Memory and the anti-politics of Anzac

This article is republished from Overland magazine.

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Anzac Day celebrates forgetting.

Its revival, the transformation of a ceremony nearly extinct in the 1980s into today’s turbocharged festival, coincides with the excision from national consciousness of the most important aspects of the Great War.

In their book What’s wrong with Anzac?, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds document the funding that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs pours into resources promoting Anzac Day. Yet despite such educational campaigns, how many Australians can answer the simple question: what was the war about?

Conservatives, and most liberals, tell us that Anzac Day stands above politics. That’s true, in a fashion. But the event’s not apolitical so much as anti-political.

Where Carl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of politics by other means, Anzac celebrates the battlefield as a realm entirely removed from political life. The Great War spurred an unprecedented degree of social polarisation in Australia, and yet the obsessive retelling of the Gallipoli landing never corresponds to any equivalent interest in, say, the populace’s remarkable rejection of conscription in two ballots in 1916 and 1917.

The Bush/Blair/Howard War on Terror rendered that period more relevant than ever, since obvious parallels can be drawn between the hysterical patriotism of the “Freedom Fries” days and the jingoism during which most Australian cities renamed their streets (if you live in Victoria Street, there’s a pretty good chance it was once called Wilhelm Road), while the state-sanctioned suspicion of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 corresponds to the widespread persecution of Irish and Catholics in the wake of the Easter Uprising, and the unparalleled freedom granted to security agencies echoes Billy Hughes’ promotion of the open-ended War Precautions Act.

Yet Anzac Day functions not to celebrate but to prevent that kind of history. It lauds bravery yet allows no room for what Bismarck called “civil courage”, a trait that many non-combatants showed in abundance when, against all the newspapers, politicians and mainstream political parties, they opposed the slaughter in Europe.

Again, in these endless discussions about the young men of that time, how often does anyone point out that Australians saw one of the very first anti-war protests anywhere in the world, when the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) called a rally on the Domain the weekend the conflict broke out?

Everything that the IWW predicted about the war came to pass, just as everything that the official jingoes said proved entirely wrong. But amidst all the Anzac headshaking about the horrors of Gallipoli, there’s no room to mention those who tried to stop the killing taking place.

The anti-politics of Anzac Day not only diminishes the experiences of the millions of Australians who did not fight, it renders entirely monochromatic the experiences of the soldiers themselves.

We can tell, for instance, the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 but only because a certain version of the story supports Anzac’s presentation of war as a time out of time, an experience in a realm where normal rules did not apply.

The perversity of men shaking hands and wishing each other luck before obediently ducking back into the trenches to commence hostilities supports Anzac’s general depiction of combat as a social anomaly, a mysterious business entirely disconnected from what Archbishop Mannix called “a sordid trade war”.

That’s why there’s much less emphasis on the context of those unofficial armistices, which were, initially, made possible because so many ordinary Germans had been working in Britain and felt no particular animosity to the men in the opposite trenches, and which were systematically broken up by authorities terrified that if the soldiers fraternised it would be impossible to make them fight.

Indeed, even if you only focus on combat (rather than the widespread mutinies that later took place), it’s possible to tell the story of the Great War in terms of measures by officers to force their men to kill.

In his fascinating book Trench Warfare, Tony Ashworth documents the regularity in which ordinary soldiers on both sides adopted what he calls the “live and let live” policy, allowing unofficial truces punctuated by ritualistic exchanges of gunfire at certain times and certain places, exchanges specifically designed not to kill anyone and thus avoid retribution.

In Ashworth’s argument, the official tactics adopted by commanders were attempts to break down these proto-political refusals, to force the men into contact each other and thus ensure that they would fight.

In other words, even in the most extreme circumstances, the Great War was a social conflict, shaped by internal contradictions. That’s why, if the origins of the war are now never discussed, there’s an equally determined silence about how the slaughter ended, with revolution in Russia and Germany, and near insurrections in many other countries.

At the same time, one of the curious consequences of the anti-politics of Anzac is that the celebrations embrace the literature of disenchantment that emerged from the war, albeit with a distinctive twist. The war is now told, not in the bloodless narratives of contemporary Empire propagandists, but as a compendium of tropes taken from Sassoon and Owen and Remarque and Barbusse.

Every schoolkid knows about shell shock and bodies hanging on barbed wire and rats feasting on corpses and the rest of it, yet these details, which in the original texts contrasted what had been promised with what war delivered, are now used to bolster the presentation of combat as an experience entirely divorced from normal social relations.

