Beyond Anzac

Surely the first thing to say about the Gallipoli landing is ‘never again’.

This sounds controversial in contemporary Australia because the word ‘Anzac’ is synonymous with so many qualities we admire – resilience in adversity, self-sacrificing concern for others, and larrikin confidence.

But when we import Anzac into sport, politics and advertising to stand for these rich strands of Australian life, we risk militarising our national identity. Our history is more complex than that.

Australia has an extraordinary record of social experiment and workers’ rights, of global leadership in the rights of women to vote and sit in parliament, legislation for the eight-hour working day, for a ‘living wage’, and of robust democracy that deserves to be remembered.

We also have rich and challenging stories of sacrifice and suffering in the face of dispossession and discrimination on grounds of race, gender, class and orientation.
Our focus on Anzac Day captures only part of the national story.

Asking deeper questions about war has been difficult in Australia. We still deny there was a war between the British and the Aboriginal peoples. After Australian troops returned from the Boer War in 1902, those who tried to evaluate the cost and impact of the conflict were accused of dishonouring the heroism of the troops.

It was, as Henry Reynolds says in the collection of essays What’s Wrong With Anzac: “… allowing politics to intrude on hallowed ground which was beyond the reach of calculation.”

The task for churches then (and now) was to hold together respect for the fallen, and the memory of grief and loss, of valour and camaraderie, with the call to work unswervingly for lasting peace and justice.

It is likely we will hear a lot about Australia ‘becoming a nation’ on 25 April 1915.

There is nothing to support this view historically. It was very clear – to the soldiers, to the political leaders in Australia and Europe and to the families at home – that the Anzac troops were part of an Imperial force. Recruiters urged men to enlist for the Empire, and the despatches from the front detailed the extraordinary fighting spirit of the ‘colonial troops’.

Perhaps it was only at the Peace Conference at Versailles that the Australian cause separated out from Britain – mostly over issues to do with maintaining a White Australia – and only then that Prime Minister Billy Hughes famously claimed a right to speak ‘for 60,000 dead’.  We need to beware of the distortion of the historical record as the anniversary takes on a life of its own.

One way to honour the memory of the Anzacs at Gallipoli is to give time and attention to the complex realities of their experience.

There are some great resources collected at www.honesthistory.net.au. Joan Beaumont’s book Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War won the Prime Minister’s Award for History, and is the ‘one book’ many would recommend.

It is the first book up for discussion in the subject New Texts in Contexts being offered this semester as an intensive at Pilgrim Theological College (http://pilgrim.edu.au.).
I hope the commemoration of the Gallipoli landing moves us towards a deeper understanding of the place of Anzac in our heritage, and reinvigorates a national conversation about the courage of all who work for peace and justice.

Dr Katharine Massam
Co-ordinator of Studies, Church History
Pilgrim Theological College

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