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What's wrong with Anzac?

Nick Bryant | 20:55 UK time, Saturday, 24 April 2010

Australians search for selfless values in their war stories rather than self-validating victories. Does that not provide part of the explanation why Gallipoli occupies such a special place in the national imagination? In the run-up to Anzac Day (that most sacred of acronyms), I have been in Canberra, where I got the chance to visit the national war memorial and to spend time with some of the historians.flags_getty.jpg

Resident Gallipoli expert, Ashley Ekins, put it rather neatly. "The ultimate outcome has become less important over time. It's the courage, the endurance, the humour in adversity. All those characteristics which we associate with the soldiers on Galipoli which we like to attribute to the Australian national character."

Of course, Galipoli also provides Australia with a heroic foundation story: the idea, which helped make sense of the death of so many soldiers in what turned out to be a military disaster of immense scale, that a new commonwealth was baptised in the blood of its fallen men.

Anzac Day has surely become the most important date in the national calendar, and, as we have noted before, experienced a remarkable revival, with the crowds at dawn services and at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli estimated to be larger than ever.

As part of these ritualised commemorations, it has now become almost customary to engage in a heated historiographical debate in the run-up to Anzac Day, and this year is no different.

The debate has focused on the publication of a new book written mainly by two historians, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, entitled "What's Wrong With Anzac?" Its main target is what the authors call "the relentless militarisation of our history". Prof Marilyn Lake set out her stall in a lecture delivered last year on the eve of Anzac Day.

"The myth of Anzac has become more significant in recent years, ubiquitous even, with what I have called the militarisation of Australian history, mightily subsidised by the Howard government in the 1990s and early years of this century. War stories have figured ever more prominently in our culture, in our school rooms, on our TV screens and in our bookshops...'

"Amongst other things the myth of Anzac requires us to forget, first, the gender and racial exclusions, the centrality of manhood, race and colonial anxiety to its begetting. Secondly, the long history of pacifism and anti-war movements in Australia, the historic opposition to militarist values in Australia. Thirdly, the stories of national aspiration and identity based in civil and political society, not military society, the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia. And fourth, that at Gallipoli we fought for empire not nation, symbolising our continuing colonial condition."

The militarisation of history, it is argued, has created a mood of ultra-patriotism. The government money spent on promoting Anzac themes, the book also contends, was designed to "divert attention from the history of Aboriginal dispossession and frontier massacres by opening up a new front". galipolli_getty.jpg

In this month's edition of the Australian Literary Review, one of the country's leading historians, Geoffrey Blainey, publishes a rejoinder. He accepts that the Howard government did, indeed, spend a lot of money promoting Anzac-related themes, but that the National Museum in Canberra received much more money, a significant proportion of which went towards promoting Aboriginal history. He also argues that the surge in military publishing happened when Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser were the prime ministers rather than John Howard.

For Blainey, the newfound popularity of Anzac Day is cyclical rather than the product of cynical manipulation. "To my mind Anzac Day, like many symbolic occasions, is partly cyclical. It has risen and waned and risen, and it will wane and rise again."

I'm keen to get your thoughts, and to hear your experiences of Anzac Day. Some of you will no doubt be attending dawn services. Some of you may even be at Gallipoli, some of you might be heading to the Anzac Day footy games, and some of you might be heading to the pub for that other great Anzac tradition: a legal game of two-up.

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