The Anzac Myth

Today’s Guest Poster is John Menadue, redoubtable private secretary to Gough Whitlam, diplomat, senior Commonwealth public servant, and successful businessman. Mr Menadue (along with many other luminaries) is active at Pearls and Irritations, where the following post, republished here with permission (for which our thanks), first appeared.

Mr Menadue’s observation

But conservatives were frightened of the future. They wanted to drag us back to the heart break of the past. And they succeeded . . .

resonates eerily, but not surprisingly, with another comment from another very recent post to Pearls and Irritations. This, from retired Associate Professor Douglas Newton, is a fine introduction (though cheekily inserted by me) to The Anzac Myth:

Do we have a right to invoke ‘the Anzac Spirit’ in contemporary Australia? If we tolerate widening inequality, monstrous private wealth amid public squalor, intensifying social stratification, and weakening social mobility, dare we speak of ‘Their Spirit’? If we pursue a neo-liberal agenda, that preaches an acquisitive individualism, hollows out the public sector, privileges the private provider, relentlessly privatises our pooled resources, and lauds lower taxes as the one true household god – is ‘the Anzac spirit’ alive?

Gallipoli and the Anzacs

The four-year and well-funded carnival celebrating Anzac and WWI is now rolling. The carnival will depict WWI as the starting point of our nation, as our coming of age!

It was nothing of the sort. It was a sign of our international immaturity and dependence on others. What was glorious about involving ourselves in the hatreds and rivalry of European powers that had wrought such carnage in Europe over centuries? Many of our forebears came to Australia to get away from this. But conservatives, our war historians and colonel blimps chose deliberately to draw us back to the stupidities and hatreds of Europe. Conservatives and militarists want us to cling to a disastrous imperial war. They encourage us to focus on how our soldiers fought in order to avoid the central issue of why we fought.

It seems that the greater the political and military stupidity of wars that we have been involved in, the more we are encouraged to hide behind the valour of our service people at Gallipoli, the Western Front and elsewhere.. The ‘leadership’ of Winston Churchill and General Ian Hamilton were catastrophic both for the British and for us. Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli were commanded by a British General. No hiding behind the sacrifice of troops can avoid the facts. We should not have been there and it was a disaster.

Unfortunately the more we ignore the political and military mistakes of the past, the more likely we are to make similar mistakes in the future. And we keep doing it. If we had a sense of our calamitous involvement in wars in the past like WW1 we would be less likely to make foolish decisions to involve ourselves in wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our history is littered with tragic military adventures, being led by the nose by either the UK or the US. And it goes on through the Boer War, the Sudan War and more recently, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In all these cases, and just like WWI, we have desperately tried to hide behind the valour of our service people.

The most important and justified war in which we have fought as a nation was WWII, in defence of our own people and land. But WWII is rated by the Australian War Memorial and so many others as of much less significance. WW1 Is the Holy Grail.

On April 25 each year we are told by tongue-tied people that the great sacrifice of WWI was in defence of freedom and the right. But I don’t think that they even believe it themselves. It just does not ring true. Tony Abbott says it was a ‘just war’. But he is yet to explain what was ‘just’ about it. It is claimed that it united this country, but it divided us in a way that we had never been divided before or since with Billy Hughes exploiting the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment in the country. Only 30% of eligible men chose to enlist. WWI was a great divider. It was not a unifier despite the platitudes of Anzac Day.

Some claim that WWI was to bring peace to Europe. But the war and its aftermath laid the ground for even greater death and destruction in WWII.

In relation to our population, our greatest loss of lives was in the Frontier Wars where over 30,000 indigenous people died in defence of their own land. But we ignore it in favour of the myths of Anzac. Best we forget the Frontier Wars.

Yet it was the Frontier Wars -the forcible occupation of a vast continent- and not the wars of Gallipoli or the Somne that made Australia.

The first time Australians and New Zealanders fought together was against the Maoris in New Zealand in the 1850s and 1860s. The ANZAC connection was not forged at Gallipoli but half a century before in the Maori Wars. It’s best that we forget that too. It doesn’t do our self-respect much good to recall that we fought together with New Zealanders in a race war to quell the Maori people.

