ANZAC Day 2020

My father served in the RAAF during the second world war. He was – officially – ground staff: aircraft crew – servicing the planes etc.. But from the little he disclosed to me towards the end of his life, he not only did that incredibly important job, but sometimes was – illicitly – up in planes, navigating them, sometimes even flying them. This post is a tribute to him, and all of the brave women and men who risked and lost their lives.

In honour of your grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sons, daughters, children – this is for you (and thank you to Pearls and Irritations and – especially – Henry Reynolds – for these words:

This Anzac Day we should question the relentless militarisation of our history and the cult of the digger. These ideals make it easier for Australian governments to commit to wars overseas and more difficult for critics to engage in serious debate.

In 2008, a few months before he suffered the onslaught of a fatal disease the Anglo-American scholar Tony Judt contributed an essay to the New York Review of Books entitled What Have We Learned, If Anything? His concern was that after 1989 the lessons of the past had been cast aside. What then, he wondered is it that we have misplaced in our haste to put the past behind us? In the U.S. at least, we have forgotten the meaning of war.

There is a reason for this. In much of continental Europe, Asia and Africa the twentieth century was experienced as a cycle of wars. War in the last century signified invasion, occupation, displacement, deprivation, destruction, and mass murder.

The United States avoided almost all the horrors. It was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens or huge swathes of territory and it was civilian casualties that ‘leave the most enduring mark on national memory.’ Most Americans have been fortunate to live in blissful ignorance of war’s true significance.  As a consequence, the United States was, he believed, the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today. For many American commentators and policymakers, the message of the C20th is that war works.

How is this relevant to Australia and to Anzac Day? That depends on what feature of Anzac day we consider. The national lament for all the young lives lost in war, the familial grief, the continuing impact on the wounded and scarred should make us all join hands in collective gratitude and regret regardless of the nature of particular wars.

But there is much more to Anzac Day than a paean to lives lost in war. The centenary in 2015 entrenched ideas which have been with us for a long time and which have been endlessly fortified by association with heroic sacrifice. The rhetoric is familiar given its ubiquity. The Anzac landing, generations of children have been told, made Australia a nation. The shores of Gallipoli were where the nation was born.  The spirit displayed there has been an inspiration,  a touchstone, ever since. The message is so relentlessly repeated by national leaders that, to many people, it seems disloyal to subject it to sceptical examination.

But it is an extraordinary proposition! And where did it come from? The idea that nations are born in war was common among Europeans and Americans in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It slipped easily from the tongues of a generation which had little experience of the real thing. Australia’s coming of age was proclaimed during innumerable speeches made while sending the colonial detachments off to the Boer War and then welcoming them home again. But it was an idea that belonged to an era that was coming to an end. By the end of 1915, it was sinking into the blood-soaked mud of the Western Front. It lived on in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy but had become totally discredited by 1945.

However on earth did such a dangerous, atavistic idea survive and flourish in Australia? Is it an idea we would promote more widely? Proclaim that we came to national maturity by invading the Ottoman Empire at the behest of the British? That we needed to engage in a carnival of killing to be able to stand tall in the world? Apart from anything else, it is a profoundly irresponsible idea to preserve and propagate in the 21st century.

But of equal concern is the way in which the Anzac legend distorts our understanding of our own history. If the nation was truly born in April 1915 what came before is diminished. And it frequently appears that those who proclaim the idea know little about the history of colonial and early federation Australia. Otherwise, how could they cleave to such a proposition which falls apart under even elementary exegesis?

Whatever was it that the new federation lacked at the start of 1914 that was provided by the young men who stormed ashore at Gallipoli? Australia and New Zealand were the most democratic societies in the world and the most prosperous with wealth more evenly shared than was the case elsewhere. It was all the result of more than two generations of nation-building accomplished by thousands of men and women from all walks of life. How can a failed military campaign possibly compare with these diverse, demonstrable, achievements?

And what is even more pertinent is that Australasian political reform and social achievements of the period were known and admired in many parts of the world as the work of Marilyn Lake has established.  In the first decade of the 20th century, Australians saw themselves as ‘a confident, independent, global pioneer in creating an advanced democracy that drew the eyes of the world to the new Commonwealth.’  But when the war was over Australia was deeply divided and the spirit of social and political innovation has been crushed. In an earlier contribution to Pearls and Irritations  (23/4/14) Lake observed that ‘ during World War 1 Australia lost its way. Its enmeshment in the imperial European War fractured the nation’s soul.’

