Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The ANZAC tradition

It appears a lot of money is to be spent on commemorating the centenary of the ANZAC landing next year.  However, the amount involved has raised eyebrows, for example in this ABC report.

However, in academia, apparently the issue goes a lot deeper than the money.   The matter is the subject of an article in the April 2014 issue of Quadrant (Mervyn F Bendle, The Military Historians' War on the Anzac Legend).   Bendle's article identifies a group of historians, including (strangely?) some at the Australian Defence Force Academy, who have have described the tradition in such terms as "Anglo-Celtic ...Anzac mythology [and] military fable".   There seems to be quite an overlap between these people and those behind the Honest History website.

Bendle particularly takes to task the views put forward in recent books by Prof Joan Beaumont (Broken Australia:   Australians in the Great War) and James Brown (Anzac's Long Shadow:  The Cost of our National Obsession), but along the way mentions a number of other historians  who have, in one way or another, taken issue with a number of the traditional and popular views of Australia's military history.

Let me say at the outset that I haven't carefully read the books that Bendle mentions, but I was taken by Bendle's colourful description of them as contributions to "the campaign of denigration of what is seen as a 'festival of mythology'".   Bendle quotes Brown as stating, "This year an Anzac orgy begins.  A commemorative program that would make the pharaohs envious".    Brown is an ex-Army officer and an academic at the Australian Defence Force Academy.   Bendle describes Brown's view of the Digger tradition  "as a sort of cultural cancer within the military, promoting mythical ideas about the capabilities of Australian soldiers, and giving them ideas above their station."   Hmm, a the risk of drawing a conclusion here, it sounds as though Brown thinks the tradition pays insufficient respect to the dignity that ought to be afforded to military officers as trained at the Academy.

Bendle notes that another historian in this category is Peter Stanley (author of Bad Characters, Sex, Crime, Mutiny and the Australian Imperial Fire, and who is quoted in the ABC report linked above), who includes in his criticism of the Anzac tradition the fact that it "unfairly favours old Anglo-Celtic families who [have] direct connections with those who served in and lived through the Great War", thus discriminatorily excluding "non-Anglo-Celtic Australians".

Joan Beaumont (these days also a Canberra academic) is said to have a wider range of issues with the tradition.  Summarised, her views appear to be that the tradition insufficiently reflects the role of the women on the home front (such as, having actually to read in letters from the front about the miseries), as well as obscuring the memory of the 1917 general strike.  She sees issues of the war years as leading to Australia in the 1920s as polarised between volunteers and shirkers, conscriptionists and anti-conscriptionists, Protestants and Catholics, workers and bosses and radicals and reactionaries.

Perhaps indeed history is multi-faceted, but the thought crossed my mind that some of these views seem to be in a similar category to an American historian writing about the effect that Paul Revere's ride had on his horse!
I notice, however, that the Weekend Australian  is having none of this doubting!   In the issue of 19-20 April, there was both an article by Peter Cochrane, referring to Anzac Day having been "reborn" as an appreciation of the trauma suffered not only by those who were directly involved but also by later generations in a variety of ways. And in the review section of that issue, an extract from Patsy Adam-Smith's 1978 work, The Anzacs, was published (although perhaps this isn't entirely unconnected with the fact that the book itself is being republished).


  1. For more than 5 years Mervyn F Bendle has been valiantly fighting attempts by leftist historians to revise the Anzac legend
    Whilst I haven’t read Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession by James Brown, I read the reviews and an extract:

    I think that it’s disappointing that Bendle attempts to dismiss Brown by categorising him with the left intelligentsia.

    Australia will outspend the United Kingdom on commemorating the Great War by more than 200 per cent.

    Brown comments that, at a time when both sides of politics acknowledge the Defence Force of today is underfunded by at least 25 per cent and funding for mental health treatment of returning Afghan veterans is inadequate, we could make better use of limited resources.

    I cannot argue with Brown’s view that
    “The most important consideration, if we truly value the Anzac spirit, must be to look after this generation of veterans better than the last. To make sure we have properly learnt the hard-earned lessons of Australia's past wars. To make sure Australian soldiers never again lose their lives in a poorly devised and executed military campaign. Not by steadfastly refusing to risk the lives of our military, for there will likely be causes important enough to risk lives for. But by ensuring if someone is willing to risk their life for Australia as a soldier, we will have made their training, equipment and strategy a top priority. And we will look after them properly when they return, by remembering the living as well as we do the dead.”

    Brown is not connected with the Honest History website. I am not familiar with any of the Honest Historians but claiming the high moral ground of the Honest Historians against the Dishonest Historians does not bode well for a reasoned discussion.

  2. I see that the ABC has an item on James Brown:

  3. The ABC seems determined to "crack the myths"!