On the Question of Anzac Day

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Anzac Day proceeds the way it always has for the Millennial. Approaching the cenotaph in that darkest part of the day before dawn is an ageing veteran with his family, on his way to march with his regiment. Other families whose military career ended on the first Armistice Day give a new lease on this tradition by pinning the medals of the old digger on the youngest family member who never even knew the man whose deeds he now boldly boasts. Our Millennial once was that boy sporting the medals, perhaps he does still, but now he also sports an Australian flag that he’ll wave as the march passes by, staying for an acceptable time before getting paralytic drunk all before midday. At the dawn service, however, he is the very model of propriety and feels a unity of spirit with all those present — and those not present — for whom the day might mean radically different things.

The day didn’t always happen thus. For our first participant during his childhood it was a sombre occasion, one of mourning, though less mournful than those his father recalled as his own father stood there remembering his comrades that fell at Gallipoli. For himself it is a day that links him as a Vietnam vet to that first generation of ANZACs and perhaps to all future servicemen reversing the rejection he felt by his countrymen upon return from the war. For the twenty-something looking forward to a day of two-up it is a day that commemorates the foundational myth of the nation. The bronze statues of diggers and the names of the glorious dead chiselled into the rock are the physical embodiment of the nation’s values.

The usually far-left historian Inga Clendinnen strangely has a preference for the original observance and meaning of the day. This becomes less strange when one considers this was her lived experience growing up in the 1930s, the daughter of a man who served on the Western Front. Clendinnen doesn’t feel the need to demean the different meanings that other historians have seen come into being and not liked. She merely says the Anzac Day of the present is regrettably more cheerful than the one she would prefer but it is the expression of younger generations coming to terms with the old legends and changing them in turn.1

It is further vindication of her view of history as one of competing narratives and perspectives. No group’s narrative can lay claim to universality, but the historian makes a political, which is to say leftist, choice in elevating one over the other. When it comes to Anzac, Clendinnen utilises her method but doesn’t follow through in its final power-political step; she just makes her conservative preference known. Indeed, it is a more conservative understanding than the views of the Howard government.

For other historians the Howard government manipulated the youth into this sentimental nationalism. Where Clendinnen takes the youth interviewed at battlefield cemeteries by Bruce Scates at their word, Mark McKenna and Stuart Ward take a more sceptical approach.2 Scates’ methodological error, you see, is in his equating the “documentation (and validation) of human feeling with historical understanding” it is evidence of his “tendency to view emotional truth uncritically.” The often-inarticulate formulations of a sense of the sacred and newfound meaning in a secular age would be unpacked by proper historians as manufactured by the “prevailing political and commercial imperatives in contemporary Australia.”3

The historian whose historianness is unimpeachable, lacking any whiff of the popular ‘historian’ would see that

the newly constituted Anzac legend teaches us to valorise war and military endeavour above all other forms of human activity. Reading Prime Minister Howard’s recent Anzac Day speeches, it is clear that the worship of Anzacs past is linked conveniently to Anzacs present.4

As radical as Clendinnen’s historiography is, McKenna’s and Ward’s (at least on this issue for Ward, who has done some marvellous work elsewhere) exceeds it in viewing not all voices as valid. The mark of the good historian is that he is incredulous to the words Whites say; conversely being critical of the ‘voice’ of Aboriginals that this same historian has ‘found’ is the mark of the bad one, cf. Keith Windschuttle.

The green-eyed monster is rearing its ugly head here — academic historians dislike their narrative losing out to other ones, but cultural autism is playing a bigger part. Regarding McKenna and related historians Clendinnen says that this innovation in Anzac observance worries them “in part because they (reasonably) mistrust the political thrust behind some of the changes, but also because they underestimate the natural dynamism of popular ritual observance.”5 For people that pride themselves in psychologising the past, they do a poor effort in reading the living.

Perhaps they also pursued the humanities after failing physics, after all, their conspiratorial theorising speaks to a lack of understanding of Newton’s Third Law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This innovation, or more rightly understood reaction is their doing, and their doing alone. Howard may have coöpted this public feeling, setting its future tone and direction, profiting from it, but he did not create it. Just as he did not create the popular anti-immigration sentiment that exploded at the same time. The two phenomena are related. It was not a vast right-wing conspiracy at play. Instead the law of unintended consequences — in Newtonian garb — sprung forth from leftist conspiring against Australian identity and created a backlash. These leftists are too insensitive to the public pulse to realise it.

