This essay was originally published in Quadrant, June 2009
In five years the world will bear witness to the centennial of the outbreak of the Great War, the epochal event that inaugurated the “short twentieth century” stretching from 1914 to 1991, during which liberal democracy, communism, and fascism battled for world domination in a series of hot and cold wars that consumed over 100 million lives and led to the deaths of hundreds of millions more.
Consequently, as 2014 approaches there will be a resurgence, intensification and expansion of the already vigorous debates about the war as historians, intellectuals, ideologues, politicians, veterans’ organisations, community groups and laypersons continue to come to grips with the meaning of this titanic struggle; exploring it in terms of its origins, battles, strategies, tactics, and consequences; while addressing political ideologies, wartime cultures, battlefield experiences, memories, gender and race, national identities, the fates of empires, and the future of civilisation.
Australia is uniquely placed in all this. The Great War, of course, has profound and continually contested meanings for the great-power combatant nations like France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Britain, all of which suffered massive transformations and even devastation or destruction. However, it has a fundamentally different significance for Australia, for it served our infant nation as a seminal event that saw the Anzac legend and the iconic figure of the digger emerge from amongst the carnage of Gallipoli and the Western Front, and amid the enormous national grief and soul-searching that followed.
This legend retains a tight grip on popular consciousness. As the military historian and journalist Paul Ham remarks: “the sheer volume of books about Australians at war reflects an extraordinary, possibly unique, facet of our national identity: a hunger for and veneration of war heroes [of unparalleled] intensity”. Consequently, “this year sees a big bookfest: there are histories, memoirs, diaries and biographies. There are efforts to debunk, revise, mythologize and transform the Anzac legend” (“In Memoriam”, Weekend Australian Review, 25-26/4/2009, p.10).
Indeed, the assault on the Anzac legend is well under way and this will further intensify as the Australian intelligentsia struggles to come to grips with a powerful cultural force over which it presently has much less control than it would like, and for which it has very little sympathy, empathy or understanding.
Floundering, and looking for an explanation that doesn’t require it to examine its own basic assumptions, the Left has concluded that the principal reason for the resurgence of the Anzac spirit is the alleged militarism and nationalism of the Howard government. For example, Robert Manne condemns John Howard’s attempt to “graft [Gallipoli] on to something he calls ‘the great Australian military tradition’ … this bombast is both new to Australian politics and [is] fueled by a dangerously critical self-regard” (“The War Myth that Made Us”, The Age, 25/4/2007).
The views of Mark McKenna, Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney are also typical of the intelligentsia’s position:
One of the defining features of John Howard’s decade in power has been … a new form of Australian nationalism: unreflective, earnest and often sentimental. Patriotic display has become a civic virtue [and there is a] new national mood—the flaunting of the flag, the commercialization of feel-good patriotism—[dating] from the mid-1990s, about the same time that Anzac Day began its resurgence. Increasingly, Australian society is characterized by the culture of public display: of patriotism and allegiance, of faith and of wealth … Howard has largely succeeded in defining the nation in the image of Australian liberalism: individual freedom, never-ending prosperity and uncritical nationalism. Pride and achievement are his watchwords. (Mark McKenna, “Patriot Act”, The Australian, 6/6/2007).
Such passages reveal why the Left fails to connect with the Anzac legend and why it sees it as such a threat: according to the Left’s peculiar ideology and dissociated mind-set, all these qualities of patriotism, allegiance, faith, freedom, prosperity, nationalism, pride and achievement are suspect, or invalid, or even pernicious. Consequently, it devalues and even despises any cultural tradition—like Anzac—that gives expression to them.
Howard’s cultural coup in nurturing and mobilising such forces has provoked a revisionist reaction amongst academic historians who wish to reassert their domination over Australia’s cultural discourse, especially where it concerns national identity—the formation, regulation and censorious moral guardianship which the intelligentsia sees as its own exclusive mission.
In this campaign to establish cultural control over the memory of Gallipoli and the Anzac legend the intelligentsia is confronted by the enormous success of non-academic historical works on such topics. These works exemplify the difficulty that the intelligentsia faces because, unlike academic historical works with their commitment to an elitist agenda of national self-laceration, they connect very effectively with the popular understanding of Anzac and all it represents.
