One Day of the Year to stop Whingeing about Anzac

On Sunday a sell-out crowd at the MCG stood silent in honour of the original ANZACS and all who followed them before the traditional (well since 1995) Essendon v Collingwood Anzac Day game started (the crows were there because we thought Adelaide was playing).

It’s a fair bet few in the crowd know anything about Lone Pine or Pozieres, Kokoda or Kapyong, or any of the fights that followed. But they still showed respect for the achievements and sacrifice of diggers down the decades.

It was the sort of ceremony that drives members of the historical establishment nuts because it demonstrates their irrelevance to what Australians value in the present and accordingly assume our ancestors did as well.

What most of us admire is the tradition of citizen soldiers defending a democracy where all have the same rights before the law and parents believe their children’s lives will be longer and safer, more fulfilling and fun than their own. We always have aspired to this and hopefully we always will. In contrast, anti-Anzac academics want us to focus on our sexist, racist, colonialist, and so on and so forth, past.

“We suggest that Australians might look to alternative national traditions that gave pride of place to equality of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice: the ideals of a living wage and decent working conditions, the long struggle for sexual and racial equality” keepers of the academic orthodoxy Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds wrote at the beginning of the month.

Some do, some don’t. But it says a great deal about Lake and Reynolds that they think respecting the ideals of Anzac excludes their own ideology. It obviously does not, because if there is a core assumption underpinning Anzac it is that from Bullecourt to Baghdad, Australians have taken up arms to defend the rights of people all over the world to think and say what they like and to tell anybody who tries to stop them to nick off.

And on Anzac Day we thank them for it, remembering and reverencing the way previous generations went to war to defend their country and its values, warts and all.

None of this is jingoistic, rattling sabres requires the sort of big-noting that most Australians are uncomfortable with.

Nor does it have much to do with honouring military tradition. Certainly we are in something of a golden age for scholarly military history, but it only appeals to a small audience. There is not much of a popular market for monographs that focus on commanders’ decisions not corporals’ experiences.

However what I imagine really upsets the pair of professors is the size of the audience for popular works on the achievements of ordinary diggers. It is a racing certainty that there were people at the MCG who had read one of Les Carlyon’s two histories of the AIF in WWI, one of Peter Brune’s campaign histories of WWII in Papua and New Guinea, or even some of Peter FitzSimons’ florid tales of bonzer blokes at war.

People read such books for connection to long gone ancestors they never knew but want to know about. And they buy books and travel when they can to learn about them. ‘Twas ever thus, at least since air travel became affordable for people who are neither rich nor get academic conference travel expenses.

Any visitor to the cemeteries of the Somme or who has walked the Kokoda Trail will have heard the Australian accents of people on pilgrimage.

This is not because they are military history mavens, obsessed with the details of ancient slaughter. Most visitors to the Western Front have little grasp of how Australians recaptured Villers Bretonneux in April 1918, or why they had to at any cost.

But the crowd at the football is interested in the experience of the blokes in the line because they assume that they were not much different to us.

Professor Lake argues this interest is forced, that it comes out of public funding and conservative propaganda and the “militarisation of Australian culture” “mightily subsidised” by (you guessed it) John Howard.

Nonsense. It is hard to imagine a more pacific culture than Australia’s – the government dares not commit a battalion to Afghanistan for fear of the electorate’s reaction to casualties.

What we remember is less the guts and glory – we are remarkably indifferent to whether we won or lost the battles we celebrate – or Aussie exceptionalism. Certainly occasional authors try to turn all Australians under arms into world beaters, like Roland Perry who unconvincingly argues John Monash worked out how to win WWI. But most popular writing focuses on ordinary blokes doing their best and very Australian leaders, like Ralph Honner, commander of the 39th battalion on the Kokoda Trail. He is revealed by Peter Brune as a man who understood that discipline and initiative are not mutually exclusive when troops understand their jobs and know they have the respect of their commanders.

Much Australian military history is really a celebration of the common Australian character, with its egalitarian attitudes and its distrust of abstract ideologies.

Perhaps this is why some historians dislike ANZAC so much – it reminds them that for all their studies of the shortcomings of Australians past and present the descendants of the ordinary men and women who served are not listening.