The early and remarkable achievements of this young country at the turn of the century and early in the 19th Century are blotted out by the blood and blather of WWI, ANZAC and Gallipoli. We talk endlessly about the Gallipoli landings. A more honest description would be the invasion of Turkey.

Federation in 1900 was a remarkable achievement, pulling together our six colonies into a nation. We led the world in universal suffrage, the rights of women, industrial democracy and the minimum wage. The ‘Australian ballot’ or secret ballot was progressively adopted in the Australian states in the latter half of the nineteenth century. We were a world leader. Our ballot was adopted in New Zealand, Canada, UK and US

In 1904 we had not only Australia’s first Labor Government. It was the first in the world. The rights of working people as expressed in the Harvester Judgement of 1907 put Australia as a leader on the world stage. We were an advanced social laboratory. Before WWI there were two decades of remarkable nationhood and advancement for ordinary people.

But conservatives were frightened of the future. They wanted to drag us back to the heart break of the past. And they succeeded with the help of Billy Hughes and other Labor renegades

In the process we broke our own heart – or as Marilyn Lake has expressed in a blog on April 23 this year ‘WWI fractured the nation’s soul’.

It is time we were honest with ourselves and discounted the myths of WWI, ANZAC and Gallipoli.

Instead we should celebrate the two remarkable decades of progress before the catastrophe of WWI. And never forget the Frontier Wars.

AAP: Dean Lewins


633 thoughts on “The Anzac Myth

  1. Leone,
    I already live in a 30 minute city, 45 at most from my place on the outer edges to the cbd. Most transactions can be done withing 15 minutes or less of my house. I can drive from the Adelaide foothills to the nearest beach in 30 minutes. 🙂

    • I live in a 15 minute town. Everything I need is within a fifteen minute drive. If I drive 30 minutes I’m almost at the next town up or down the highway.

      Just one of the many advantages of not living in the big smoke.

  2. Turnbull – stealing Labor’s ideas again.

    Anthony Albanese was excited about 30 minute cities in 2014. Labor hasn’t said much about it since then, maybe they have come to understand that it’s just not feasible.

    I’m particularly attracted to consideration of the 30 minute City concept promoted by some policy thinkers in this area including the Bus Industry Confederation. I am aware that some argue for the 20 minute City, but better to underpromise and overdeliver.

    This is the simple concept that most of peoples day to day work, educational, shopping or recreational activities should be located within 30 minutes walking, cycling or public commuting from their homes.

    The national Government can provide leadership in urban policy in cooperation with other levels of Government, with industry and with the community

  3. It takes about 90 minutes to drive from extreme northern suburbs to the extreme southern suburbs of Adelaide. That is such an imposition I lose touch with friends south of the CBD.

    Google maps
    Gawler to McLaren Vale
    90.6 kms
    1h 34m by car
    2h 21m by public transport. (train and bus)..

  4. The AFP is the most politically “sensitive” body in the history of Australian government. I will be extremely surprised if they do anything to upset the political balance in the run up to an election (or any other time in fact), particularly an election that the incumbents are most likely to win. Most of the upper echelons of the AFP are in place because of their political connections and their “soundness”, they are very aware of what is required of good chaps.

  5. Omid. the man who set himself on fore on Nauru, died this afternoon. His family say doctors in Brisbane might have been able to do more for him if he had not been left in the Nauru hospital for so long. I’ve read that he was left in the filthy, decrepit old part of the hospital, not the newly renovated part we paid millions for.

    The misty-eyed Malcolm Turnbull has said nothing, and has not wept for the cameras.

    In other despicable news –

    Last night the men incarcerated on Manus Island were given phones and allowed access to all parts of the centre. The ABC reported this earlier today, with a report the men were very happy with the new arrangements.

    A short time ago, straight after that ABC report, the gates were locked and the phones were taken away. Apparently happiness is forbidden in Dutton’s concentration camps.

    Manus Island internal gates locked, mobile phones banned despite earlier loosening of restrictions,-phone-ban-lifted-after-court-ruling/7369914

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