Politicians Manipulate Anzac

In Australia, politicians should have every reason to stay out of the grief and suffering they contributed to by sending their citizenry (wait, subjects—for the State remains a constitutional monarchy) to countries they could barely spell. But the bosom and milk of the British empire was, like US hegemony now, too powerful to resist. Enthusiastic young volunteers were sent to be cut down in the fields of Flanders and on the beaches of Gallipoli.

The survivors returned broken, distraught, communing in suffering of despair, drink and suicide. Mental illness was suppressed by stifling codes of stoicism and denial. The ways in which such returned soldiers coped, along with their family members, are discussed in Marina Larsson’s appropriately named work Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War.

Things have not improved much since. Australia’s warmakers have continued to bungle and distort the meaning of the national interest. Apart from in the Second World War, which saw Australia threatened by the forces of Imperial Japan, Canberra has fallen into a nasty habit of sending troops to fight other people’s wars. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq look much like mercenary missions rather than well-thought-through defence ventures to defend the homeland.

The military and political tradition going back to Gallipoli in 1915 is not an enviable one; talk about being slain in the name of freedom is hollow when it comes from the invaders. In a perverse and glorious twist of public relations, modern Turkey’s creator Kemal Atatürk knew how to turn the bad behaviour of the invasion into the good grace of forgiveness. His 1934 tribute has gained such traction as to have become the stuff of lore, enacted at each commemoration in Gallipoli itself and elsewhere:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.

Such skilful marketing is conspicuously ignored every 25 April, but remains most profitable for local vendors in Türkiye. It should also be said that in racial and cultural terms, it clearly ignores the Armenians and those caught in the Turkification project Atatürk pursued with sanguinary tenacity. They died gruesomely, aliens in their own land.

Around these engagements, the politician as demagogic promoter of Anzac—the name given to both the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and the cult surrounding it—has come to the fore. It is common, and convenient, to link the sacral elevation of the Anzac tradition—muscular, masculine sacrifice by sturdy blokes keen on freedom and the ‘fair go’—to Prime Minister John Howard. However, the process of burnishing the legend and reviving it for more contemporary consumption actually began with the Australian Labor Party, and Australia’s longest-serving Labor prime minister Bob Hawke.

It was Hawke’s visit to Gallipoli on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings that gave Hawke a change to revisit the Anzac theme and impress his own reading upon it. The meaning of the Anzac tradition, Hawke told those gathered, ‘forged in the fires of Gallipoli, must be learned anew, from generation to generation’.

As a wise political chief, and one who could shed a tear or two, he suggested that the meaning of the tradition

[could] endure only as long as each new generation of Australians finds the will to reinterpret it to breathe, as it were, new life into the old story: and, in separating the truth from the legend, realise its relevance to a nation and a people, experiencing immense change over the past three-quarters of a century’

Contrary to Hawke’s hope, the truth has never been separated from the legend, as it never is in the context of any religion. Faith and denial paper over any disparity.

What Hawke left in brick, Howard turned into marble and sinister mythology. Anzac returned to the cult of mateship indebted to country, and it was to be exploited. Little mention would be made of political responsibility for war: the politician would extol the creed; the rest would follow. Australians who gathered on 25 April, Howard remarked on Anzac Day in 2001, were drawn by ‘a great silent summons to repay a debt to the past. Each year the numbers of us grow. Each year, more and more young Australians hear the call, though far removed, in time and circumstance, from those they seek to honour’.

Since then, Anzac has become a militaristic prop, a promotions exercise for arms manufacturers and the publicity for war. This was best exemplified by the decision to spend almost $500 million over nine years to redevelop the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The primary reason for this profligate spending: to create more room for advertising space for military hardware—jet fighters, Chinook helicopters and the like. Disgracefully, there were arguments that making former and current service personnel see such weapons and platforms of war would supply therapy rather than despair. Suffice to say, such PR is not intended to include the victims of such weapons.

The tradition of Anzac has also done nothing to offer lessons to Australian leaders about being cautious, reflective and wise in sending troops to foreign theatres. Hawke was hardly going to buck the trend of an automatic deployment of Australian personnel to wars waged by the United States. He had, after all, been one of the keenest converts to its messages, spiked by Freedom Land’s convictions. Despite having received no request from Washington to send a military contingent, Hawke, on 10 August 1990, offered three frigates from the Royal Australian Navy to US Operation Desert Shield.

When Howard’s conservative coalition won office in 1996, the salient lessons of needless death and foolish deployments showed the extent to which Anzac was to be commemorated: as a hat-doffing ceremony to war’s necessity rather than to its avoidable dangers. On Australia’s Vietnam fiasco, he ‘accepted the government’s position that the involvement was justified. I accepted then, and I see no reason to have changed my mind’. Students of his record should have found his instinctive throwing of Australian personnel into the US-led attacks on Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 fairly consistent. He was never a man to learn much, and errors could never be put down to stupidity or ignorance.

Unfortunately, the current Labor government also suffers from the same condition. Anzac’s lessons of woe and suffering have failed to filter through the current adjutants of the US empire in Canberra. When the AUKUS security pact was broached to the opposition leader Anthony Albanese by the previous Morrison government in 2021, he made the decision to approve it within twenty-four hours. He was even ‘proud’ of the decision, noting ‘that the United States’s position was that a precondition of their support for AUKUS and these arrangements certainly was a bipartisan commitment’. The arrangements, including the acquisition of nuclear-propelled submarines, were preparations for war with China.

Beware, then, the warmongering jingoists perfumed in freedom-loving garb. They are bound to be the ones leading the country to a blood-soaked demise. And the Anzac legend has become the ideal incubating vehicle for doing so, built as it is upon the fiction of sacrificial debt rather than colossal, even criminal blunders.

About the author

Binoy Kampmark

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

More articles by Binoy Kampmark

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“What Hawke left in brick, Howard turned into marble and sinister mythology. Anzac returned to the cult of mateship indebted to country, and it was to be exploited. Little mention would be made of political responsibility for war: the politician would extol the creed; the rest would follow.”
Binoy Kampmark has written a good article here, but an important fact about Anzac Day has been overlooked. It has emerged as Australia’s de facto national day, to the mystification of many, particularly observers from overseas. Anzac after all was a monumental defeat for Australia. Why would any country celebrate anything like that?
A few years back, I attended an Anzac commemoration at Narromine, NSW. During this, a speaker mentioned the name of Earl Haig, Commander-in-Chief on the WW1 Western Front. A RAAF officer from the nearby air base who happened to be standing next to me remarked: “Haig should have been stood up against a wall and shot!” He said that for all in his vicinity to hear, and was well in keeping with the real origin of Anzac Day.
In 1916, returned diggers organised among themselves to rub the noses of the military brass and politicians responsible for the disaster well and truly in it, and started holding memorial marches and other events of their own. Appropriately, they would congregate at dawn on April 25th at a suitable location in their town or city to remember their fallen comrades. After two years or so of this, the said military brass and politicians decided that their best move was to join it, and give it their official stamp of approval. Clearly, if they did not co-opt it in some way, they would likely suffer unknowable consequences.
So lest we forget.

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