, but she is being disingenuous in saying that she is not really criticising the materials themselves. Her argument clearly is that there is a direct connection between what is happening in schools and the primacy of the DVA resources as the agency of those events. She makes the argument, it is the whole basis of her chapter, she cannot say she is being misrepresented or misunderstood. 

I think the weakness of this key chapter is threefold:

  • it is presented with an ideological zeal that creates a narrow and irrational approach;
  • it generalises and distorts and ignores the reality of what is happening in classrooms; and
  • it does not understand what we mean by ‘identity’. It looks at 1915 Australia, and freezes it, and says that the responses of students today to the people and events of 1915 must accept or reject those values and attitudes and characteristics. I do not agree with that. Students can discover the ugly aspects of the diggers — the frequent racism, the occasional brutality, the contemporary attitudes to gender equality — and reject them, while still embracing those attitudes and values that are still important and desirable in civic behaviour today — the courage, compassion, self-sacrifice, mateship that are so often identifiable in the soldiers’ own writings and actions. 

How do schoolchildren learn about the spirit of Anzac? Don’t look to Lake for an answer, she doesn’t know, has no idea in fact. And please do not look to Professor Reynolds who, when he presented his condemnation of the DVA materials to an audience of history teachers in 2008 had to acknowledge that he had not actually read any of the materials he was condemning (perhaps he has by now). No, I suggest it’s better to start with Anna Clark, who looked at students’ attitudes (though not the resources that can produce them), and wrote: 

As kids flock to honour Australia’s wartime history, their growing commemoration of the Anzac Legend in the classroom needs to be accommodated — but it needs to be done so that their historical understanding is expanded rather than limited to any simplistic or uncontested national narrative, especially when so many students are interested in Australia’s place in the world. This doesn’t mean we should reject icons such as the Anzacs, for they are powerful markers in Australia’s past. But we do require space for these national narratives to be discussed critically in class. So long as there’s social and political pressure to define our national character, surely the best way for students to deal with contrasting ideas about Australian history and identity is to bring the discussion into the classroom. That way they can actually contribute to the debate itself. 

There speaks a good approach to teaching history, and the DVA resources seek to support that, rather than negate it. 

Or best of all, talk to your students’ teachers, and find out from them what they are teaching. And you can see these evil DVA educational resources for yourself and form your own opinion about them here… 

Robert Lewis is a former history teacher and resources developer with the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria who is now an independent writer of history education resources. He was contracted to write several of the DVA’s education kits between 2006 and 2010. He does not speak for the DVA.