Not that we heard much in that vein during our carnival of commemoration between 2014 and 2018. What stood out was the fact that Australia spent so much and indeed far more than any other country. It all culminated in the extreme folly—the $100 million devoted to a museum in northern France commemorating the achievements of the Australian divisions.

Quite apart from the diversion of money from Australia’s cash strapped institutions it helps create the illusion that Australia was more important in the war than her small contribution of five  out of over 250 allied divisions in 1918 could possibly have achieved even if they did ’punch above their weight.’ But there was in Australia’s commemoration a decided note of triumphalism which might have been understandable in 1919 or 1920 but was odd to the point of aberration a hundred years later when we can see what a catastrophe the war was or as Niall Ferguson observed some years ago ‘the greatest error in modern history.’ Should our contribution to that terrible and avoidable disaster have been commemorated at all? Shame and remorse might have been more appropriate responses.

But there is purpose motivating the relentless militarisation of our history and the cult of the digger. They have contemporary relevance; they have real political power in the here and now. They make it easier for Australian governments to commit to wars overseas and more difficult for critics to engage in serious debate. The heroic image of the digger inhibits any assessment of the costs and benefits of war. Questions about the wisdom of engagements are seen as diminishing the sacrifice and suffering of participants. Without serious debate about our involvement in overseas conflicts, we appear to be shadowing our American allies, who as Judt observed, were convinced that war works.

Mungo MacCallum on Covid-19

As so often with Morrison, there is no overall strategy – simply a series of reactive measures which, he hopes, will do the job unless a next one is needed. and then another one, and another one …

Scott Morrison insists that his message is clear – the government is fully on top of the coronavirus crisis, there is no reason for doubt or uncertainty.

Well, up to a point, prime minister. Viewed individually, ScoMo’s present barrage of edicts are indeed firm and unequivocal. If they are taken at face value, there is no room for confusion.

But the problem is that, taken together, they are not only confusing but often self-contradictory. As so often with Morrison, there is no overall strategy – simply a series of reactive measures which, he hopes, will do the job unless a next one is needed. and then another one, and another one …

The basic dilemma that has still not been resolved is whether we are to treat this as a disaster on a truly monumental scale, a crisis like the great pandemics of the past, rivaling world wars and the Great Depression in their long term destruction; or a temporary set back – a severe one, no doubt, but an aberration that can be managed with a shit load of taxpayer money a dash of discipline and patriotism until we bounce back and a resiient Australia resumes its triumphal progress under the steady and stable hands of the coalition.

In the first scenario, we have closed our borders, the Reserve Bank has taken unprecedented steps to save the remnants of a devastated economy and a quasi state of emergency is in place – there is even talk of the free-enterprise government considering nationalising sections of industry and rationing essential goods

But on the other side, gatherings have been limited but not shut down, schools, universities and even casinos remain open for business, and although I have been condemned to home isolation, I am able — indeed encouraged – to watch TV sport in which groups of athletes indulge in as much close personal contact as possible.

And there is confusion at all levels. In spite of Morrison’s worthy initiative in bringing the state and territory leaders into a national cabinet, he has mean-mindedly excluded the federal opposition .. Anthony Albanese has pointedly not been offered a guernsey. Although the idea is apparently to coordinate a nationwide approach Tasmania has effectively seceded from the mainland. Mixed messages galore.

And there is little point in telling everyone else to shut up and do what we are told, when those telling us admit that things are changing too fast for even them to catch up. The chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, said last week that the schools would, must, stay open – for now, but if circumstances changed, so would the policy.

Fair enough, but hardly reassuring to those who are already conflicted about what to do with their children. The Catholics are in open warfare, and some others in the private sector are voting with their feet. The arguments are complex and there is sense on both sides.

Morrison is adhering to the official, current, advice – he says he is happy to send his own children to school and for what it’s worth I feel the same about my grandchildren. But I do not regard Morrison’s – or my own – preference as making the position, or the message, unequivocally clear.

It would be nice to think that the resumption of parliament will sort it all out. Perhaps such wishful thinking is about all we have left.

Republished with – I devoutly hope – the kind permission of John Menadue