Such work is exemplified by journalist-historians like Les Carlyon, whose book The Great War was an inaugural winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2007 and joined his earlier book Gallipoli as another best-seller, and Peter FitzSimons, whose books Nancy Wake, Tobruk and Kokoda have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. As a recent article by Stephen Matchett observes in a wonder of understatement: “the success of these authors, whose sales exceed scholarly works by factors of 20 … upsets academics.” (Stephen Matchett, “Legends of the Fall or Fallacy”, The Australian, 25-26/4/2009. p.24).
A leading academic in the field concurs. Professor Joan Beaumont, Director of the Faculty of Arts at the Australian National University, laments:
to a striking degree Australian war history for many years has been reliant on what might be called non-academic historians: namely, freelance historians and the amateur historian, often a veteran … An intriguing question is why the academic community has not tapped into this popular market more effectively? (Joan Beaumont, “ANZAC day to VP day: arguments and interpretations.” Journal of the Australian War Memorial 40 (Feb 2007, p.2.)
Instead of following up this question and enquiring what it is about popular histories of the Anzac tradition that makes them best-sellers and what it is about academic histories that makes them relative failures, academics simply dismiss the popular works. For example, the high-profile military historian Dr Peter Stanley ridicules FitzSimons: “Yes, he can tell a story, but he doesn’t understand his subject” (“Legends of the Fall or Fallacy”). Elsewhere, Stanley, who is the Director of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia, describes FitzSimons’s Kokoda as “poorly researched and written”, “a pub yarn”, a “rambling tale”, and “a stirring tale of mateship and heroism, spiced up with Japanese atrocities and acts of bastardry by senior commanders, and some hero worship of John Curtin” (Peter Stanley, Invading Australia: Japan and the Battle for Australia, 1942, Camberwell: Penguin-Viking, 2008, p.230).
Stanley mocks “the simple-minded Kokoda myth propagated” by FitzSimons, and also Patrick Lindsay, who “has become the chief necromancer of the modern legend of Kokoda”. Instead of recognising Kokoda’s military insignificance, as Stanley sees it, Lindsay’s The Spirit of Kokoda: Then and Now “celebrates the mystical experience of Kokoda” and “the traditional Anzac virtues of ‘courage, endurance, mateship, sacrifice and […] leadership’”, the latter quality being dismissed by Stanley as a recent accretion to the legend (pp.229-30). According to Stanley, authors like FitzSimons and Carlyon are unoriginal and uncritical: “repeatedly rework[ing] old veins, celebrating and valorizing traditional Australian qualities of mateship and endurance, but it’s nostalgic, not inquisitive” (Matchett, “Legends of the Fall or Fallacy”).
A very recent example of this “inquisitive” approach of academic history is Gallipoli: The End of the Myth (UNSW Press, 2009) by Robin Prior, a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. It exemplifies the revisionist attack on core components of the Anzac tradition that is currently under way.
Before discussing this book, I should make a disclosure. My grandfather was an Anzac who served at Gallipoli and in France along with his three brothers. Private Frederick Joseph Hack, D Company, 26 Battalion, 7th Brigade, 2nd Division, was an illiterate farm labourer from the back-blocks of rural Tasmania and the grandson of a convict sent to Van Diemen’s Land. After listening to his stories I used to play on the back beach below the golf course at Flinders, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, where my grandfather lived, trying to imagine what it would be like to be part of an army trying to storm the massive, steep, scrub-covered, sandy hills that overlooked the beach there. When I finally visited Gallipoli I was amazed how familiar it seemed. During his active service Fred suffered several injuries and was gassed in France, leaving him a partial invalid for the rest of his life. His daughter Kathy remembers how she accompanied him as a child while he earned his living as a wood cutter, and watched as he lay on the ground exhausted by his labours, gasping for breath with his one good lung and begging Kathy not to tell her mother of his plight. My grandfather’s older brother, Private H.A. (Harry) Hack, was killed in action (“blown to pieces”) between the August 19 and 22, 1916, probably at Mouquet Farm, during an attack that achieved a small advance at the cost of 2650 casualties. Harry’s personal effects, sent back to his father at Gretna two years later, consisted of a “Metal Watch (damaged), and Strap and Woollen Cap”.
