Monday, 16 June 2014

ANZAC’S LONG SHADOW: The Cost of Our National Obsession by JAMES BROWN

ANZAC’S LONG SHADOW: The Cost of Our National Obsession
Black Inc. Books, 2014, 184 pages, $19.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon 

A former army officer criticising the Anzac cult – this attack from an unexpected quarter, not from the usual Marxist and Quaker suspects but from James Brown, a military insider and analyst from the conservative think-tank, the Lowy Institute, has grabbed much attention in the lead up to Anzac Day 2015, the centenary of the disastrous Allied invasion of Turkey. 

Brown’s muscular assault on Anzac squares off against the “enormous commercial enterprise” of the Anzac industry, taxpayers being stung $325 million in government funding for the centenary and the cultural obsession with the dead of Gallipoli and its noble lies of ‘heroic sacrifice’ that glamourise war.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the militarist right’s response to Brown’s book has been one of fury for querying their patriotic foundation stone.  More unexpected has been the benign response by the more thoughtful, centrist, commentariat.  Pleased at Brown’s sacrilegious critique against the key icon of Anzac Day, they have taken on board the aim of this critique – to direct social attention and government dollars from the military diversion of Anzac to the “parlous state of our defence sources”.

Unlike progressive critics of Anzac, Brown wants more, not less, spending on the “magnificent institution” of the Australian Defence Force.  Brown wants a de-mythologised, more modernised and professional Australian military.  Contemporary wars and serving soldiers are poorly understood, he argues, because the Anzac myth hogs the limelight.

There is some special pleading here by a true-believing veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, “deeply unpopular” exercises whose soldiers he fears being “crowded out” by the Gallipoli legend, the Anzac gloss apparently not working for these, or for future, Australian wars.  This thesis, however, defies the cultural reality that the very point, and a highly successful one, of Anzac is that its celebration legitimises all of Australia’s khaki adventures.

Brown also substitutes one myth (Anzac’s romantic aura of mateship, egalitarianism and national bonding) with another – the ‘clean’, almost bloodless, modernised wars of today.  The human cost to those on the receiving end of Australia’s military deployments is strikingly absent from Brown’s book.  His more modernised and efficient military would simply deliver a more modernised and efficient killing machine.

If Anzac’s Long Shadow is as good as dissent gets in the Australian military intelligentsia, then those who value human life, peace and true internationalism will need to look elsewhere, starting with the “shrill anti-war activists” that Brown recoils from, than to those who, whether old-school Anzac fetishists or latter-day military renovators, assist the worship of armed force at the shrine of patriotism.

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