The Guardian 4 May, 2005

Co-opting the Anzac spirit

Bob Briton

Though retiring defence force supremo Peter Cosgrove would probably deny it, Anzac Day has for a long time been partly devoted to the glorification of war. It has been the occasion for re-runs of John Wayne and other old pro-war movies on TV, the parading of banners belonging to divisions, battalions and squadrons and the wearing of medals marking campaigns — some worthy and justifiable; others shameful and unrelievedly tragic.

However, at its heart there has always been something unusual and appropriate in Australia’s choice for a day to honour our war dead and those who served in the defence forces. The landing at Gallipoli in 1915 and the Dardanelles campaign of which it was a part was a crashing failure. The adversaries — the Turks in this case — were not some long despised-enemy of the viability of our own country. In fact, Turkey posed no threat to Australia and the Australian soldiers returning from the fighting spoke very highly of the behaviour of their "enemy".

And even though it is talked about as one of Australia’s first acts as a unified country, the people knew very well that the decisions that led to the early end of so many young lives were made by our British imperial masters; callous aristocratic figures like Winston Churchill. Of the force of 500,000 men taking part in the ill-conceived campaign, 28,150 Australians were part of the 150,000 combined allied dead. More than 80,000 Turkish troops died. If not the detail, the broad thrust of this history has long been well known and forms part of the core of another popular, though still frustrated, political sentiment — the yearning for a truly independent Australia.

However, as former Australian diplomat James Dunn noted in an opinion piece in The Illawarra Mercury last week, since Gallipoli’s 75th anniversary this particular national day has undergone a dramatic transformation. The corporate media lent its weight to the then Hawke government to hype Anzac Day beyond recognition. Though figures are rarely (if ever) given, every year draws "record crowds" to dawn services and parades according to the media reports. They also focus heavily on the numbers of young people being attracted to observances.

There can be no doubt the marketing drive has had its effect. Large numbers of young Australians travelling in Europe now put a visit to Gallipoli on Anzac Day on their itinerary. This year road works in the hills above the beaches led to quite an uproar about the attitude of Turkish authorities to the site. Journalists who have drained vats of ink mocking the claims of Indigenous Australians to their sacred sites were moved to speak about this piece of Turkish territory as an Australian sacred site. The fact that the "success" of the hyping of Anzac Day and the numbers making their way to Anzac Cove had been part of the reason for the upgrade was left well alone by the more jingoistic of the columnists.

These commentators also backed the Prime Minister when he refused to hear a critical word about the crowds that had attended this year’s services at Anzac Cove. Large numbers of them were responsible for leaving tonnes of rubbish on the site and some had slept out in the Lone Pine war cemetery in the days leading up to the dawn service. Others had flagrantly violated the Turkish authorities’ ban on alcohol. Howard’s defence of the crowds — and the movement he is keen to foster — was lame. New Year revellers in Sydney leave piles of refuse in the streets after their celebrations, the PM noted. Sacred or not, a show will generate a mountain of rubbish.

The need to maintain the momentum of the Anzac boosting bandwagon is appreciated by the leader of the opposition, also. Greg Sheridan, foreign affairs editor of The Australian, quoted Kim Beazley’s recent Lowy Institute address at length in a piece entitled Anzacs died for a reason in last Thursday’s edition of the Murdoch flagship. It is worth repeating here:

"The Gallipoli legend of today minimises [strategic] decisions. It suggests that Australians found themselves on the Turkish shore that day because their political leaders were too unimaginative, too supine, too emotionally tied to Britain to see that this was someone else’s war, in which Australia had no part.

"Strategic appendage of empire"

"This is a travesty of the truth … Australians as a people thought carefully about their security in the decades before 1914. As the strategic challenge from Germany grew from the 1880s, they recognised that Britain would be less and less able to continue guaranteeing Australia’s security.

"And they realised that as Britain started looking for allies in Europe and Asia, its interests would sometimes diverge from Australia’s. We started to see ourselves, not as a mere strategic appendage of empire, but as an active partner in imperial strategy."

What is this enthusiasm for improbable revisionist history on the part of Kim Beazley, Greg Sheridan, Gerard Henderson and their ilk? Why are they using expressions like "a victory by the Kaiser would have had a deleterious effect on Australian security" in this day and age? What are the origins of their venom for New Zealand which, despite holding its armed forces on a far more peaceful footing, appears to be at least as secure as our own isolated outpost of European civilisation?

Could it be that they are trying to adapt their current method of thinking to the history of WWI in order to give the public a comfy, familiar feeling about Australia’s current alliances and military involvements? Instead of "active partner in imperial strategy", we could read "active partner in US-led military strategy" without the otherwise predictable cautious reflex. Instead of the Kaiser, we could insert Saddam or Osama or any other past or current foe of US foreign policy and feel this demonising of former allies and protégés is time-honoured and perfectly normal.

Liberation of Saigon

This Anzac Day roughly coincided with the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon. This was a doubly rich occasion for the opinion makers at Murdoch and Fairfax. Gerard Henderson noted approvingly the involvement of the Governor General, Michael Jeffery, in dedicating a new monument in Melbourne to the Vietnamese who fought alongside the Australian and US troops in that long, tragic war. It features a South Vietnamese soldier standing alongside an Australian underneath a US helicopter — an appropriate symbol if ever there was one.

Henderson suggests that everybody who has not already done so should used the occasion of the anniversary to apologise for wishing the Ho Chi Minh, the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese army well in their campaign to unify their country. He welcomes the change of heart by Judy Rymer who produced the documentary All Points of the Compass which was broadcast by the ABC last Sunday.

He puts Noam Chomsky and John Pilger squarely in the camp of unrepentant lefties who still maintain that the war was unjustified, noteworthy for atrocities like My Lai and the source of ongoing injustice against the Vietnamese — such as the failure to compensate the many victims of Agent Orange. Henderson even berates former Whitlam government ministers for not doing more to welcome the Indochinese people fleeing the conflict and the disruption of its aftermath. The obvious point that Whitlam did not use the large numbers of arrivals to justify the opening of a string of concentration camps or a policy of mandatory detention was not made. Why not?

Whitlam himself is ridiculed for his reluctance in the late ’70s to criticise the regime of Pol Pot. The attack would have sounded more sincere if Henderson had gone on to criticise the US and Britain for continuing to fund and train Khmer Rouge butchers after the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia in 1978/79. Their insistence that Pol Pot’s representatives and not Hun Sen’s should take their place at the United Nations even after the existence of the Killing Fields became generally known is also overlooked.

However, jingoist revisionist history does not welcome too many facts. The guiding principle of Howard and Beazley and their supporters in the media in all this is that Australia has been well served by siding with rich and powerful nations against their victims who, of course, are always depicted as the real beneficiaries. For them, this is not a time for doubt and discussion. It is a time for action, military action at that. It is not for nothing that Gerard Henderson hates the final verse of Eric Bogle’s song And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, which really does capture the reflective element in the spirit of Anzac: "And the young people ask ‘What are they marching for?’/And I ask myself the same question."

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