The title of Prior’s book, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, makes his intentions very clear. As Paul Ham remarks: “If you think the Digger died in a pursuit of a worthy cause, you’ll find this book profoundly upsetting” (Ham, “In Memoriam”). Indeed, the book is an excellent example of the fundamental nihilism of the emerging revisionism: the desire to prove that at the core of the Anzac legend there is nothing, or that if there is something there, it is pernicious, racist, imperialist, sexist, masculinist and so on. Consequently, the author revels in being a bearer of ashes: “The campaign was fought in vain. It did not shorten the war by a single day, nor in reality did it ever offer that prospect” (p.252). Indeed, as the dust-jacket proclaims, “the badly conceived Gallipoli campaign was doomed from the start. And even had it been successful, the operation would not have shortened the war by a single day. Despite their bravery, the Allied troops who fell at Gallipoli died in vain.” So much for the sacrifice of these men, the grief of their families, and the foundational event that lies at the heart of Australia’s national identity.
Not even one single day? How could Prior—or anyone—possibly make such precise declarations? In fact, it appears an arrogant—indeed fatuous—claim. Without engaging excessively in historical speculation (and Prior himself entertains a series of “what-if” questions in his final pages) it can be argued that not only would the war have been shortened but the entire history of the twentieth century would have been transformed had the campaign been successful, the Dardanelles forced, Russia relieved, the Balkan states brought into the war on the side of the Entente, and an attack up the Danube valley on the central powers launched, perhaps utilising the half-million allied troops that ended up “interned” in Salonika. The future history of Turkey would have been transformed, the Armenian genocide might never have occurred, and the Greco-Turkish War and the associated ethnic cleansing might also have been avoided.
Even more importantly, it’s difficult to see how the preconditions for the rise of both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis could have arisen in such circumstances, while the entire experience of Italy in the Great War would have been transformed, thus depriving Mussolini and his fascists of their raison d’être. Consequently, modern totalitarianism would never have gained the momentum it did and liberal democracy might have achieved victory across the globe, ensuring that decolonisation took place in an orderly fashion and that the depredations of dozens of repressive and corrupt “national liberation” regimes were avoided, bringing eventual freedom and prosperity to billions. Lenin and Stalin would have rotted in obscurity, the Holocaust and Great Terror would never have happened. The history of the Middle East would have been transformed and the world would have been spared the Cold War and the ever-present shadow of nuclear annihilation. At the very least, hundreds of millions of lives might have been saved.
Prior might dismiss such speculations as fanciful, but that is the benefit of hindsight—certainly in 1915 no one could foresee the immense tragedies or elusive possibilities that lay ahead. Indeed, Prior’s revisionist eagerness to debunk the rationale and conduct of a second front in the Dardanelles aligns him with the dominating “Westerner” generals and politicians of the war who opposed strategic “Easterners” like Churchill who advocated such initiatives. The “Westerners” saw the conflict only in terms of the Western Front and rejected any attempts to open a second front, believing that there was no alternative to the war of attrition in France that was ultimately to consume millions of lives and bleed white the European heart of Western civilisation, with the results that we live with still.
Given that the Dardanelles campaign could have delivered the world from a century of horrors, the defeat at Gallipoli might be seen as a catastrophe of epochal proportions. Equally, if it had been successful, then the Anzacs would have been at the centre of a world-historical event that would echo down the centuries. Of course the initiative failed, none of this did happen, and the world was condemned to the ordeal of the twentieth century, but why does Prior dismiss the Dardanelles effort as inherently pointless and take such delight in seeking to ensure that his book ensures “the end of the myth”, as if this were a worthy aim? Should not the bloody defeat of such a valiant effort legitimately call forth an expression of great grief and annual remembrance, as we do in fact witness on Anzac Day? Why then would one so arbitrarily seek to destroy or undermine its rationale? Are such arguments really just examples of the “inquisitive” nature of “true” historians, perhaps an attempt to “tap into this popular market”, as Beaumont advocates, or are they a symptom of a deeper alienation from the cultural core of Australian society?
Possibly the reason why Prior can so readily engage in this type of “demythologizing” and “debunking” historiographical nihilism is that he doesn’t fully comprehend the genuine depth of feeling that exists in the Australian community about Anzac, and instead shares the general assumption among the intelligentsia, noted above, that the Australian people are subject to ideological control by the state, and manipulated for sinister militarist and nationalist purposes.
