Dismal parade of the Anzac revisionists

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 9.02.01 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, April 22, 2014


IT is official: Anzac Day is “probably Australia’s most important national occasion”. That’s the hesitant verdict of curators at the Australian War Memorial and, on the face of it (likely as not, in all possibility, everything being equal), they are probably right.

There will be more Australians at the memorial services and parades on Friday than there were last year, and next year — the centenary of the Gallipoli landings — the crowds will be greater still. Yet intellectual unease about this popular commemoration is also growing and the curators responsible for the memorial’s website are hedging their bets.

They lack the courage of the memorial’s founder, Charles Bean, who declared April 25, 1915, as the day “the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born”. For Australians and New Zealanders the campaign engendered “a new-born pride in their nation”.

Paul Keating tells us that Bean was wrong. In 2008 the former prime minister dismissed the narrative of national rebirth as “utter and complete nonsense”. What’s more, he declared, “I have never been to Gallipoli and I never will.”

So all the curators are prepared to tell us is the spirit of Anzac “continues to have meaning and relevance” and that Anzac Day is “a time when Australians reflect on the many different meanings of war”. That’s it.

Keating’s words are holy writ at the memorial. A speech he gave in 1993 now hangs next to our most sacred shrine, the Tomb of the Australian Unknown Soldier. Until last year, the words on the side of the tomb read: “He symbolises all Australians who have died in war.” They were chiselled off to make room for Keating’s words, “He is one of them, and he is all of us.”

The curators wanted to get rid of “Known unto God” as well, but the public got to hear about it and they had to change their minds. They did, however, invite Keating to give the Armistice Day address. It was as dismal as the weather.

“The first world war was a war devoid of any virtue. It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation-state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism.”

The nihilist view of the futility of war has long been the default position of the Left, as Mervyn Bendle pointed out in a robust critique in January’s Quadrant. “Keating’s speech is an impressionistic pastiche of cliches, generalisations and historical inaccuracies,” wrote Bendle, “held together with faux moral indignation, and driven by hatred of the British.”

Keating ignores the rise of German exceptionalism, its illiberal civic structure, its rapid industrialisation, accumulation of arms and its campaign of aggression against Belgium and France. He does not consider the consequences of a German victory for Australia: the loss of its imperial trade links and its induction, by force or acquiescence, into the German sphere. Instead he argues with our ancestors, telling them their sacrifice was “devoid of any virtue”.

Major General Herbert Cox must have been mistaken when he told officers departing for France in April 1916 they were fighting for “the suppression of a tyrannical and brutal militarism, the refutation of the abominable doctrine that Might is Right, the defence of the rights of weaker nations, and the solemnity and binding nature of treaties”.

The newspapers at the time show Australians believed they were fighting for universal liberty and not, as Keating would have it, the parochial interests of the British. The plight of the Belgian people touched the nation. More than £250 was raised for Belgium at the Stawell Gymkhana; workers at the Sunshine Harvester factory collected £25; the Queensland Girls Self-denial Belgian Relief Fund posted a cheque for £3, 16 shillings and threepence. The Belgian Commission for Relief praised “the chivalry of a virile young nation” that had “spontaneously come to the support of a little race that has almost been wiped from the map”.

The defence of liberty is a far more convincing explanation for the extraordinary fidelity that drove more than 400,000 Australians to enlist in World War 1 than the supine imperialism suggested by Keating.

The former prime minister finds himself in the dubious company of Anzac deniers — the belligerent band of revisionist historians who see the Anzac tradition as a jingoistic myth, and look to the centenary of World War 1 as a chance to put the record straight. In his recent book Anzac’s Long Shadow, James Brown speaks of a “discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four-year festival for the dead” that he describes as “a military Halloween”.

Craig Stockings accuses his fellow Australians of falling for “zombie myths” about military history, “monsters of the mind” that must be exorcised with “the holy water (of) reasoned arguments”. Stockings lectures (heaven help us) at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Anzac revisionism is the mainstream position in the military history academies in Canberra.

Peter Stanley, a former senior historian at the war memorial and now a research professor at the Australian National University, criticises what he calls “Anzackery” and questions the special commemoration of the war dead. “Arguably more Australians have been touched by the trauma of car accidents killing loves ones, friends or neighbours,” he writes. To single out those who died in defence of their country is “peculiar at best and grotesque at worst”. The Anzac tradition is an “essentially minority interest” that excludes “non Anglo-Saxon Australians”, he writes.

To the extent that the unconventional thinking of Stanley, Stockings, Brown and others encourages a broader debate on our history it is welcome. Yet the pejorative tone of the language these historians use and their arrogantly named website — Honest History — indicates clearly that they have no intention of negotiating with those they regard as dishonest.

They live, says Bendle, “in an elitist parallel universe” in which they alone understand the truth about our past and in which ordinary people are incapable of anything other than mawkish and muddled sentimentalism. When it comes to condescension, the monocled British generals of their imaginings are hardly in the same league.