Identity and ANZAC

Identity and ANZAC
After the book ‘What’s Wrong With ANZAC?’
Australian identity is contested space. Over the past decade phrases such as ‘history wars’, ‘black armband’ and ‘Anzac’ became part of the debate about what it is to be ‘Australian’.

I come to these questions having been formed by Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘language games’, the notion of the ‘social construction of reality’, and theologian George A. Lindbeck’s notion of a ‘cultural linguistic community’ (in ‘The Nature of Doctrine’).

[Add to this mix the observation that the military know how to form the identity of their recruits: with uniforms, drills, induction into the history of their unit, songs,flags, medals, and so on. This is a sort of ‘catechetical formation', similar to the early church’s practice of forming a Christian identity through baptism, regular participation in the liturgy, eating the Lord’ Supper, sharing meals and supporting the poor. (I would observe that the military organisations know how to form their soldiers better than the church now does.) It is reported - as I recall – that the incessant drilling and training in the military forces is necessary to create a learned ‘instinct’ that can be called on under battle conditions. Apparently the usual human instinct - when hearing loud noises- is to freeze. Also, when called on to shoot another human being, the usual human response is to avoid killing. The training creates an instinctive response that overrides that reluctance, following orders instead.]

These reflections have been prompted by the book, ‘What’s Wrong With ANZAC?’, by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi, New South Book, 2010.

In this book the authors explore how the Anzac myth has been formed. They explore early Australian attitudes to war, the relationship of 19th Century Australia to the British Empire, the debate in Australia about participation in overseas wars, the anti-war movement. Significantly the strength of the anti-war movement between the wars is documented (including Methodist Conferences and ministers, the SCM, the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, etc.) They do observe that much of this movement faded away with the onset of World War 2. Regarding Australian readiness to support the ‘Imperial war effort’, in the Boer then the First World War, the authors note that a significant number of European countries refused to join the war:

The special importance of the book comes with the description of recent political actions which serve to militarise Anzac Day. The formerly powerful RSL has been sidelines by the Department of Veterans Affairs. New ways of marking the day, including Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s presence at Gallipoli for the dawn service, are serving to recast the day. Where earlier commemorations were sombre recollections of the cost of war, a new element of celebration was introduced by Prime Minister John Howard.

The authors explore how, with the breakdown of ‘Christian society’, Anzac Day would appear to take on the role of civil religion, developing a new heroic myth, with notions of ‘sacrifice’, ‘freedom’ and ‘spirit’. This involves a developing cult of the warrior. Where some talk of a ‘resurgence’ of Anzac Day, the authors argue that it is rather a ‘revolution’ or ‘transformation’ of the day. Moreover, in the context of the 11th September 2001, the Bali bombing and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Anzac Day serves a militaristic purpose. Criticism of Anzac now equates to criticism of Australian soldiers serving overseas. The point is made (Reynolds) that the descriptions of Australian soldiers speak of their courage and self-sacrifice and the doing of duty; it is rare that the soldier’s primary role of ‘killing’ is voiced. The reports of Australian soldiers at Gallipoli recall that they were renowned for their willingness to bayonet the Turkish soldiers.

The book is a helpful reminder that Edwardian notions of nationhood involved blood sacrifice. The new cooption of Anzac day seems to be reaching back to those Edwardian attitudes, avoiding and forgetting the carnage and disillusionment of World War 1 and the rest of the century. They also observe sharply that Australian invasion of other countries, which serve local; political ends, is met by a great reluctance to acknowledge (Paul Keating apart) that the European occupation of this country was an invasion.

These comments have not done justice to this important book. It is a challenging contribution to the discussion about ‘identity’. It will help us as we try to avoid the deceptive allure of militarism.

Wes Campbell
11th June 2010

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