Instead of Anzac comprising one of the precious few threads linking Australians to their past, it is to be severed. Some do the butchering in a clinical way characterised by sangfroid where the myth is laboriously picked apart. There is no truth to be found and therefore no meaning. There is only the void. The second approach is to say the meaning to be found is one of imperialism/colonialism/militarism, racism, genocide, and most recently domestic violence. Typical of the historiographical style discussed above, the victims of these evils are to be privileged in the present day over the descendants of their oppressors. That is, us.

The first approach is the more insidious of the two as it masks its political impetus better than the latter. It is not distinct to Gallipoli and is applied to other major chapters in the Anzac legend such as the Kokoda Track. Such attacks follow a similar pattern of downplaying the significance of the campaign to the overall war effort, insinuating all lives lost were in vain, or those that participated are treated as special snowflakes without justification. Peter Stanley, a past Principal Historian of the Australian War Memorial, made the argument that the Japanese had no plans to invade Australia. The threat was exaggerated by the Curtin government but has become part of Australia’s collective memory since. Regardless of the merits of the argument, which are non-existent, the fact that the AWM’s Principle Historian thinks he can use his office to let his imagination run wild with the received opinion the way he did is further proof of the leftist march through the institutions. Transexualism becoming an article of faith in the military seems to be another.

Mervyn Bendle collates all these arguments in his several pieces in Quadrant. See here, here, here, and here for a good sample. His indefatigable efforts are to be commended and are a treasure trove of arguments against the left too. But his is a view of Anzac with the same pitfalls as the rest of the mainstream conservatives. Countering the clinical approach lefties take he sees their feigned facts and raises with counterfactuals. “What if” Gallipoli was successful he asks. “What if” the Germans had won the First World War? Meaning is found in his answering these questions; had another front been opened in the Balkans and Austria-Hungary the horrors of the 20th century would have been averted. All those that say the losers of Gallipoli in our world don’t deserve any recognition would venerate the AIF as foul-mouthed hard drinking angels who stopped Bolshevism in its tracks and nipped National Socialism and Fascism in the bud in this other possible world. How that is logically possible in a world that didn’t know these facts is beside the point, think of the feels! These lefties think Anglo imperialism was bad, can they imagine a world where the image of Cecil Rhodes spreadeagled from Cape to Cairo fades to be replaced with Kaiser Bill?

By countering the clinical approach Bendle parries the thrust of the explicitly leftist historians; their concerns cease to be valid with his reframing of the debate. His reframing is done so in an explicitly universalist and liberal manner, taking away all concrete and particular meaning of the Anzac legend. Only liberal sentiments remain.

Taking the middle ground in an argument is perilous, one gets it from both opposing sides, but McKenna is right in not defaulting to complacency and Bendle is right in his opposing of leftists. Bendle would oppose any criticality from the right and associate it with the left. For instance, agreeing with leftist historians that point to the futility of the First World War would trigger a tirade of Teutonophobia from Bendle; stop the Hun, we must. The true right have reflected on the destruction of traditional Europe caused by this war as early as the 1920s. Gone are the manners and mores of a besieged society heroically clinging to chivalry. Gone is the view of a common destiny, albeit one with clearly defined roles for the different strata of society. For all her faults, we love her still. They vanish as faults in light of the vices masquerading as virtue today. The collapse of this world, which gave birth to our diggers, for which they fought, becomes the second death of our war dead. Yet this collapse is one that mainstream conservatives relish and defend. Something is very wrong when leftists speak sense and the right posture as the left.

Recognising the absolute barrenness of the First World War does nothing to diminish the Anzac legend. Disconnecting it from the actual diggers and their organic ties to the present, i.e. their descendants, does. From 2006 the Victorian RSL has allowed the descendants of Turks who participated in the Ottoman defence of Gallipoli to march on Anzac Day. They were “very honourable” as enemies we are told. Korean and Vietnamese allies too now march. These are the logical progressions for an Anzac revival that was commandeered by conservatives who have failed to conserve a single thing. In the official right’s hagiography Anzac means ‘Aussie values’ which were born in the storming of the cliffs at Gallipoli, the mud of Ypres, and the streets of Villers-Bretonneux. These are the same values that when one says the words and steps on the magic-dirt of Australia, one is an Australian. If all the world is a potential Australian, no one is, and these values are not Australian let alone the meaning of Anzac.

