Dissenting look at militaristic myth

June 25, 2010
ANZAC memorial sydney. Photo: kramesey/Flickr

What’s Wrong With Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History
By Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds
UNSW Press, 2010, 183 pages, $29.95 (pb)

On April 25 in Australia, it is humanly impossible to escape the slouch hats, the Dawn Service, the Last Post, the khaki uniforms and the military ceremonies endlessly recycled in the establishment media. The cult of Anzac Day is pervasive, the culture of war unavoidable.

Immensely welcome, then, is What’s Wrong with Anzac? by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, which takes a dissenting look at the Anzac Day tradition.

The legend is that the landing by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli in 1915, despite ending in defeat, was the supreme test of manhood and nationhood, which Australia passed. Anzac Day is remorselessly promoted as Australia’s true national day and celebrated with religious fervour.

The problems with this national creation myth are many, however. Unlike a revolutionary war of independence, the World War I Anzac landing was part of the Dardanelles campaign instigated by British War Minister, Churchill, at the request of the autocratic Russian Tsar, to open a new front against Germany.

It was an invasion, undertaken on behalf of the “mother country”, with “death and violence inflicted in an imperial cause”.

The Anzac cause has been yoked to “defending freedom and democracy” but this is “a marketing slogan” aimed at selling subsequent wars of aggression involving Australia — in Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Anzac Day is now depoliticised, reduced to a sentimental story of courage, mateship and the sacrifice of innocent young men rather than a horrendous display of “aggression, conformity and obedience to orders and a capacity to kill people”.

A British war correspondent who was at Gallipoli, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, celebrated this latter reality, praising the Anzacs’ enthusiasm for bayoneting Turks when their “blood was up”.

The Anzac tradition is an “imperialist, masculine, militarist” one but such dissent is regarded as treason and disrespectful of the Australian soldiers who died and of those serving in current wars.

With such reasoning, winning support for new wars is thus made easier, especially when the slouch hats are in the field. The Anzac-focused proliferation of military histories, commemorative days and war memorials has “naturalised war”, and has helped to silence debate about current and future wars.

Anzac is all about promoting the “importance of war in the life of the nation”, a lesson passed onto our children courtesy of an offensive by recent Australian governments, led by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs with its $6 billion budget for its schools program. School children are now “immersed in nationalist sentiment” rather than historical understanding.

Nationalism is a key Anzac value, the Australian flag an inseparable accessory. War, say the mythologists, will unite the country. The Prussian militarist and historian, Heinrich von Treitschke, said war united boss and worker across class lines in a common national purpose — war, “with all its sternness and roughness, also weaves a bond of love between men, since here all class distinctions vanish, and the risk of death knits man to man”.

When the worker lays down with the capitalist, there can only be one winner. Anzac Day helps the rich get richer by blurring competing class identities and interests.

For the approved gospel of Anzac to be effective, certain troublesome elements of Anzac history have had to be excised — those Gallipoli veterans, for example, who returned disgusted with war and who refused to attend Anzac ceremonies. Their voice is rarely heard.

The political division over the unpopular first World War is also rarely acknowledged. Wartime conscription was twice rejected by voters and, in the 1920s, Armistice Day became an occasion for well-attended peace rallies. University students protested the Vietnam War in the 1960s using Anzac Day as a springboard and feminists protested rape in war on the holy day.

In 1973, reflecting the anti-militarist feeling of the time, the Australian Labor Party national conference even discussed a proposal to drop Anzac Day in its current form and replace it with a day of peace (they didn’t, of course, and recently deposed Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd intoned that Gallipoli is “part of our national identity” and that he was “absolutely proud of it”).

The heightened levels of Anzac obsession marginalise Australia’s long anti-war tradition and swamp civil and political values of equality and social justice, which have some claim to have been nation-defining, from early women’s suffrage to the welfare state.

Another nation-making event — the dispossession of Aboriginal Australia — is also bulldozed aside by the Anzac myth. Aboriginal blood spilt in the frontier wars is not the right kind to be commemorated.

The historians contributing to the book try to salvage Australia’s other histories from the smothering embrace of the military one. Too much history now ties together the commemoration of the war dead with the writing of history, and merges military history with family history, thus encouraging new generations, remote from the horrors of war, to identify with Australia’s military past and present.

Some Anzac apologists ritually claim to condemn war, say the authors, but the symbols and rhetoric point in the opposite direction — that war is good for you, as a person and a nation. Wilfred Owen, the anti-war poet, called this “the old lie”. Anzac Day is a big part of that old lie.


A bit disappointed with this review of this daring book. It's a pity that Phil Shannon doesn't explore the ideas in this book more. It's a lively, well written book by a group of progressive Australian historians. We are well familiar with how the Anzac narrative plays out and rather than rehashing that, Phil could have talked more about what the authors say could replace this militaristic history, namely campaigns for equality, for peace and so on. In this review, the authors are barely mentioned and later in the review, they are just identified as 'the historians'. You need to tell us more about the book!

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.