An excellent recent illustration of this cynical and elitist view was provided in an ABC Four Corners report on “The Great History War”, broadcast in November 2008 to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the end of the war. The program’s introduction set the scene with a set of leading questions: “Was Australia’s identity forged and burnished under fire at Gallipoli and the Western Front? Has the Anzac story been hijacked by politicians?” In her response, Joan Beaumont declared the Anzac legend to be “a myth … a story or a charter about the past that legitimates the present … in much of the public discourse today the Anzac legend [is] being invoked to legitimate current military actions”, such as Australia’s military deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Beaumont also claimed that the tradition performed a conservative function: “in the last twenty years the memory of war has been used to project an image of unity and cohesion in Australian society [and it was seen by government] as advantageous to have a kind of unifying narrative” Consequently, “younger generations are socialised into the memory of war by the agencies of State”. Peter Stanley shared this view:
Governments don’t give resources to history out of the goodness of their heart. They want something from it … The Howard government I presume wanted to venerate the enduring qualities that they saw in the Anzacs that fostered a conservative view of Australian society” (ibid.).
At a conference in April 2009 on “Gallipoli: History & National Imagination”, held at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at ANU (sic), which I attended, Beaumont reiterated her view that the Anzac legend was basically conservative propaganda imposed on young people. The final paper of the conference was given by Associate Professor John Hall of the Graduate Business School of Deakin University on the “Motives for Attendance at Anzac Day Commemoration in Turkey”, and it provided an extensive preliminary report on the findings of the first systematic, large-scale survey of this vital topic. Confronted by the survey’s findings that young people present at the Gallipoli ceremony overwhelmingly saw their pilgrimage in terms of respect, national pride, gratitude, remembrance, sadness, sacrifice, affirmation, love, reconciliation, and connection with their Australian forebears, Beaumont objected. No, she insisted, these were merely values into which these young people had been socialised at school. In the ensuing discussion I suggested that one should not so readily dismiss what appeared to be deeply held attitudes and that these were extremely valuable results that should be addressed; Beaumont reaffirmed her view and other academics supported her. For them, it appeared, these results reveal merely shallow, ersatz values inculcated by the state, with no genuine emotional or psychological roots.
Beaumont developed this view in some detail in a 2007 article in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial, insisting:
the resurgence in the memory of war in both popular culture and official commemoration [is not] an organic and spontaneous occurrence [but] has been carefully orchestrated by federal governments [and implemented] by government agencies, notably the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Australian War Memorial, who have a strong institutional logic in promoting it.
She invoked the view of the Marxist historians Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson “that war memory is shaped centrally by the state”, and asserted that “the agency of the state in Australia in the past two decades has been remarkable”. The 1995 Australia Remembers campaign, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, was “one of the most striking examples of this orchestration of memory”, involving a “mobilization by the agencies of the state for contemporary political purposes”. She also suggested “it would be instructive to know the total monies spent by Australian Government agencies on new memorials, pilgrimages, museum gallery development, and war-related official and educational materials since 1990”, presumably because this would reveal the lengths to which the state is prepared to go to promote the Anzac myth as a principal component of militaristic propaganda (Joan Beaumont, “ANZAC day to VP day: arguments and interpretations.” Journal of the Australian War Memorial 40, February 2007, pp.2-4).
Such “managed memories” are also condemned by Dr Peter Londey, of the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial. In Londey’s view, Australia “thinks it needs some sort of ‘identity’ [because] the traditional story of European settlement/colonization/invasion is now too contested to serve as any basis for shared celebration”. Consequently, there is now a “ritual invocation of Gallipoli and Kokoda”, “all surviving soldiers from the World Wars are elevated to ‘heroes’”, and we have
a public, a media, and a political class who simply want to use this history as a cleansing national myth, evoking childishly simple ‘memories’ of a golden past when we knew who the enemies were and all stood and suffered together.
To his mind, this all results from “a new generation making a plaything of history [and] doing so with a rather distasteful air of moral virtue” (Peter Londey, “Managed Memories” H-Net Reviews, 27 May 2005).
A similar view is espoused by Marilyn Lake, Professor of History at La Trobe University, who delivered a highly publicised public lecture on the eve of Anzac Day 2009, condemning the “militarization of Australian history” that allegedly has occurred under the Howard government. For Lake: “The Myth of Anzac has become more significant in recent years—ubiquitous even—with what I have called the militarization of Australian history mightily subsidized by the Howard government”. Consequently, “war stories have figured ever more prominently in our culture, our school rooms, on our TV screens, our bookshops” (Marilyn Lake, “We must fight free of Anzac, lest we forget other stories”, Age, 24/4/2009).
