ANZAC Day Redux: Refining My Position

BY BEN HABIB.

Thank you to everyone who responded to my previous blog posting  Anzac Day: Poignant Remembrance or Mythologisation.  Your constructive (and not so constructive) comments and criticisms have helped me to further explore my thoughts on ANZAC Day and reach a more nuanced position.  If we only took notice of people who shared our opinions then we would miss a valuable opportunity to reflect on this important aspect of the national story and our places within it.

After great reflection, my argument is this: I take issue with a very specific part of the popular ANZAC Day mythology, namely that the diggers were fighting for freedom and democracy.  I do not reject the entire ANZAC tradition, which has an important place in the Australian national story.  Nor do I wish to downplay the significance of later conflicts in this tradition, seeing the defence of Australia and the defeat of fascism in World War Two as a more appropriate basis for freedom and democracy as a key part of the national narrative.  For me, the most powerful aspect of the ANZAC story is the horror and the waste of the Great War, mourning for those who sacrificed their lives and a deep empathy for everyone impacted by the conflict.  It is not for nothing that World War One was called The War to End All Wars.

The Fight for Freedom and Democracy in the ANZAC Myth

Part of the ANZAC myth that is repeated ad nauseum in the media every year is that “the diggers were fighting for our freedoms,” or “our way of life,” or “for democracy.”  As I stated in my previous post,

I have a hard time stomaching the jingoistic claim that the ANZAC diggers fought for the freedoms we enjoy today.  No-one can adequately explain to me how the Aussie diggers, fighting as part of a British imperial army, invading a sovereign country on the other side of the world in a war with a competing empire has anything to do with fighting for freedom in Australia. 

We can test this assertion by assessing the impact of the allied victory on freedom, democracy and “our way of life” after the Ottoman Empire was eventually defeated.

The Republic of Turkey emerged from the remains of the Ottoman imperial core in 1924, established as a one-party secular state under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who himself fought at Gallipoli.  A number of reforms were undertaken in the following two decades to remove the imperial architecture for the Turkish state until 1946, when Turkey became a multi-party democracy.  Yet while the allied victory was necessary to remove the Ottoman regime and clear the way for a secular democracy to emerge, it did not lead directly to Turkish democracy.  Other developments within Turkish society over the intervening period were likely more decisive in the democratic evolution.

What about the rest of the former Ottoman territories?  The Middle East was carved up between Britain and France at the Treaty of Versailles.  As English journalist Robert Fisk has documented in his epic book The Great War for Civilization, the arbitrary borders of the Versailles treaty, combined with continued great power interference, left a legacy of autocratic governance, religious conflict and regular warfare, hardly a victory for freedom and democracy.

What about freedom, democracy and the Australian way of life after the Great War?  If the ANZAC diggers were fighting for freedom, democracy and our way of life, as the popular narrative suggests, then we need to consider how these stacked up in post-World War One Australia.  While Australia was a functioning democracy at this time, significant segments of the population were excluded from democratic participation and citizenship.  People of non-Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, including ethnic Lebanese members of my family lineage, suffered a denigration of their political and economic rights and a diminution of their cultures under the White Australia Policy.  I recommend Anne Mansour’s description of these restrictions in her book Not Quite White: Lebanese and the White Australia Policy 1880 to 1947.  As non-citizens at this time Indigenous Australians had no political rights at all until the 1967 referendum and did not enjoy full political equality with other Australian citizens until 1983.  Were these despicable aspects of the Australian state and society during the inter-war period the type of freedom and democracy that the ANZAC’s were fighting for?

If we take a broader interpretation of the concept of freedom, should we consider the horrendous physical and psychological damage done to the servicemen who returned from the war, or the inconsolable grief of those families who lost loved ones, all forever trapped in the nightmare of 1915?  When discussing freedom, should we also not recall the conscription debate raging in Australian during the Great War?

There are too many anomalies here to make seriously argue that the ANZAC’s fought for freedom and democracy at Gallipoli and for these reasons, we should pause before we associate ANZAC legend with these ideals.

