Sunday, 26 April 2015

ANZAC: The Unauthorised Biography CARLYN HOLBROOK

ANZAC: The Unauthorised Biography
NewSouth, 2014, 266 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

The “bungled invasion of an isolated Turkish peninsula” one hundred years ago, writes Melbourne University’s Dr. Carolyn Holbrook in Anzac, looks set to super-heat the “commemorative frenzy” of Anzac Day when what is needed is a cooler examination of the historical fate of (white) Australia’s first serious taste of modern warfare.

The Boer War a few years earlier had been too insufficiently crimson to provide the requisite sacrificial genesis for Australian nationhood, but the sixty thousand dead Anzac soldiers from the ‘Great War’ was a better fit for Australia’s ‘baptism of fire’, centering on the Allied landing at Gallipoli (eight thousand Australians killed) on 25 April, 1915, as part of an ill-fated plan to take Turkey out of the war.

Thus did Anzac Day begin its career as a sacred day for khaki patriotism but it has not gone unchallenged.  Dissent from the approved Anzac values of nationalism and militarism began from the time of the war itself.  Whilst the official war chronicler, Charles Bean, dutifully penned the narrative of the Australian people coming together in search for national identity through war, Holbrook writes that, “lost in the clamour of Anzac idolatry”, is the fact that, helped by two defeated national referenda on conscription, six out of ten eligible Australian men failed to follow the blood and nation script by not enlisting for the war.

Post-war, many veterans themselves preferred to forget rather than remember, let alone celebrate, the whole ghastly experience, whilst internationalist, socialist and anti-war movements kept the Anzac fever dampened during the inter-war years and almost drove it to extinction during the 1960s and 1970s.

In response, Anzac’s more sophisticated guardians have rehabilitated its history, acknowledging the misery and hardship of war but redeeming it through an ennobling mateship.  The poignancy of the personal tragedy has replaced the geo-political causes of war as the Anzacs are movingly portrayed as victims but without any perpetrators.  This is a far cry from, for example, Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front whose “profound subversiveness” was to see the real enemy, on both sides, as “a political system that led millions to awful, senseless deaths”, writes Holbrook.

Holbrook’s critique of the Anzac religion is, however, compromised by subscribing to Anzac’s subtly refurbished conservative politics.  She is loathe to be numbered amongst the card-carrying “Vietnam generation of baby boomer historians” who see Anzac Day as glorifying and justifying war.  She is warmly sympathetic to those Anzac family descendants whose state-supported personal histories try to separate the war from the men who fought it but this approach risks tripping up on the old patriotic banana skin of  ‘support our troops’ which amounts in practice to acquiescing in whatever war they are engaged in, no matter how illegitimate or ugly.

Holbrook claims that “it is difficult to be offended about the benign form of the contemporary Anzac legend” yet this surrender to the ideological modernisation of Anzac leaves unchallenged the omnipresent cultural symbols and rituals of Anzac Day remembrance with their reverberations with all things military.

Anzac is too valuable a conservative political franchise to be allowed to lapse by its custodians - the military, the corporations, the Prime Ministers and the establishment media who took us to Gallipoli a century ago, who keep taking us to other exotic butchering fields and who are so keen to partner with “Australia’s most powerful brand” today.

Holbrook is no crass militarist or Anzac cult member but she does keep her dissenting noise down to a reverential whisper and her book will not alarm Anzac nurturers such as Kim ‘Bomber’ Beazley, Labor’s former Defence minister, who wrote the book’s foreword.  Anzac Day has never been an anti-war day.  Those who wish to see a world free of sordid resource wars should not be marching in its ranks.

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