Lake also attacked the role of the Anzac legend as a key component of Australia’s national identity because it deflects attention away from her preferred victim groups. For her, Anzac Day “requires the forgetting, or disavowal, or marginalizing, of other national narratives, other formative Australian experiences, other values, different stories of the past” that she claims deserve attention at least equal to that afforded the Anzacs. She then offers her own preferred version of Australian military history, focusing on the so-called “Black Wars”, and highlighting “the perpetual state of warfare … entailed in the colonization of Australia [and] the nation-building project at the heart of Anzac”.
This theme is developed in the 2008 annual issue of the Melbourne Historical Journal, in an article that seeks to debunk “the way in which Australian national identity is constructed through such histories of war [and] how commemorations of war and the Anzacs are considered celebrations of what it means to be Australian”. Like other revisionist works it argues that “such constructions deny the experiences of Indigenous Australians in their wars to defend their country from colonization”, while denying “the prior ownership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” (Clemence Due, “‘Lest We Forget’: Creating an Australian National Identity from Memories of War. Melbourne Historical Journal 36, 2008, p.23). In asserting the rights of indigenous Australians to have their history elevated above all else, the article rejects as “highly inappropriate” the attempts by Keith Windschuttle and others to actually quantify the indigenous casualties in past conflicts, claiming:
even one person taken from their parents on the basis of race, or one person killed in battle to take over land is too many, and this violence inherent in the colonization process ought to be recognized and memorialized as an equally important part of the Australian nation and Australian history as is Anzac Day.
Such arguments are developed at book length by the Queensland historian Jeff Hopkins-Weise in Blood Brothers: The Anzac Genesis (Wakefield Press, 2009). Hopkins-Weise claims that “the true birthplace of Anzac is … to be found not on the sandy, bloody beaches of Gallipoli but 50 years earlier in the damp forests and fields of the North Island of New Zealand”, where Australian forces participated in the colonial wars against the Maori. Like other revisionists, he insists that “any assessment of colonial Australasia must also take into account Australia’s protracted history of frontier warfare with indigenous people on the continent, Tasmania, New Guinea and adjacent Pacific Islands”, and he follows Henry Reynolds in alleging that “Australians still do not appreciate the importance of the internal colonial wars fought for domination of the land” and in calling for this to be given the same recognition afforded the Anzacs (Jeff Hopkins-Weise, “Blood Brothers”, Australian Literary Review, 1/4/2009).
In a similar fashion, Beaumont sees the resurgence of interest in the Anzac tradition as a defensive reaction by “white Australians” to multiculturalism, claiming in the Four Corners interview that “at a time when multiculturalism was changing the demographics of Australian society it was seen as advantageous to have a kind of unifying narrative”, such as that provided by the “mythical” notion that Australia’s national identity was founded on the experiences of the Anzacs. Peter Stanley concurs: “a lot of people want to celebrate the old Anglo-Australia, it’s their country. They want to revel in it and be reassured by it” (“Legends of the Fall or Fallacy”, The Australian, 25-26/4/2009. p.24).
Mark McKenna agrees with the view that Anzac Day is all about “the politics of Australia’s military engagements, the use and abuse of military history and the future of our national identity”, but also sees the Anzac tradition as part of the repressive security apparatus of the state, as the title of his article, “Patriot Act”, makes clear:
Anzac Day has become a day that obscures the politics of war and discourages political dissent … One of the untold stories surrounding Anzac Day is the manner in which it has served to silence dissent over the Iraq war … Anzac Day is now entrenched as a “symbolic extension of state authority” (Mark McKenna, “Patriot Act”, Australian, 6/6/2007).
For others, the Anzac legend is little more than a self-serving, bacchanalian myth with little basis in reality. For example, Stephen Matchett reports that “academics argue the real Australian story on the battlefield is very different from the legend”, and cites the views of Professor Jeffrey Grey of the Australian Defence Force Academy, who deplores the “carnival side” of Anzac Day, and is “distressed by attempts to emulate the annual Anzac Day party at Gallipoli at the northern French village of Villers-Bretonneux”, where, of course, Australian forces achieved a famous victory in 1918 at the cost of some 1200 lives. (“Legends of the Fall or Fallacy”) Oddly, given the annual outpouring of genuine grief surrounding Anzac Day, especially amongst those who make the pilgrimage to visit the battleground, “the Anzac legend also upsets [Grey] because the way it is too often told has nothing to do with what Australian front-line fighters accomplished and underestimates the price they paid”. He also feels he must insist that “the story of Australians at war is not a rugby tour with bullets”, as if this is the view of Gallipoli pilgrims.