WWII Defence of Australia and Defeat of Fascism

I recognise the point made by Mick in his comment to my previous post that servicemen and women involved in other conflicts are also remembered on ANZAC Day.

Indeed I agree with Paul Keating’s argument that Kokoda, rather than Gallipoli, should be the archetype for the patriotic defence of” our way of life.”  The defence of Australia and the defeat of fascism in World War Two are a more appropriate foundation upon which to base the fight for freedom and democracy as a key part of the national narrative.

However, April 25th is not called Kokoda Day, its called ANZAC Day.  The popular mythology surrounding this day originates at Gallipoli. My concern is that the common rhetoric about “fighting for our freedoms” is simply inaccurate in the context of this particular campaign, in contrast to the World War Two experience.

I suspect that many people conflate the entire Australian military history when they use “freedom and democracy” rhetoric, but in doing so they risk misreading history and the very different experiences, consequences and lessons for Australia of the two world wars (and later conflicts).

In my previous post, I also discussed how Gallipoli can have little personal resonance for Australians of a post-World War Two migrant background.  This is not a complicated point and it seems like those people who find it objectionable are still yet to adjust to the fact that Australia has been an ethnically diverse multicultural country for over sixty years.

For post-war European migrants to Australia like my maternal grandparents, the exploits of Australian troops fighting with the allies against Germany in Europe has far more personal resonance.  For my grandparents, the allied victory meant liberation from Nazi forced labour camps and the opportunity to escape repatriation to Soviet Union and establish a new life in Australia.

Summary

The lessons and legacies of Gallipoli and Kokoda are not the same.  Their conflation in the ANZAC tradition risks downplaying the pivotal patriotic significance of Australia’s desperate national defence and the broader defeat of fascism in World War Two, while leading us to miss the point in reflecting on the carnage of World War One through the false attribution of a freedom and democracy narrative.

A big thank you to everyone who has participated in this discussion.  It is through engaging with people who don’t share our views that we learn and refine our opinions.

 

Further Reading:

Anzac Day,’ Australian Government, 8 January 2009.

Anzac Day Media Style Guide,’ University of South Australia and Monash University.

David Day, ‘The myth that binds,’ The Age, 24 April 2012.

Editorial: The meaning of Anzac Day,’ The Age, 25 April 2011.

Paul Keating, ‘In conversation with Robert Manne,’ The Wheeler Centre, 11 November 2011.

Mapping our Anzacs,’ National Archives of Australia.

Sharon Mascall-Dare, ‘Need new words to tell an old tale,’ The Age, 24 April 2012.

Guy Rundle, ‘Anzac Day and why we need to question ‘myths’ of war,’ Crikey, 24 April 2012.

Tim Soutphommasane, ‘Where does Anzac Day fit in a culturally diverse Australia?‘, The Age, 23 April 2012.

Rebecca Wheatley, ‘Give young the freedom to engage with Anzac tradition,’ The Age, 23 April 2012.

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Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben is an internationally published researcher with interests including North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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One response to “ANZAC Day Redux: Refining My Position

  1. Well at the risk of labouring the point ( and I know you have acknowledged this) I’d like to re-emphasise the point that as far as I could see yesterday the Gallipoli thing was only a small part of what Anzac Day was about. Most of the people I talked to, and most of the media I read were talking about WW2 veterans, and those of later wars and peace-keeping operations…..
    Of course the Anzacs at Gallipoli and elsewhere weren’t fighting for our freedoms – we can say that looking back. They were fighting for the Empire or were just looking for a holiday in Europe, among many other motives.
    But there’s a good argument that the WW2 servicemen were fighting for our freedoms, and that’s why I’m grateful my mum and dad took part.
    I don’t think educated people get the 2 WWs conflated – most people I know view WW1 as nothing more than an imperialistic waste of life, and most would view WW2 as a desperate effort to make the world safe for freedom and democracy – an effort which at least partially succeeded.

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