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Howard’s Anzac fictions and the ageing adolescence of Australia

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Nothing pleases John Howard more than being among strapping young men in khaki (Image by Gary Ramage via DFAT on Flickr [CC 2.0])

With the last of the centenary Anzac commemorations behind us, perhaps we can look more closely at the source of some current attitudes.

FOR NEARLY two decades, government agencies have been quietly filling our kids’ heads with right-wing propaganda. Not only was the Australian nation allegedly forged in the crucible of Gallipoli, but our noble and gallant boys were fighting for democracy and freedom. The "Anzac spirit", also born at Gallipoli, has infused every great thing we have done ever since.

The claims are fiction, one long-standing, the others rather newer. Even as a kid in the 1950s, I never could get my head around the claim that Australia was born in a battle in a distant land. The second claim is an American-neoliberal twist and I had, until recently, been blissfully unaware of its currency among our youth. The third is an extension of the first and both are a denial of our actual history.

These messages have been packaged in "educational" materials put out by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Australian War Memorial. Even in the early 2000s, these programs had annual budgets of several million dollars, according to historian Marilyn Lake. Those generous amounts have since been swamped by a tsunami of WWI Centenary propaganda, costing around $300 million. That may or may not include the $100 million spent on the extravagantly digitised memorial just opened at Villers-Bretonneux in France.

Our boys were fighting for Empire and a White Australia. They held the prevalent attitude of the day, that the White race is superior to others and the British are the best of the Whites. We don’t have to castigate them for absorbing the attitude of the times, but we should rid ourselves of the illusion they were fighting for the paradise of democracy and freedom (for the wealthy) proclaimed in recent times by John Howard and Rupert Murdoch.

When war historian Charles Bean extolled our troops’ performance at Gallipoli, he was not claiming they suddenly raised themselves to a mystical apotheosis, he was suggesting their success arose out of their formative experiences in the new Australian society that had raised them. The "Anzac spirit" already existed at home. Growing up in the bush had made them tough, resourceful and egalitarian (towards each other at least).

This observation was seized upon and merged with the pre-war militarist view that war purifies and ennobles because it requires selfless sacrifice. Until men and nations have been through the purifying fire they are not fully formed, as reported by Henry Reynolds. Thus was our nation, supposedly, born on the beaches and hills of Gallipoli.

European nations experienced the carnage of the Western Front up close and were soon disabused of the militarist romance of war, but it persisted, almost uniquely, in Australia. Why was this?

I would suggest two reasons, neither with any nobility.

First, Australians still felt like colonials, desperate to prove themselves in the eyes of the English. Gallipoli, surely, would remove the convict and colonial stains, and elevate them to full stature in the Empire.

Second, the egalitarianism that had arisen in Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century had been troublesome to the wealthy establishment. It culminated in Andrew Fisher’s Labor controlling both houses of the Federal Parliament from 1910 to 1913, the first majorities in either house. The surge of loyalty to the Empire triggered by the war boosted the traditional order and authorities were anxious to consolidate their advantage.

The story that the nation was forged at Gallipoli was repeated relentlessly, and soon overshadowed the more truthful and enlightening, but less visceral, story of the rise of an egalitarian, socially progressive and federated Australia. It has been maintained ever since and for the same purpose.

With the resurgence of the power of the wealthy in the modern neoliberal era, the myths have been revived and fortified, spiced as well with American-style rhetoric about "democracy and freedom" that has little local historical relevance.

Other nations’ founding stories usually celebrate the gaining of independence and unity. Australia’s WWI experience instead created bitter divisions, and historian Professor Mark McKenna has observed that the story constructed from it made us more subservient. This accounts for the persistence of the cultural cringe, named by A. A. Philips in 1950.

The cringe still pervades our politics. Australia’s conservative leaders have almost universally acted as agents of "great and powerful friends".

The ardent desire in 1915 for recognition by the mother country can be recognised as a natural longing for adult status by an adolescent nation. That our so-called leaders cling a century later to the same need to curry favour with the powerful – even one as errant as the modern United States – speaks of severely arrested development.

It is long past time, we cut the apron strings and stood in our own power. Our real history is of a remarkable early rise to prosperity and social progress and, in spite of inhibitions cultivated by timid politicians, a later remarkable rise in prosperity, diversity, tolerance and accomplishment.

Lately we have regressed, but our remarkable story is there to reclaim and resume, this time embracing our unique inheritance of an ancient culture whose wisdom we might learn from.

Dr Geoff Davies is an author, commentator and scientist. He is a retired geophysicist at the Australian National University and the author of The Rise and Failure of the Radical Right (May 2017) Desperately Seeking the Fair Go (2017). He blogs at BetterNature.

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