Matchett also reports that academic historians believe there is nothing unique or particularly Australian about military prowess or the other heroic qualities associated with the Anzac tradition. The mayor of Villers-Bretonneux thought otherwise on July 14, 1919, when he unveiled a memorial to honour the Anzacs, and applauded “the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours drove out an enemy ten times their number”.
Another target for their debunking histories is a core component of the Anzac legend, the good-natured larrikin spirit: “rather than mateship and an ability to think for themselves, the roots of Australian success were the same as in all other armies: discipline and training”. Grey, for example, is quite explicit in his rejection of the claim that the Anzac legend is based on any exceptional Australian characteristics of independence and initiative, arguing that in the Great War, “the British settler societies, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, produced similar sorts of soldiers”, and consequently “you can insert ‘Canadian’ for ‘Australian’ and get the same sort of arguments”.
The attack on the Anzac legend is not restricted to Gallipoli but increasingly encompasses the Second World War. Consequently, an excellent example of contemporary revisionism was provided by Peter Stanley’s high-profile and relentless opposition in 2002 to the popular belief that Australia faced the threat of Japanese invasion in 1942. This embroiled him in a dispute with the RSL, many veterans and others, and led to his views being dismissed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It may have been associated with his resignation in February 2007 from the Australian War Memorial where he had been Principal Historian. The occasion of this imbroglio was the proposal by the RSL to designate a “Battle for Australia Day”, intended to commemorate the efforts of Australian service personnel who served in the military actions fought during the Second World War to defend Australia against the Japanese threat.
I should remark that this was a proposal that I strongly supported, principally because as a young child I spent a lot of time with my father and his friends among the veterans at the local RSL, and I’ve never forgotten the sense of awe and dread that would overcome me as I listened to the veterans as they recalled their experiences fighting the Japanese, especially in New Guinea and Borneo, which seemed to my impressionable mind to have been a site of the most hellish and frightening events (so much so that I could never travel past Boneo on the Mornington Peninsula without a frisson of fear). Borneo, of course, was meant to involve a series of “mopping-up” operations that instead became what author Peter Thompson has described as “full-blooded military campaigns against an enemy who would die rather than surrender” (Peter Thompson, Pacific Fury. Sydney: Heinemann, 2008, p.475), and who had established an elaborate system of tunnels and pits, thousands of mines and booby traps, were continually sniping, and had dug in under logs and tree roots. Regrettably, the campaign was “derided by British and American historians” and these Australian troops failed to get the recognition they deserved. If anything, sixty years was far too long for this to be rectified.
Stanley denounced the notion that there should be a “Battle for Australia Day” because he claimed the Japanese had decided against invasion and had not conducted a co-ordinated campaign specifically against Australia; and because the military events to which the term refers were only loosely related. Consequently, as far as he was concerned, there was only a series of disconnected battles, which taken alone or together never amounted to a “Battle for Australia”, comparable, perhaps, to the Battle of Stalingrad, or the Somme, or Verdun.
This seems an odd claim over which to engage in intellectual trench warfare. To begin with, it was intrinsic to the very nature of the Pacific War that it involved a series of battles of various scales on land and sea and in the air as the allies “island-hopped” thousands of kilometres across the ocean towards what might have been the ultimate and cataclysmic “Battle of Japan”. Fortunately, this horror was averted by the use of the atomic bomb, although it might have helped avoid the imprecision that troubles Stanley. Furthermore, the world wars saw two great, prolonged, and widely dispersed “Battles of the Atlantic”, involving thousands of individual encounters and a massive loss of life and material, and presumably Stanley doesn’t want to discredit those. Finally, it must be recognised that by far the greatest battles of the Second World War were fought between Germany and the Soviet Union. For example, the battles of Byelorussia, Smolensk and Moscow associated with Operation Barbarossa killed 1,582,000; while the Battle of Stalingrad and the Siege of Leningrad, killed 973,000 and 900,000 respectively. This compares to Operation Overlord, which cost “only” 132,000 lives, but nobody suggests that the Americans, British and Canadians are getting above themselves by commemorating D-Day.
