Thursday 9 May 2013

As the Gallipoli centenary approaches: is the Anzac Legend bubble in danger of bursting?

Anzac Day has come and gone as principle urgers like Australian War memorial Director Brendan Nelson and NSW Anzac Centenary chief and ex-General Peter Cosgrove crank up the volume on their plans for the 2015 Gallipoli anniversary. On the surface this year’s Anzac commemorations continued to demonstrate rude good health with new records for dawn service attendance – close to 50,000 in Melbourne and 35,000 in Canberra.

But the commemorations have not gone unchallenged with thoughtful critiques this year appearing in the mainstream media from Clare Wright, Ian Sysons, Christopher Bantick, Ben Pobjie, Kim Johnston, among others. There was Robert Bollard’s new book re-challenging the myths of Gallipoli and World War One. And a debate on the “puff” versus “substance” of Anzac Day, featuring Marilyn Lake, Jeff Sparrow and ex-ADF solider Graham Wilson, against a team including new Australian “War” Memorial generalissimo, Brendan Nelson, saw Lake et al win 71% of the 250-300 person audience vote, with few pro-Anzac contributions from the floor discussion. When it comes to the arguments the anti-Anzac perspective is strong but is crowded out by the jingoistic commemoration, fuelled by a largely obsequious and compliant mainstream media.

But is it possible to detect a whiff of panic and bluster among the Anzac legend urgers? Are they running the risk of going “over the top” in the run-up to 2015? Might the bubble burst?

While the numbers turning out to ceremonies in Australia and overseas are impressive we should remember that they represent a shifting concentration of public turnout, towards dawn ceremonies, that may be still be less than the number who turned out for (the now less significant) veterans’ marches during the 1950s and early 1960s. Should this perhaps be the point of comparison, relative to population size, rather than comparing the current turnouts with the downturn from the late 1960s?

Anecdotally and subjectively I recall a bigger fuss being made in my hometown in the 1950s and early 60s with not one but two Anzac marches, a preceding schools march on April 24 (with the benefit of losing a double period in the classroom two mornings a week, in the weeks prior, to practice marching). And even in the classroom it seemed then that Anzac Day received more attention with mass compositions written on Simpson and his Donkey etc. On this point I take issue with Marilyn Lake. It seems to me as a teacher who has spent a good part of my teaching of history and politics at matriculation and university level, the interesting question is not the use of pro-Anzac materials provided by Remembrance institutions like the AWM and Veteran’s Affairs, but why, after decades of teaching by baby-boomers like me: the WWI “Home Front” conscription struggles, the Vietnam War and peace movements; the Anzac Legend is so enduring. This points to the more important cultural and political setting outside the school.

Again, anecdotally, even the “good war”, World War Two, received more attention back in the 1950s and 1960s. Coral Sea Week, following close on the heels of Anzac Day was prominent and in my town and featured an annual fly over by military aircraft, (and we were nowhere near an airbase) with pilots flown back by transport that evening for a ball! This was a celebration of the alliance with the US. There has been the more recent nationalistic shift to Kokoda and the bombing of Darwin, but with the alliance still in tow.

This writer senses that what we may be seeing with the current commemorative hype may be all we are going to get – that the Anzac urgers have committed much of their army to the field. Living in a part of Melbourne where “leakage” from such patriotic events might show up in boozy public displays of nationalism, there was none of this around on Anzac Day this year, as the populace largely seemed to get on with enjoying the sunny late autumn opportunities of a (in this case informally extended) long weekend - something that is going to happened every time Anzac Day does not fall on a Wednesday.

The jingoes potentially are facing problems – could it be that the 2015 anniversary might mirror 1915 where the news from Gallipoli caused a flush in recruitment before enthusiasm for the war waned (back then, in the face of industrial conflict and the conscription debates)?

As historian Clare Wright has pointed out the revitalisation of Anzac commemoration has been part of the political project emanating from the Hawke-Keating and Howard eras. Howard in particular, she argued, used the Anzac legend “as a political opportunistic tool for rallying the nation behind a particular version of Australia's history.”

Anzac and neo-liberalism.

Much of this relates to the emergence of a dominant and largely unchallenged neo-liberalism in the Hawke and Howard eras. The corollary of this emphasis on free markets and the rule of capital has been the attempt to collapse the state back to its core military-security function: not just war making but also anti-terrorism policing, containing unionism and border security. This has been accentuated since 9/11 and the “war on terror”. The focus on the state’s war-making function has required an intensifying of the military legends provided by Anzac to sustain this. It may not be, as Wright and Marilyn Lake argue, that the Anzac Legend crowds out other important national narratives, such as the emergence of democracy in Australia. Rather it may be the other way around – the weakness of any strongly articulated social democratic, internationalist and peace alternatives in Australia’s contemporary political culture, gives full reign to the jingoistic nationalism of the Anzac Legend.