As William James noted, the “possibility of violent death [is] the soul of all romance”, which is why showing war’s horrors does not, in itself, foster antiwar sentiment, since “the horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis”.

It’s a central part of Anzac’s anti-politics: the hellishness of war separates it from ordinary life, transforming Clausewitz’s “politics by other means” into a transcendental experience at which civilians can only marvel.

Whereas for the writers of the twenties and the thirties, the Great War disappointed by representing, in concentrated form, the violent banality of industrial society, today the very bloodiness of the conflict is used to highlight the contrast with our own day-to-day life.

The narrative therefore shifts from social critique (why did we allow these atrocities to happen?) to a veneration of sacrifice, the nature of which is largely irrelevant.

The Gallipoli pilgrimage provides the obvious example. The attendees at the dawn service do not ask themselves why Australians died invading a country thousands of miles away. No, that particular issue is rendered inherently irrelevant, since the backpackers go there not to think about history but to marvel at the height of the cliffs and the sharpness of the rocks, and to feel an awe at people their own age experiencing horrors that they couldn’t imagine.

The question arising from the pilgrimage is thus not “why did it happen?” (a query that leads not only into history but into politics) but rather “what did it feel like?”, an aestheticisation of the past that’s explicitly anti-political.

Or, rather, it’s anti-political, in one sense. In another, it’s entirely compatible with the trend toward militarisation in the wake of 9/11, not simply because it fits entirely with the new consensus that there’s something inherently underhand in debating the politics of war (recall how long the Afghan conflict had been running before Parliament convened a formal discussion) but because the question “what did it feel like?” always implies a follow-up: “I wonder what it would be like.”

Senator Scott Ludlam’s fascinating diary from his visit to Afghanistan illustrates how this plays out in recruits. Speaking of the soldiers he meets, he writes:

"All the same, there’s an eagerness to prove themselves. The further forward you get, the happier crew are to be there and the less interested in being pulled back into safety. Having spent years training, most of them really, really want to be in theatre.

“This is a great battle lab for us.”


“I’d do this whether you paid me or not.”

If its horrors make war a transcendental experience, the contrast with the banality of late capitalist life make combat a perpetual source of fascination, in precisely the way James describes.

What are the consequences of this recognition of Anzac as an anti-politics?

Most obviously, it implies a certain futility about debating its meaning, even through posts like this.

Because Anzac’s not an argument so much as an aesthetic event, it’s largely impervious to critique. Everyone knows the newspaper formula: you devote most of your space to praising the diggers and republishing various twenty-first century versions of the “old lie” — and then you give half a column to someone to ponder what it all means.

The ritualistic debates about the nature of Anzac are, to a large extent, part of Anzac, a means for keeping the commemoration in the centre of Australian life.

Which is not to suggest that critiques should not be mounted, nor that it’s not important to foster genuine historical debate about the Great War, but simply to suggest that the terrain will not shift substantially without the re-emergence of anti-war movement that offers a different way of thinking about conflicts.

If you look back at the shifting attitudes to Anzac, that’s the real correlation. The near collapse of the celebrations in the 1980s stemmed from the rise of the anti-nuclear movement.

Contrary to conservative revisionism, peace activism has never involved an indifference to the plight of soldiers themselves. We’re often told that anti-war activists spat at conscripts returning from Vietnam. What we don’t hear is that huge numbers of the soldiers themselves supported the movement, both once they returned and, sometimes, while they were actually in theatre.

In terms of the memory of the Great War, many of the most interesting studies of what was done to the troops have come from writers influenced by the peace movement, precisely because they’re more likely to eschew the top-down approach of reactionary historians.

Some 35 million people died in the First World War. It is an extraordinary statistic. In the face of such overwhelming suffering, such tremendous devastation, the only decent commemoration entails ensuring that nothing comparable ever happens again.


Read as such it seems that the distance between the upper classes, based on inherited title and therefore related to the old structuring of society, and the lower classes seems to truly imply a war designed primarily by the goals of one class and acted out by another. The distance between politicians, kings, officers and trench meat; the plain workers. Fighting for a dying world of old lines and societal divisions that soon would reach their end, in effect they did not die for their fellow country men but for the fading relevance of a few man and woman. Should we not call this one of the most grotesque deeds commited by one human upon another.

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