Despite such considerations, Stanley launched his attack in a paper pointedly entitled “He’s (not) coming South—the invasion that wasn’t”, given at the “Remembering 1942” conference held by the Australian War Memorial in May 2002. In it he characterised the popular perception as follows: “that Japan planned to invade Australia, would have had not the battle for Papua been won, and that the man responsible was the great war leader John Curtin”. He then goes on to claim that “there was in fact no invasion plan, that the Curtin government exaggerated the threat, and that the enduring consequence of its deception was to skew our understanding of the reality of the invasion crisis of 1942” (Peter Stanley, “He’s (not) coming South—the invasion that wasn’t”. Paper given at the ‘Remembering 1942’ History Conference, Australian War Memorial, 31/5/2002 pp.1-2).
Even in this initial foray Stanley made it clear that he was concerned not only or even principally with the facts of the military and political situation in 1942 (and his views on these were contested with considerable ferocity and resourcefulness by his opponents). Rather, he appeared intent from the outset on exploiting the issue as a vehicle to develop his own views on the perplexing nature of Australia’s national character (Stanley was born in Britain and came to Australia in 1966). For example, in his concluding comments he expressed his bafflement with the popular memories of this period of great national crisis: “Why these stories persist, and why Australians believe, against all the evidence, that they faced an actual threat, present a profound conundrum.”
Rejecting the possibility that these fears could have any real foundation, he lamented that apparently “Australians want to believe that they faced an actual (rather than a potential) invasion. They almost want to believe that Australia faced this danger, a real rather than a remote threat.” Looking for an explanation for this, he argued that such beliefs persist because they “justify Australia’s self-centred approach to the war from late 1941 by reference to a threat which did not exist, was known not to exist and which has been exaggerated”. Ultimately, he concluded dismissively, “it is time that Australians stopped kidding themselves that their country faced an actual invasion threat and looked seriously at their role in the Allied war effort” (ibid., pp.12-13).
Stanley returned to the debate in an article in the Griffith Review, published (perhaps coincidentally) just before the Battle of Australia commemoration ceremonies in 2005. Pointedly, he began by recalling how he played on bomb sites as a child in Liverpool before dismissing the Japanese bombing of Darwin as a minor event, remarking that “compared with the blitz [and] the great Allied bomber offensive … against Germany at exactly the same time, Darwin was small beer” (Peter Stanley, “Threat Made Manifest”, Griffith Review, No.9, Spring 2005, p.15).
Such a comment illustrates Stanley’s desire to compel Australians to accept that their country’s role in the Second World War was minor and even inconsequential, and he reiterated his incapacity to comprehend Australian attitudes to the war:
Why is it that the stories of attack, invasion and incursion are so persistent? It seems to be that Australians want to believe that they were part of a war, that the war came close; that it mattered. Why can’t we as a nation accept that the war the Allies fought was decided far from Australia—in North Africa, north-west Europe and above all on the steppes of European Russia? Why do we appear to want to believe that Australia really was threatened with invasion, that it was attacked?
Exasperated, he exclaims: “set against the prosaic reality, [such a] desire is poignant and rather pathetic” (Peter Stanley, “Threat Made Manifest”, Griffith Review, No.9, Spring 2005, pp.23-4).
Stanley then speculates about the origins of what he sees as these “pathetic” and irrational attitudes about threats to Australia from the north, relating the fear of Japanese invasion to contemporary political issues:
It’s significant that almost all the fabulous incidents occurred in the north, a mystic place that most Australians still know little of … The identity and nature of the threat has changed—from mythical Russians, to yellow peril, to “the Japanese”, to a red peril, to “boat people”, and latterly “people smugglers” and “illegal refugees”—but the idea that northern Australia is somehow open to incursion persists. [The bombing of] Darwin remains a symbol of vulnerability and threat, and of a self-interested, parochial conflict against chimerical foes.
A chimera is of course a bogeyman, a fanciful monster rooted in fear, and as these passages indicate, Stanley seeks to use military history as a vehicle to develop an unflattering portrait of Australians as delusional, paranoid, frightened, xenophobic, parochial and filled with an inflated sense of self-importance.
The attack by the intelligentsia on the Anzac tradition is both explicit and co-ordinated. Consequently, what clearly aspires to be a manifesto was widely promulgated just prior to Anzac Day this year. In keeping with its policy of annually providing lengthy opinion pieces attacking Anzac, the Age published an article by Marilyn Lake, Professor of History at La Trobe University. Once again, its aim was made clear in its title: “Fight free of Anzac, lest we forget other stories” (23/4/2009). The Age followed this up the next day with an extended and even more strident version: “We must fight free of Anzac, lest we forget our other stories” (24/4/2009), which Lake had delivered the previous night as a special public lecture hosted by the University of Melbourne and the History Teachers Association of Victoria. The lecture was immediately made available as an audio file on the web by the ABC radio program Hindsight as “Beyond the Legend of Anzac”.
