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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

historical memory « Previous | |Next »
April 25, 2009

The media has gone into overkill on Anzac. Most of this commentary lacks a critical edge about the way this tradition is currently being mythologized as those the nation was born or redeemed in a ruinous defeat at Gallipoli. The subtext of this spectacle is a celebration of the war in the form of historical memory that erases the horror of war at a time when Australia is fighting another war in Afghanistan to support the interests of an imperial power.


There is nothing wrong with commemorating the Anzac tradition and it is great that Australians are recovering their history and developing a historical way of looking at the world. But where is the critical edge about the creeping militarism that equates being an Australian with military virtues, or says that sacrifice for the country is good, even when Australians are treated as cheap fodder in someone else's war?

There is no judgement in the mainstream about the horrors of war, or whether some wars are bad because they, unlike WW2, had little to do with defending Australia's sovereignty. These military ventures ---Afghanistan for instance--- have little to do with Australia's national interest and are wrapped up in mythmaking of courage, honour and sacrifice.

Richard Fyjis-Walker in his review of David Loyn's "Butcher and Bolt - Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan" at Open Democracy observes with respect to this history:

Nor do the invaders change. They come solely for their own ends, politics and profit, be it material, precious lapis, geopolitical concerns or trade routes that today include potential energy pipelines. Arrogant, ignorant and over-confident in their superior armaments and technical development, the invaders seek to impose their own cultures, values and habits - always claiming that they are better for the Afghans than their own, whether they be Communism or Free Market Democracy - by way of puppet leaders and through the barrels of their guns. Meanwhile the Afghan people, a large majority of whom would appear to beg to differ with the invaders and who would like to lead peaceful lives, become the victims of endless misery, death, destruction and poverty.

In this war the Taliban has now become conflated with al-Qa'ida, the land mass of the Middle East has been pushed further east. Once it was Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Now it's Afghanistan and Pakistan with the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan now seen as "the most dangerous place in the world".

Where is the historical memory of this war in the context of previous wars? In the days of the British empire, the British crossed the Durand line from the Raj into Afghanistan. Now the Americans are going to invading in the opposite direction, from Afghanistan into the former Raj. In between were the Soviets. There is a memory hole with respect to Afghanistan.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:47 AM | | Comments (13)


I concur with this paragraph in your post:

have no criticism to make of Anzac Day. I think it should be given even more importance than it already is, but the message should be radically altered. Instead of romanticising war, people should emphasise the human frailties that afflict all members of the ruling class and their proneness to choose self-glorification over wise policy. Instead of praising national leaders and victorious military figures, we should highlight the deeply dysfunctional nature of parliaments and public services and military/industrial complexes that are incapable of finding solutions which don’t involve mass slaughter. We should be prepared to admit that millions of soldiers did indeed die in vain and point out that this continues to be the case right up to the present day. We should try to educate the young that when it comes to activating the awful apparatus of our military machines, most professional politicians and admirals and generals are absolutely the last people who are likely to make humane, intelligent decisions.

Rightly said. The Dardanelles campaign was a classic example of a bad military campaign----as is Afghanistan today. In the latter those in charge of the war seem to have little understanding of Europen powers invading, then waging war in Afghanistan.

They do not seem to realize that the war is unwinnable and that moreover the western presence, seen as an occupation, was counterproductive.Their assumption appears to be that the belief that the war could be won, al-Qaida dispersed and defeated and the Taliban forced to negotiate on US terms or even wither away.

I like this bit:

"Warmongering fools like Dick Cheney and George W Bush and their number one local fan John Howard bray about how they will be vindicated by history, blithely oblivious to the fact that war is first and foremost a gross failure of public policy and politics."

Its one of those foundational observations that can't realistically be contested.

Every year the same cliches and platitudes uttered with fake sincerity by people, even footballers FFS, who have no idea whatsoever what they are talking about but just joining in the chorus of jingoistic self praise that ignores the cold hard facts that at Gallipoli alone there were about a half a million casualties -take a moment to absorb that number of mutilated human beings please-
and that glorifying militarism makes it so much easier for the war mongers to enlist public support for the latest exercise in mateship and democracy in some far off land whose inhabitants really have no idea why we are invading and killing them.

I agree with your post, Gary.
It also worries me that young adults in particular appear to have an uncritical and skewed view of Australian history.
The true poignancy of past Anzac Days was the fact that marchers and watchers alike were aware of the real personal and social cost of war.
Now I fear that jinogistic myth will overwhelm all if oral history degenerates further.

Marina Larsson observes in The Age that:

The iconic Anzac is a youthful, able-bodied man with a magnificent physique - not a disabled "wreck".In the Anzac legend, there is little room for the realities of war, of being blown to pieces, machine-gunned or bayoneted. Even today, official speakers seldom speak at length about soldiers who were "unsuccessfully killed'' and lived with the scars to prove it.

Another contradiction in the Anzac myth.

Gary, I happened to turn on the radio while driving to Melbourne on Sunday.

There was an excellent talk by Marilyn Lake titled Beyond the Legend of Anzac, in which she put the militaristic mind-set that dominates Oz history into a historical and cultural perspective---great stuff.

Agree with much that has been said.

What needs to be noted is that Anzac Day is now the focus of an Australian civil religion that is badly in need of de-mythologisation.

you are right . The mythology of Anzac Day is Australia's civil religion. Another name is nationalism.

thanks. I listen to Lakes lecture on the primacy of military history in Australia's national story, and how this has led to other aspects of the country's history being forgotten.

She'ss dead right about the primacy of military history in Australia's national story,

The Anzac myth is that of the Digger born at Anzac Cove. Australians are egalitarian and irreverent, constitutionally opposed to authority but loyal to each other, factors that make ordinary blokes superb soldiers. The myth repeatedly reworks old veins, celebrating and valorising traditional Australian qualities of mateship and endurance.

Isn't the army all about discipline and training?

yeah, the Anzac myth----the catastrophe that forged Australia's national identity--- is about the old Anglo-Australia of yesteryear, not about the Australia of today. Australia's national identity has changed as a result of becoming an open economy in the 1980s. It has become more cosmopolitan and more connected with the rest of the world.

odd that we don't hear much about the the battle to save the lives of those thrown into the horrors of war. I read somewhere about men on the Gallipoli peninsula dying because their feet were so paralysed with cold that they could not crawl to safety. Others who manage to stay alive exerienced fingers too frozen to pull the trigger.