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Anzac religion unfitting in multicultural Australia

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The Canberra War Memorial has been hailed as 'sacred' by political figures (Image via Sam Ilić | Flickr)

The Anzac legend encompasses predominantly White Australian history with little significance to the nation's Indigenous or immigrants. Dr David Stephens reports.

RECENTLY, Defence Minister Richard Marles gave a speech at the Defending Australia Summit, held at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The Minister referred to the Memorial as “Australia's most sacred public site”.

Describing the Memorial in such a way is common for politicians.

According to former Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2018:

“The Australian War Memorial, the soul of the nation. That is what is housed within its stone and brass walls. It is sacred to us all. It transcends politics, it transcends all of us.”

Where did this commemorative cliché come from and what does it signify?

Attaching spiritual significance to the Memorial is part of a broader view of Anzac, which the late historian Ken Inglis described as a “civil religion” or “secular religion”. He identified a “cult of Anzac” and his book about war memorials was titled Sacred Places. The theologian Father Paul Collins saw a longing for liturgy among Australians in commemoration mode.

As early as 1925, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce put out an Anzac Day message calling the day “our most sacred and cherished memory”. The author Peter FitzSimons claimed Australians have a naturally bowed head about Anzac Day.

While those heads remain bowed, however, perhaps there is time for thinking. There are three main reasons why the sacred soul cliché deserves a closer look.

First, what happens if you don't feel the vibe? Many of us have always known that there is much more to Australia than Anzac, but the Anzac legend has pushed other stories aside. Some of us have been content with this: because war stories are at once exciting and sad, and the myths that have grown up around them have been comforting (especially when war seems to be looming again).

Yet, there should be no sacred cows in a free society. Anzac may still be a secular religion for some Australians, but it is not the established church; other Australians have the right to be atheist or agnostic about it. In turn, Anzac atheists and agnostics should respect the adherents of the Anzac religion, but they should not in a democracy be required to worship at its altars.

Secondly, how do you feel if your dead are not recognised in the galleries of war memorials or the histories of Australia's wars? In his Anzac to Amiens (1946), official historian of World War I, Charles Bean, claimed of Australia that ‘war never had happened there’.

What about the dead warriors and their families who fell in the massacres and resistance of the Australian Frontier Wars, which ran from 1788 to at least 1928 and took perhaps 100,000 lives, almost all of them Indigenous? (We don't know exactly how many died because records were not kept or were destroyed and bodies were burned or buried.) Just like the uniformed dead on a Roll of Honour, these First Nations people died defending Country.

Why should descendants of Frontier Wars victims regard the Australian War Memorial, the Shrine in Melbourne, or any other whitefellers’ commemorative edifice as “sacred”, when they can see little or nothing in them that recognises or commemorates Frontier Wars deaths? Under current arrangements, Frontier Wars blackfellers are likely to be recognised at the War Memorial only where, like Private William Punch, they saw their family massacred, but still went on to fight in the King's or Queen's uniform.

Why should a modern blackfeller, with family memories of massacres and resistance at Appin, Coniston, Eumeralla, Myall Creek, or dozens of other places across Australia, including those in Queensland, where the conflict killed between 40,000 and 70,000 First Nations people, care about the Boer War or The Nek or the Bombing of Darwin or Kapyong or Long Tan or Tarin Kowt or other whitefeller battles and skirmishes?

The same question could be asked about Australian war and war-related literature, from Bean down to recent authors like Peter FitzSimons, Grantlee Kieza and Roland Perry: what appeal does their writing hold for First Nations Australians? The work of Henry Reynolds, Tim Bottoms, Nick Brodie, Stephen Gapps and others on massacres and resistance is starting to tilt the balance, but there is a long way to go.

Thirdly, in our “multicultural society”, how sacred is Anzac, its buildings and its writings, to non-Anglo Celtic Australians, or at least to Australians whose families arrived after 1945, especially from war-torn countries? To many of these new arrivals, the ponderous monuments of Anzac Parade, Canberra, leading up to the brooding bulk of the War Memorial, indicate a people yearning for lost military memories — and anticipating future wars.

In 2016, a Department of Veterans Affairs children's book, Here They Come, featured Samir, a recent refugee from Sudan, who went to an Anzac Day march to see what made his new country tick. Good luck with that, Samir, but please don't think the essence of Australia begins and ends in Anzac Parade, is summed up in the latest potboiler from FitzSimons or Kieza, or can be breathed in during an Anzac Day Dawn Service.

And don't take much notice of clichés like that one from Minister Marles.

Dr David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and a member of the Defending Country Memorial Project, campaigning for the Australian War Memorial to properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars.

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