Lake begins her manifesto with an extended account of her academic career spent debunking “the Myth of Anzac”, and alerts her audience to a forthcoming book written by her, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and others, called What’s Wrong with Anzac? She then endorses Prior’s view of Gallipoli, claiming that
even if victorious, the campaign would not have shortened the war by a single day; nor was the downfall of Turkey of any relevance to the global objectives of World War I. The Gallipoli was a bad war [sic], misjudged, poorly thought through, and … the allied troops died in vain.
Lake then launches into an attack on “the Myth of Anzac with all its imperial, masculinist and militarist baggage”, which she derides as Australia’s now defunct “Creation Story”, claiming that it must be overthrown and the nation reborn by an act of subservience to the intelligentsia’s alternative “Creation Story”:
We [must] detach ourselves from the Mother Country, declare our Independence, inaugurate a Republic, draw up a new Constitution expunged of is race traces and that recognizes the first wars of dispossession fought against Indigenous peoples, their heroic patriotism, here in this country, and their never-ceded sovereign status. In that way we can truly make history here in Australia.
In addition to this constitutional capitulation to a historical confabulation, Lake insists that Anzac Day must be replaced with a commemoration of “the horrors and shame of war experience, the atrocities, the loss and waste, [and] the centrality of killing”. It must also genuflect to “gender and racial exclusions”, “the long history of pacifism and anti-war movements”, “stories of national aspiration and identity [and] democratic social experiments and visions of social justice”; while also offering lamentations that “Anzac was a celebration of race and manhood [and] that at Gallipoli we fought for empire not the nation [thus] symbolizing our continuing colonial condition”.
In her final clarion call to the intelligentsia, Lake makes clear that her attack on Gallipoli and the Anzac tradition is part of a unified strategy. She declares that
in the next few years as we prepare to inaugurate a republic … we have a rare historic opportunity to … give birth to a new nation, committed to the values [of the Left]. Central to the birth of this new nation must be recognition of the status of Indigenous peoples as the original owners and still sovereign peoples of this land.” Consequently, in her view, “on our first Independence Day we can finally bid farewell to White Australia as the founding principle of our nationality, [and] the colonial ideal that framed the achievement of our nationhood at Gallipoli in 1915.
Several comments can be made in conclusion. Obviously, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and the next phase of the Left’s ideological onslaught on Australian society and its history is under way. As the passages quoted above reveal, the intelligentsia would no doubt like to be as successful in imposing its view of the Anzac tradition on Australian society as it has been in promulgating its fabrication of the history of indigenous Australians, making constitutional changes and requiring students at every level of education, from day care to university, to make unquestioning obeisance to a politically correct, contrived mythology composed of elements such as those advocated by Lake and others noted above.
The great irony is that it seems likely that the aggressive, relentless and intransigent insistence on the mythology of colonial imperialism, militarism, genocide and racism, with its bifurcation of the Australian people into two groups, with the vast majority being cast as oppressors, may actually have driven the resurgence in the Anzac tradition, simply because no national identity can be built on a foundation of self-inflicted guilt, however strictly policed it may be by the intelligentsia. People will seek instead an alternative, more deeply grounded, inclusive and empowering vision of their nation’s past.
It is precisely this dynamic self-healing characteristic of human societies that the Left doesn’t understand, as is illustrated by Joan Beaumont’s insistence (quoted above) that “the resurgence in the memory of war in both popular culture and official commemoration [is not] an organic and spontaneous occurrence”. In fact, such a spontaneous corrective to the debilitating negativity of the cultural discourse of the Left is exactly what should be expected in any thriving society, as sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Maurice Halbwachs revealed in their magisterial studies of collective consciousness and collective memory.
This brings us to the final point: the Anzac legend is far too precious to be left to the mercy of these ideologues. The centennial of the outbreak of the Great War approaches: it may soon be time for those who value the sacrifices of their forebears, the national identity of their country, and all that its people have achieved, to follow the Anzac spirit in the battle of ideas, and go over the top.
Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer in History & Communications, James Cook University.