The war on the Anzac tradition that I have discussed in Quadrant over the years is intensifying. Now the traditional left have been joined by an ex-army officer, James Brown, who has contributed Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession (2014) to the campaign of denigration. According to Brown, “this year an Anzac orgy begins. A commemorative program that would make the pharaohs envious”. Speaking on the ABC’s 7.30 Report, Brown mangled the metaphor, complaining that “we’re about to embark on a four-year festival for the dead which, in some cases, looks like a military Halloween”.
Claiming in his book to speak for soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brown declares that they don’t want to be associated with the Anzac tradition: “They don’t want honour that rides with hubris. Or glory bestowed by a society that fetishizes war but doesn’t know the first damn thing about fighting it”.
Is this really the perspective of contemporary Australian soldiers? Do they really see the upcoming centenaries as “an Anzac orgy”? Do they really lack all respect for a tradition that seeks to honour the hundreds of thousands of their forebears who fought, died or were maimed in the wars of the past century? And are they really so contemptuous of the efforts of their own society to commemorate the horrors of war that were endured on its behalf? Is Brown, as Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, Chief of the Australian Army, 2002-08, declares, really “a leader in this new generation of Anzacs “. If so, and such attitudes are the outcome of Australia’s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, then those deployments have indeed been tragic.
Or is it more likely that Brown is projecting onto his comrades his own attitudes and values? Having served as an officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has a wide range of complaints to make about the military, particularly concerning authority and discipline. For example, he complains that troops wear gym clothes, thongs and T-shirts, listen to music, hit golf balls, stand around bonfires near the green zone, and aren’t sufficiently awed by their young officers, who want only to pull them into line. He also resents the army’s bureaucratic nature, and that it takes too long to approve the publication of books about recent military campaigns, and exhibits insufficient enthusiasm for military analysis, such as that Brown himself now apparently produces. And he is appalled that the government doesn’t spend enough on health care for ex-soldiers and that the top brass are afraid of offending the government, and so on.
Unfortunately, he lays the blame for all this on the Anzac tradition and the “Digger myth”, which appears, in his view, to operate as a sort of cultural cancer within the military, promoting mythical ideas about the capabilities of Australian soldiers, and giving them ideas above their station. He quotes a report from a fellow “soldier-scholar” that complains the troops are spoilt and “feel entitled to be treated almost as Roman gladiators. They give the impression that they expect everyone, including their superiors, to lavish them with attention and unregulated time between tasks”. Regrettably, according to Brown, “Australian officers are exceptionally careful not to be aloof from their soldiers”, and this has led to the loss of “valuable British officer traditions [that] delineate firmly between officer, warrant officer and soldier”. After all, “not all elitism is bad”. He laments that “discussing these deficiencies is difficult in a defence force trying to live up to the image of the exceptional Digger”
Generally, Brown’s polemic fits in with criticisms of the Anzac tradition made by the left for some 90 years, since the ideal of the Anzac emerged during the Great War and easily swept aside the competing model of “Soviet Man” that the left embraced in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and wanted to impose on Australian workers after the takeover of local radicalism by the Communist International in the early 1920s. This failure festered over the decades and frequently unleashed a stream of invective that reached a torrent at various times, especially in the Sixties, when the current generation of senior historians began their Maoist ‘long march through the institutions’ to positions of power from where they could mentor their radical successors.
Any ex-army officer who fancies an academic career cannot fail to impress or ingratiate himself with this cadre, whose views are exemplified by several recent iconoclastic attacks on the Anzac tradition and Australia’s military history, including What’s Wrong With Anzac?: The Militarization of Australian History (2010), edited by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds; and Zombie Myths of Australian Military History (2010) and Anzac’s Dirty Dozen (2012), both edited by Craig Stockings. Most of the contributors to such volumes work at Canberra-based elite institutions where the officer corps receives its education, including the Australian Defence Force Academy, the Australian National University, and the Australian War Memorial.
A particularly prolific member of this cadre is Peter Stanley, a professor at the ADFA who starred in a feature on Gallipoli run on a number of occasions on ABC television. This was based on Stanley’s book Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny and Murder and the Australian Imperial Force (2011). Unsurprisingly, the book’s prurience and relentless negativity made it the joint winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2011, awarded by a committee chaired by the communist historian and lead writer of the national history curriculum, Professor Stuart Macintyre, of the University of Melbourne. The feature’s broadcast on January 27, 2014, provoked the Liberal member for Bass, Andrew Nikolic, a former brigadier, to question the propriety, as the centenary approaches, of the ABC giving “prominence to those claiming that the story of Gallipoli is a ‘myth blown out of all proportion’ [and that] we should focus on the misogyny, racism, discrimination and exploitation at Gallipoli [and] honour the opinions of those who trawl through the history of 1915 Cairo brothels”.
Stanley responded to Nikolic on the ‘Honest History’ website, which he and his comrades set-up after they failed to get funding to make “a television program questioning the role of the Anzac tradition in our history”. Although they were unsuccessful, “the group looked for other opportunities. The impending centenary of World War I, particularly the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli, was an obvious trigger”, and so they established Honest History, whose board members and supporters include most of Australia’s more conspicuous leftist historians.
Another prominent critic of the Anzac tradition is David Horner, Professor of Australian Defence History at the ANU. Defending his summary dismissal of the Kokoda campaign at the conference held late last year at the Australian War Memorial to commemorate its 70th anniversary, Horner declared that, “It’s all the Anzacs’ fault”. “Gallipoli was one of our most significant military campaigns (and now) everybody wants to be an Anzac. Everybody wants a medal. Everybody wants to be recognised … every child gets a prize. If you fought in a battle, it has to be a battle that was really important”. Horner was supported by Ashley Ekins, the Head of the Military History Section at the AWM, who denounced the “excessive mythology about the Kokoda story”. The Japanese never intended to invade Australia, they insisted, so Kokoda had no strategic significance and its commemoration is an overblown indulgence by a people starved of real military glory.
Whatever the merits of Brown’s criticisms may be, it is sad that he lines up with this destructive academic elite and deplorable that he lays the blame for all the problems he identifies at the feet of the Anzacs and the Diggers, rather than acknowledging that the Australian Defence Forces have many dysfunctional features that their leadership and their political masters have proved incapable of dealing with. Although he portrays himself as a critic of the military top brass, he is really providing them with an excuse for a systemic failure – blame Anzac and the Diggers. Similarly, if Australian army officers are incapable of dealing with their men, then Brown is also providing them with the excuse that it’s the corrosive effect of the Anzac and Digger traditions that’s the problem, not their own weakness.
Nearly a century ago Australians pledged, “Lest we forget”, and they should now be allowed to honour this centenary without constant sniping from obsessive academic leftists and disgruntled ex-officers.
Mervyn F. Bendle was Senior Lecturer in History & Communications, James Cook University