I was 12 when Alec Campbell, the last veteran of Gallipoli, died in 2002. I was yet to become a thought criminal and racially aware but the loss of this last organic link to the origin of the day resonated deeply with me. I couldn’t fathom how the day could possibly retain any meaning now with this absence. John Howard was there to aid in shifting the meaning with his funeral oration. At times Alec the man is the focus of the speech, at other times it is the values that are said to be the senior partner in the legend, and sometimes the two merge. But what is clear is that it is ‘values’ that remain constant. The same speech could have been given for any number of veterans but the values listed would remain the same and take pride of place in the collective consciousness and beyond: “We should know those values will not pass with his passing, nor indeed when all of Australia’s wars to defend freedom slip gently from memory into history.”

The dwindling of the ranks of veterans from the First and Second World Wars is a microcosm for the displacement of European-Australia. Like the fallacy that Anzac will remain eternal for all people without any living ANZACs, an Australia without Australians will endure as Australia, allegedly. Enoch Powell springs to mind here, where he invoked Greek tragedy quoting the Ancient proverb “those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad,” in reference to mass-immigration. This deformation of Anzac to an abstractly hollow and commercialised shell is made all the more tragic in the strictest sense as it partakes in the genre’s trope of perverting ritual. What is more perverse than refounding one’s most sacred day in order to accommodate those that were brought in to a country under the pretence that nothing would change?

This vicious circularity spins further out of control and widens its destructive motion as a weapon against those that sought refuge in the last standing remnant of their organic identity. It may seem hyperbolic to frame it in such a way, but when a soft liberalism is employed against those fleeing from its harder sibling it will slowly over time approach the harm intended by the latter and make its task all the more easy. Willingly or unwillingly the spirit of Anzac has been ceded to the left as a weapon against White Australia. They’re too caught up in their ideological purity to appreciate the gift the political right has given them and continue to denounce this deracinated Anzac Day as somehow being “racist”.

Anzac is being divorced from those with an organic connection, what will remain when there are none with this connection? The answer is plain in my mind; the day would lose all meaning and would cease to be observed. Should White Australians abandon this day?

It was asserted above that acknowledging the futility of the First World War is not harmful to the Anzac legend, and the answer presents itself now. Those naïve to the world farmers, and workers, professionals, and students who enlisted in droves did so out of duty to their kith and kin. The left see this as subservience to Britain and political immaturity but it was a gesture of love and racial feeling, the subject of utmost political maturity. Although the war destroyed that which they loved, the fact of their volunteering to protect those they saw as their extended family is the true meaning of the Anzac spirit, and something to be deeply proud of.

This spirit is what guided people into reviving the day. It is also why Anzac Day in its truest sense will always remain for White Australia; when an Anglo-Celtic or European Australian fights for his interests he is imbued with the Anzac spirit. Although the official government sponsored day seeks to suppress these impulses, as they are dangerous to their multiracial project they will only grow. Pundits and military historians predict the day will have to accommodate the ‘new Australia’ to survive, and even then it will fall in significance. They predict this with a sneer, but Australia sneers back. The more the left push against this last acceptable outlet of White Australia the more they sow the seeds of their destruction. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

How, then, to positively refound the day? The political right are cowards and are wont to refuse to acknowledge a simple fact about political regimes. From antiquity to the present they decline over time and need to be refounded. When they do see this need it is always too late for the regime and its institutions. The latest leftist fads are incorporated and are thus conserved. Anzac Day has suffered this fate as we have seen.

I share with Clendinnen a preference for a conservative and sombre ritual observance, where we mourn our war dead. The loss of our last living ANZACs although inevitable is a catastrophe for Australia. They are a national treasure in being that last living link to a past we Millennials never knew. One that was stolen from us. It is perverse to lionise their values while consciously destroying the nation they were willing to die for — and 100,000 did in the two World Wars. The grief and anger felt by earlier generations on this day is given new meaning. It is not for the meaningless and futility of their deaths as the nihilists on the left would prefer, but for the fact that we failed to honour the sacrifice of our war dead. We broke that inviolable intergenerational contract; we failed to maintain and improve the nation they died for. This grief and anger is future-directed. It spurs Australians on to come good on that promise earlier generations reneged. It asks of Australians to reëstablish an Australia the diggers would recognise.

Lest we forget.

Endnotes

  1. Inga Clendinnen, “The History Question: Who Owns the Past?”, Quarterly Essay, Issue 23 (2006), pp. 8–23.

  2. See in particular Ch. 8 (which focuses on Gallipoli) of Bruce Scates, Return to Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of The Great War, (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 188–209.

  3. Mark McKenna and Stuart Ward, “‘It Was Really Moving, Mate’: The Gallipoli Pilgrimage and Sentimental Nationalism in Australia”, Australian Historical Studies, No. 129 (April 2007), pp. 144; 145; 151.

  4. Ibid., p. 151.

  5. Clendinnen, op. cit., p. 23.

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