How the Anzac myth hides history

April 30, 2015
Australian troops of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces on parade in Kure, Japan, in 1946 for Anzac Day.

An irony of the sacking of SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre for a series of tweets he made on Anzac Day is that the hysterical reaction from politicians and the media, and the consequences he has faced, has only served to prove his initial point.

Anzac Day is not about remembering history. To remember what actually happened at Gallipoli 100 years ago, and in Australia’s involvement in wars more generally, is not permissible. Whatever the Anzacs fought and died for, it was not free speech.

There are degrees in suppression of free speech. McIntyre is not facing imprisonment or torture or in danger of assassination. However, if the standards that were applied by the West to the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies in the post-Stalin period are used, sacking a journalist for their opinions is denial of free speech.

Furthermore, McIntyre’s sacking followed communications minister Malcolm Turnbull denouncing his comments as “despicable”. Turnbull has since said that he didn’t demand McIntyre’s sacking, but he admits drawing the attention of SBS managing director Michael Ebeid to McIntyre’s comments.

An April 28 New Matilda editorial explained: “SBS’s relationship with the government has been under the spotlight recently … The tangle of internal board politics and external political influence comes at a sensitive time for the network, with jobs being slashed, cuts being handed down by the Coalition government, and a new plan to ease regulation and increase advertising revenue.

“In short, it’s not a good time for Ebeid to unnecessarily piss-off the Minister for Communications, who just so happens to be Malcolm Turnbull.”

The pretext for McIntyre’s dismissal was an SBS social media code that prohibits employees saying anything in their own time that would bring the organisation into disrepute.

That the country’s multinational broadcaster, supposedly committed to promoting diverse voices and viewpoints, considers critiquing the Anzac mythology “brings the organisation into disrepute” will have a chilling effect. SBS employees and other government employees and journalists for other media organisations will think twice before questioning official ideology.

What has been glaring in this saga is that McIntyre’s offending of believers in the Anzac mythology has been deemed unacceptable by those who make a career out of defending the right to offend others. Government-appointed “Human Rights Commissioner” Tim Wilson has said SBS was right to sack McIntyre for his “extremely disappointing” comments.

This is the same Tim Wilson who holds sacrosanct the freedom of speech of those who wish to racially vilify Aboriginal people, support government violence against refugees, belittle rape victims, accuse all Muslims of being a threat to Australia, denigrate welfare recipients, promote hatred against LGBTI people and generally attack those with the least social power.

Wilson has been vocal in his defence of right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt who was sued under the Racial Discrimination Act by the late Pat Eatock and 22 other Aboriginal public figures, who he vilified in a series of articles in 2009.

But not only was Bolt not sacked from his commercial media jobs as a result of this court finding, he has continued to regularly have his opinions aired on the ABC, despite lacking expertise in any field.

This week, in addition to slandering Muslims, climate scientists and victims of racist police shootings in the US, Bolt has joined the witch-hunt against McIntyre.

Furthermore, unlike the hate speech of Bolt and his ilk, McIntyre’s statements are factually correct, as Newcastle University historian Philip Dwyer wrote for on April 29.

A historian is hardly needed to point out that the Gallipoli landing was “an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with” or that the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — when Japan’s intention to surrender was already known by the Allies — were terrorist attacks.

The most controversial of McIntyre’s tweets was this one: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan.”

Dwyer uses a 1943 diary entry by an Australian soldier stationed in Goodenough Island off Papua New Guinea to show Australian forces summarily executed Japanese prisoners in WWII.

On September 11 last year, ABC Radio National reported on evidence that Australia’s first military engagement in WWI, the capture of a telegraph station in what was then German New Guinea exactly 100 years previously, had ended with Australian troops summarily executing German and Papuan prisoners.

