The ANZAC ‘tradition’: A story of manipulation and mythology

April 27, 2023
1st Battalion troops waiting for relief at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, Turkey, August 8, 1915. Photo: Australian War Memorial

While the mass slaughtering of, and slaughter by, soldiers, is always a touchy subject of commemoration, a tension has existed between those who did the fighting, and those who ordered it.

Australian politicians should have every reason to stay out of the grief and suffering they contributed to by sending enthusiastic, young volunteers to be cut down in the fields of Flanders and the beaches of Gallipoli on behalf of the British empire.

Things have not improved much since.

Apart from World War II in which Australia’s coastline was threatened by Imperial Japanese Forces, Canberra has a habit of sending troops to fight other people’s wars: Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq stand out as mercenary missions of invasion and predation rather than defence ventures.

The military and political tradition, going back to Gallipoli in 1915, is not an enviable one; talk about being slain in the name of freedom is hollow when it comes from the invaders.

In a perverse and glorious twist, Kemal Atatürk, the creator of modern Turkey, knew how to turn the invasion into forgiveness. You, soldiers of ANZAC, invaded us; having died on our soil, you became our sons.

Such skilful marketing is conspicuously ignored every April 25, but remains most profitable for local vendors in Türkiye.

It should also be noted that, in racial and cultural terms, it clearly ignores the Armenians and those caught in the Turkification project Atatürk pursued. They died gruesomely, aliens in their own land.

Around these engagements, the politician as demagogic promoter of ANZAC — the name given to both the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and the cult surrounding it — has come to the fore.

It is common, and convenient, to link the sacral elevation of the ANZAC tradition — masculine sacrifice by sturdy blokes keen on freedom and the “fair go” — to Liberal Prime Minister John Howard.

But the process of burnishing the legend for more contemporary consumption began with Labor and Australia’s longest serving Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

On his visit to Gallipoli on the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, Hawke told those gathered that the ANZAC tradition “forged in the fires of Gallipoli, must be learned anew, from generation to generation”.

He suggested that the meaning of the tradition “can endure only as long as each new generation of Australians finds the will to reinterpret it to breathe, as it were, new life into the old story: and, in separating the truth from the legend, realise its relevance to a nation and a people, experiencing immense change over the past three-quarters of a century”.

Contrary to Hawke’s hope, the truth has never been separated from the legend (as they never are in any religion): faith, and denial papers over any disparity.

What Hawke left in brick, Coalition PM John Howard turned into marble and sinister mythology. ANZAC returned to the cult of mateship, indebted to country, and it was to be exploited.

Little mention would be made about political responsibility for that war: politicians would extol the creed and the rest would follow.

Howard remarked on ANZAC Day in 2001 that Australians were drawn by “a great silent summons to repay a debt to the past. Each year the numbers of us grow. Each year, more and more young Australians hear the call, though far removed, in time and circumstance, from those they seek to honour”.

Since then, ANZAC has become a promotions exercise for arms manufacturers and publicity for war.

This was best exemplified by the Coalition’s decision to spend almost $500 million over nine years to redevelop the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The primary reason for this profligate spending was to create more room for advertising space for military hardware: jet fighters, Chinook helicopters and the like.

Disgracefully, there were arguments that making former and current service personnel see such weapons and platforms of war would supply therapy rather than despair. Suffice to say, such public relations is not intended to include the victims of such weapons.

The tradition of ANZAC has done nothing to make Australian cautious, reflective and wise in sending troops to war.

Hawke was hardly going to buck an automatic deployment of Australian personnel to wars waged by the US. He had, after all, been one of the keenest converts.

Despite having received no request from Washington to send a military contingent, Hawke, on August 10, 1990, proudly committed three frigates to US Operation Desert Shield’s attack on Iraq (First Gulf War).

When Howard’s Coalition won office in 1996, the salient lessons of needless death and foolish deployment showed the extent that ANZAC was to be commemorated: as a hat doffing ceremony to war’s necessity, rather than its avoidable dangers.

On Australia’s Vietnam fiasco, Howard “accepted the government’s position that the involvement was justified. I accepted then, and I see no reason to have changed my mind”. He consistently threw Australian personnel into the US-led attacks on Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

The Anthony Albanese Labor government suffers the same condition: ANZAC’s lessons of woe and suffering have also failed to filter through.

When the AUKUS security pact was broached to then opposition leader Albanese by the Scott Morrison government in 2021, Albanese made the decision to approve it within 24 hours.

He was even “proud” of the decision, noting “that the United States’ position was that a precondition of their support for AUKUS and these arrangements certainly was a bipartisan commitment”.

The arrangements, including the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, were preparations for war with China.

Beware the warmongering jingoes perfumed in freedom-loving garb. They are bound to be the ones leading the country to a new war. The ANZAC legend has become the ideal, incubating vehicle for doing so because it is built upon the fiction of sacrificial debt, rather than colossal, even criminal, blunders.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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