Both the Labor Party “Left” and the Greens, have effectively given up on presenting antiwar perspectives. This is particularly egregious for the Greens, which in large part began in the 1980s as an antiwar global movement (linked to ecology through the nuclear issue). While critical of US alliance policy, the Greens have recently subtly embraced the alliance itself – and how many people noticed, especially in the mainstream media (MSM), that the 2010 Afghan War debate contained no Green criticism of that alliance – the equivalent of criticizing global warming without mentioning carbon.

At its worst this is electorally-driven cowardice by Labor’s “Left” and the nominally antiwar Greens - at its best it is a gross political negligence. However in the context of global economic crisis, the neo-liberal consensus underpinning war culture is in danger of fracturing. This, coupled with the waning enthusiasm for the war on terror and the failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, may open up more space for alternative political visions, threatening the Anzac Legend.

The jingoes’ commemorative problems.

In this wider context there are other more immediate commemorative problems.

There is the increased and overt military presence on Anzac Day, with catafalque guards, fly-pasts, speech-making by the military brass, and the presence of uniformed veterans. Unlike the short-term volunteer armies of the two world wars, and conscripts of Vietnam, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan contain among their numbers a higher percentage of still-serving soldiers. This increased presence of uniforms on Anzac Day, and its threat to the image of the citizen-veteran has been concerning enough for arch-hawk and Australian Defence Association chief Neil James to express concern.

The military is in a jam here. The war culture, which the Anzac mythologies promote, is a “Janissary” culture which says it is fine to have sacrificed one’s life for empire (British or American) and military defeat (Gallipoli, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan). This has been essential to maintaining Australia’s war machine – one still built around the alliance with the US. There is also the general fear, recently expressed by the Chief of Army, that post-Afghanistan, governments might be tempted to wind back military spending and recruitment, as happened for a time after Vietnam. This is a particular danger at a time of fiscal problems associated with the GFC and these anxieties have been expressed around the release of the latest Defence White Paper. Hence the military’s hyperactive support for Anzac commemoration, a support that risks martialising and damaging it.

But along with this is the shift in focus away from the big marches as a consequence of the overall declining number of veterans. While we need to remember 17,000 Australian’s have served in Iraq, and the wash-up from Afghanistan may be similar, the veterans from the first AIF have gone, the second AIF almost gone, and the 50,000 who served in Vietnam are ageing. It is doubtful, and controversial, as to whether families wearing dead ancestors medals can compensate for this (ex-ADF Graham Wilson savaged this trend at the above-mentioned Melbourne Town Hall debate). Thus the shift to the dawn services and the attempt to widen commemoration to the Western Front and to Kokoda and Darwin, encouraged by the remembrance elites in order to guarantee the survival of the Anzac Legend.

The focus on the dawn services and the cemeteries of Gallipoli and the Western Front however is problematic. Thousands of young people are looking not at marching hero-veterans, but at the graves of the dead. This produces conflicting emotions among these participants about the nature and purpose of war, as has been documented in the research of historian Bruce Scates. Those turning out to these ceremonies may be open to alternative antiwar narratives. They’re just not getting them.

Soft Jingoism.

One of the responses to these problems, and the more questionable, and questioned, wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, has been for the commemorative elites, the military and politicians, to shift to a kind of “soft jingoism’ which admits of the “futility” of war but still sees it as inevitable: a kind of melancholy acceptance of war. This is reflected in the just-ending “peace” exhibit at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne (see comment my earlier “Lies of War Memorials” blog below) with its website summation that “peace cannot be taken for granted and, it seems, demands our eternal vigilance” a softened version of the longstanding RSL motto that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”.

This melancholy acceptance of the permanence of war can be seen in the Anzac Day speech given by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, at Townsville. The site of a major military base, the location of this year’s speech is testament to the conscious link between the Anzac-driven war culture and the war machine.