Dwyer quotes the testimony of Australian interpreter Allan Clifton to document the gang rape of a Japanese woman by 20 Australian soldiers in Allied-occupied Hiroshima in 1946. One of the realities that the official mythologising of Anzac Day seeks to obscure is that rape of civilians is normal in war. From Egypt in both world wars to Vietnam to more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Australian soldiers have been notable alleged offenders.

This is flatly denied by Australian political and military leaders. Paradoxically, recent revelations of systematic bullying and sexual violence within the Australian armed forces have led the same leaders to admit that the defence forces have “cultural problems” that will take time to overcome. The official story is that it is unthinkable that Australian soldiers would do to subject and “enemy” populations, who they have total power over, things that they cannot be prevented from doing to each other.

This is not to say all Anzacs committed atrocities. There are accounts of Australian soldiers in both world wars and Vietnam intervening to stop their comrades raping civilians or executing prisoners of war. As McIntyre’s tweet suggested, there is also a clear pattern of worse behaviour towards civilians in “non-white” countries than in Europe. This stems not just from the racism endemic in Australian society but from the racist nature of the British, and later US, imperial ventures that involved Australian forces.

When Anzacs massacred more than 100 people in the Palestinian village of Surafend in December 1918, they received a harsh dressing down from their Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby, but no disciplinary action. The invasion of Palestine by British imperial forces paved the way for the colonisation and ethnic cleansing of the country by Zionist settlers and the creation of Israel.

When Anzacs fired at a 1000-strong crowd of unarmed pro-independence protesters at Minet El Qamh in Egypt on March 17, 1919, they were following British orders.

Criticism of Anzac myth-making often meets the objection that it belittles the suffering the soldiers went through. However, soldiers’ suffering does not make a war just. Soldiers in Hitler’s armies on the Eastern Front in WWII went through hell.

As well as the racism and atrocities, there was far more honourable behaviour by Anzacs in WWI that is equally missing from the official narrative. Peter Stanley, principal historian at the Australian War Memorial from 1987 to 2007 told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010: “Australians were 10 times more likely to go absent in the Great War than British soldiers, or the Canadians or New Zealanders.

“It embarrassed Australian commanders and it infuriated British officers like Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig that so many Australians were legging it. The British wanted Australia to introduce the death penalty for desertion but Australia never did.”

Being in the only army that did not use the firing squad as a routine disciplinary measure meant that Australians played a role larger than their numbers in the desertions, mutinies and political agitation that beset the Western Front from 1916. Australia could not afford such harsh military discipline because of falling recruitment. Two attempts by the government to introduce conscription were defeated at referenda.

Perhaps the greatest myth of all about Australia's involvement in WWI is that it brought the nation together. In fact it divided the country to a greater extent than the war in Vietnam.

The left-wing Industrial Workers of the World spearheaded opposition to the war and suffered severe repression as a result. Their leaders were jailed and, in a precursor to today's terrorism scares, the organisation was famously accused of a fanciful plot to burn Sydney to the ground.

But the anti-conscription movement had far deeper roots in the working class, particularly its large Irish-descended component. Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, later associated with the fiercely anti-Communist Democratic Labor Party, was associated with the large current in the trade unions and ALP that were socially conservative but strongly Irish nationalist and unwilling to fight a war for the British Empire at a time when the 1916 Easter Rising was kicking off the Irish War of Independence.

The horrors the soldiers faced created more opposition. The war ended with revolutions in Russia and Germany. Victoria Cross-decorated war hero Captain Hugo Throssell upset the 1919 Anzac Day celebrations in his WA hometown of Northam by making his speech about how the war made him a socialist. It was precisely because of the prevalence of such sentiments that Anzac Day and its mythology were created.

Australia needs to face the unpalatable realities of its history. The nation was not forged by WWI, but by the genocidal British war of conquest that began in 1788, and, as the ethnic cleansing of remote communities, deaths in custody and the NT intervention attest to, is still ongoing today.

But there are positive sides to Australian history worth celebrating. The centenary of working class resistance to war is one of them.

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