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The Age

The challenge to Anzac

Author: Martin Crotty - Martin Crotty is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Queensland. He is the co-editor of Australian Legacies: Australia and the Aftermath of War (Australian Scholarly Press).
Date: 24/04/2010
Words: 863
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: A2
Page: 23
Australia's military myths still prevail, writes Martin Crotty.

What's Wrong With Anzac: The Militarisation of Australian History

By Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi, UNSW Press, $29.95

Zombie Myths of Australian Military History: The Ten Myths That Will Not Die

Edited by Craig Stockings UNSW Press, $34.95

MILITARY history is a fertile field for mythologies. Justifications for the sacrifices demanded of soldiers and civilians, censorship of the secret and the disturbing, and propaganda all make it hard for history to prevail. This is particularly so in Australia where distance from the theatres of battle has allowed homefront illusions to grow and prosper, while the close connection between war, Australian national identity and the birth of the nation has entwined military myth-making with the essence of Australian understandings of "us".

Historians find this troubling. Smothering history with the rhetoric of Anzac makes the past a poor bearer of lessons. We can learn from history, but mythology will send us astray. Moreover, the prominence of military myths in our historical consciousness crowds out other instructive elements of Australian history.

As Craig Stockings complains, Australia's military myths are like Zombies  they have a propensity to survive, and have to be slain over and over.

Most of the contributors to these volumes have little hope that their weapons of reasoned argument and documented evidence will prove lethal to their Zombie enemies. This is unfortunate, for these are two fine collections; different, but complementary.

Stockings and his contributors are more focused on specificities and keep their eyes more closely on the battlefields. Did we really have peaceful settlement in Australia? Was Morant a scapegoat for the British? Are Australian soldiers really so naturally able that they were able to crack the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg Line when no one else could, and halt the Japanese along the Kokoda Track? Most Australians would like to think so, but the realities are different. John Connor, for example, discusses the widespread use of military force against Australia's Aboriginal peoples, revealing the killings to be far more than occasional outrages by enraged settlers. Craig Wilcox exposes Breaker Morant for the murdering, lying scoundrel that he was, while Jeffrey Grey and Clinton Fernandes disassemble myths surrounding Australia's Vietnam War and its East Timor intervention.

The most powerful chapters concern the world wars, for it is here that the most resistant mythologies have taken hold. Rhys Crawley makes a convincing case that the August 1915 offensive at Gallipoli, widely understood as a close-run thing, never stood a chance. Like other World War I offensives between 1915 and 1917, it was poorly conceptualised, hopelessly optimistic, and beyond the tactics and weaponry then available. No "near miss" here  just more blundering and waste.

Elizabeth Greenhalgh and Stockings take issue with the alleged superiority of Australian troops, and both show that tactics, training, weaponry and logistical support were the vital factors in battles for the Hindenburg Line in 1918 and Bardia in 1941.

The most controversial chapters are likely to be those by Peter Stanley and David Stevens. Australians widely conceptualise and commemorate the victories in New Guinea in 1942 and 1943 as having saved Australia from Japanese invasion. But as Stanley argues, the Japanese never planned to invade Australia. The idea that they could have is preposterous, given the distance from Japan, the impossibilities of supply and the vastness of the target. Stevens reinforces the point and asks what real difference Japanese conquest of Port Moresby would have made anyway? The Japanese advance was stemmed in the Coral Sea, on Guadalcanal and at Midway  not along the Kokoda Track.

In What's Wrong with Anzac? Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds and their contributors take a broader view, focusing on the legend overall rather than specific misconceptions. They too are troubled by the conflation of myth and history; but for reasons of wider import.

The obsession with Anzac is overwhelming. War is a staple of the Australian publishing industry, dominates Australia's collective memory, forms a prominent part of the history taught at schools and in universities, and is aggressively pushed by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Partly as a consequence, we forget about our peace activists, social justice campaigners, reformers and others who have made Australia what it is.

And how appropriate is it to have war as the centrepiece of our national identity and so connected with stories of the birth of the nation anyway? We talk of the deeds of the Anzacs, but overlook that war was about killing and death. The Anzac warriors we lionise shot and bayoneted other human beings, blew others to pieces, and dropped bombs on women and children. Often, like combatants of all countries, they committed war crimes. Could we not find something more noble and uplifting than this?

For better or for worse, we are stuck with Anzac. It simply will not go away in the foreseeable future. The task is now to critique it where merited, to work with it where possible, and to bring the history and the mythology into a more constructive relationship.

 
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