The danger for the jingoes is that this softened approach may nonetheless open the door to more critical appraisals of the Anzac legend. What do we make for example of the Anzac Day comments of the Tasmanian Governor who in 2012 suggested that Anzac Day should be used to “ask hard questions about the meaning of wars, their causes and outcomes” and this year made controversial reference to Australian soldiers pissing his pants in fear in Vietnam, while cautioning that Gallipoli centenary may cause people to overlook the brutality and reality of war. Veterans, he said
deserve honouring and remembering as they struggled to overcome the terror and do their duty: not the mythical tall, lean, bronzed and laconic Anzac, enthusiastically and unflinchingly carrying the torch of freedom in the face of murderous enemy fire, Australia needs to drop the sentimental myths that Anzac day has attracted.
This may still be soft jingoism, but of a form that runs the risk of straying too far off message.
Can the bubble be burst?
While the jingoes run the risk of puffing up an unsustainable Anzac mythology it is going to take more than a little help from outside to burst the bubble
Hopefully this may come through a revitalised antiwar movement. The problem is that, notwithstanding the actions by a number of antiwar groups, and Anzac-related initiatives like the Melbourne Town Hall debate, such a cohesive and assertive movement doesn’t really exist at the moment.  Of course it may be possible that the 1914/15 centenaries, and the jingoes over-reach, may open the door to the entry into the debate of the thousands who came out in Australia before the Iraq War. This shows how quickly political support for an antiwar position can come to the surface. There certainly seems to be a potential antiwar sentiment linked to lack of public support for the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures.
Occasions such as the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and the Anzac Day events of 2014 and 2015 might be an opportunity for large events such as “Never Again” rallies around the anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, or Anzac Day Eve sunset vigils. The latter may provide a counterweight to the dawn services, pointing out that for the victims of war the day is ending, not beginning.
But how to get to this point? Much of this will be tied to the general re-emergence of political alternatives to neo-liberalism and its related military-security nationalism. But much will also need to be done to actively combat the Anzac Legend, and the war culture it sustains, in order to build to action around the centenaries. The entry of Wikileaks into the up-coming federal election may have some impact given the antiwar tenor of their disclosures, particularly as the result of Bradley Manning’s work. But clearly the main focus is going to have to be at a grassroots activist level, hopefully building support for wider action.
There are already signs this is happening with Anzac eve peace concerts and vigils emerging in Australia’s major cities, and the Melbourne Town Hall debate, showing there is a thirst for alternative activities and perspectives. However even this can become a battleground with the jingoes seeking to appropriate the soporific term “peace” as evidenced in the Shrine of Remembrance Peace exhibit (which eschews any meaningful reference to Australia’s antiwar history) and the Anzac eve concert spot in Brisbane occupied by the RSL.
We need more than a “peace” response. We need an assertive antiwar response that specifically and critically takes on the historical misrepresentations and omissions of the Anzac Legend and the memorialisation of war: the absurd notion of a (masculinist) national ethos or character type emerging from Australia’s war history; the absence of any commemoration of the non-Australian military victims of war; the assertions that Australian soldiers have died in war for “democracy”, “freedom”, or just “us”; and the shameful celebration of a national history that has seen Australia almost continuously at war.
We need a critique that links the Anzac-driven war culture to the maintenance of Australia’s war machine, its alliance relationship to the US, and its bloated military expenditures.
There is, of course, a need for a compassionate respect for veterans. Given what we now know about mental and physical health issues, and the grief of veterans and families for the dead, we need to give them space to gather – for veterans for example, meeting and seeing each other is important (I came to appreciate this in part from the experience of my WW2 ex-POW father). This of course reveals the true cruelty of the Anzac Legend-driven war culture, the way it appropriates the personal experiences of soldiers, and the grief of families, and fashions this into a collectivised, phony, national legend and mawkish, insincere public grieving, dominated by politicians, military brass and remembrance elites. Any challenges to this during official commemorations will probably have to come from antiwar veterans and their families.
Occupying war memorials?
However outside and around the official commemorations, “war” memorials are prime sites for protest, utilising them for example for “flash” poetry readings, antiwar songs, speeches or visual protests and antiwar performance. Social media provides outlets for the dissemination of these activities. Memorials can be useful sites for protest action in support of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and other activists under legal threat. This kind of action can be done by individuals, through to small and larger groups of people.
As I have argued in an earlier blog below, these monuments are not in truth “war” memorials but military memorials and museums – they leave out stories about the (non-Australian military) victims of war or any analysis of the causes of war. And they are not (as Alan Bennett points out in The History Boys) about remembering, but forgetting.
Hopefully, actions and debates around Anzac Day, and at memorials year round, might start to inspire (or embarrass) more prominent political and cultural figures to come out and shine the light on the “inconvenient truth” about the Anzac Legend.
That it is a lie.