Conscripting the Anzac myth to silence dissent

Tony Smith

More than once, Prime Minister Howard has remarked that the things that unite Australians are greater than the things that divide us. While this might seem a reasonable position, it can also justify a government ignoring policy criticism and dismissing dissent as the inevitable murmurings of a discontented minority. Most Australians might prefer us to be a united people, but not everyone believes that acceptance of untruths produces unity. Skirmishes in the so-called ‘history wars’ suggest that many rational people question the Government’s interpretation of the past and that they will continue to struggle against the acceptance of any cultural conformity imposed for the sake of social harmony (see for example Macintyre & Clark 2003; Manne 2003).

The Prime Minister has emphasised specific aspects of history and culture, some of which he attempted unsuccessfully to have accepted as a new Constitutional Preamble in 1999 (Macquarie University Law School 2000). He finds laudatory aspects of Australian identity in attributes such as mateship, a stoic connection with the land and especially the outback, Christianity, tolerance, and good sportsmanship. Atop the list, however, he would probably place the Anzac tradition. According to some observers beginning with the official historian of the Great War C.E.W. Bean, nationhood was ‘born’ at Gallipoli in 1915 and governments have subsequently used the tradition as a deep psychological appeal when taking difficult decisions, especially in times of international conflict (Howe 1995, p. 302).

The Howard Government has sought to exploit the Anzac myth to support controversial decisions.

Recently, the Howard Government has sought to exploit the Anzac tradition, legend or myth to support controversial decisions. The Government, either directly or through enthusiastic supporters, has invoked the legend to present its policies as wise and just and to denigrate dissenters implicitly or explicitly as disrespectful, sacrilegious or ‘un-Australian’. During wars and between them, protestors have noted the exclusive and divisive nature of the legend, and questioned its value to national identity. Currently, however, the lack of strong public objection to measures that collectively indicate a dangerous rise in militarism suggests that the Government has effectively silenced dissent.

Duty and dissent

A national myth less than a century old should be dynamic. Subsequent uses of the Australian military have differed markedly in nature from the engagements of 1915. Whatever the details of the legend’s composition however, governments have used the myth to ensure majority support for Australian war efforts. In events surrounding the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Prime Minister has shown himself to be the ‘chief story-teller in Anzac mythology’ (McKenna 2003, p. 196). Historian Mark McKenna fears that ‘Anzac has now become a dangerous tradition in which critical debate and political controversy are whitewashed. Anzac engulfs dissent and division, burying any hint of disloyalty and deviance beneath the compulsion to be patriotic and stand by our troops (2003, p. 200).

In 2006, the Government has campaigned to recruit support for the ‘war on terror’ led by the United States and Britain. It has deployed and dispersed the Australian military in ways not seen since its resources were stretched across Europe, North Africa, South East Asia and the Pacific in the 1940s. This dispersal and the incremental nature of policy announcements make criticism difficult to focus and sustain and parallel developments in domestic policy make active dissent more difficult, and perhaps even more dangerous.

Recently, several authors including Anglican armed services chaplain Tom Frame (2006) have discussed an apparent rise in the influence wielded by some religions as government statements and policies have favoured them. These authors analyse how the Government uses churches to sell their policies to the public and sometimes to implement them. By emphasising the role of the military, the Government gives other groups prominence. In some cases, people expressing dissent about policy have found themselves in direct confrontation with the Returned Services League (RSL). With Legacy, which cares for war widows and orphans, the RSL is Australia’s best known organisation of ex-military personnel. It operates licensed clubs and lobbies government for better conditions for veterans. While the RSL does commendable work in repatriation and rehabilitation, the organisation’s political role has been divisive. The RSL has assigned itself keeper of the Anzac legend and especially in the celebration of Anzac Day around the ‘sacred sites’ of war memorials. Ken Inglis (1998) refers to a ‘cult’ (p. 463) and a ‘civil religion’ of Anzac (p. 470) and in this analogy, the RSL forms a high priesthood. This role has been controversial. First, the RSL has claimed the right to speak for fallen comrades and to be the arbiter of what ideals drove them. Second, this claim casts the RSL in a conservative, authoritarian role that prevents debate about broader aspects of military behaviour and so fossilises the Anzac legend as a sentimental ideology. Third, as media canvass RSL opinions on a range of defence and social matters, the organisation clashes directly with dissenters.

By emphasising the role of the military, the Government gives other groups prominence.

Two recent examples, one concerning the flag and another concerning a cenotaph, suggest that the expression of political dissent in Australia is increasingly constrained by the Anzac myth. The first example involved the burning of an Australian flag outside an RSL club. The young man concerned, angry about the handling of what appeared to be racial conflict at Cronulla beach last summer, was charged with destruction of property. Constitutional lawyer Professor Helen Irving (2006) argues that the RSL is not the flag’s ‘guardian’. The flag symbolises the nation, its democratic institutions and freedoms. The RSL’s reason for claiming special status in this debate lies not in its possession of a piece of property, but in its rhetorical claim that fallen soldiers died ‘under’ or even ‘for’ the flag, thus giving the flag a certain sanctity. Two points need to be made here. First, the idea that soldiers in the heat of conflict think of such symbols is difficult to sustain. In one candid account, a Vietnam veteran describes his heart thumping, hands shaking and going pale (Heard 2005, p. 92), being ‘knotted in the guts’ (p. 96) and being so frightened that he stank (p. 97). It makes sense in hindsight to describe soldiers as wrapped in the flag, but the idea is not based in evidence. Secondly, in the RSL’s own rhetoric the war dead fought to preserve freedoms and civil liberties, including the right to free expression of dissent. Tabloid media expressed outrage about the flag burning but in at least one case, it seemed likely that the media outlet had itself burnt a flag for the sake of having some footage for its report (Mediawatch 2006).

The second case involved artist Omeima Sukkarieh’s installation of hundreds of body bags in Martin Place near the Cenotaph. The artist expected the installation to be somewhere else in the city, and the RSL accepted the explanation that the City of Sydney Council decided the site. However, the Howard Government’s Minister for Veterans Affairs was less conciliatory. He called the installation ‘totally inappropriate’ and said that it showed a ‘lack of respect for service men and women who have given their lives’ (Sydney Morning Herald 2006). In some other recent cases it is unclear whether political sensitivities have played a role in silencing dissenters. Federal police confiscated a sculpture by Greg Taylor who had placed his statue of the Prime Minister in an oversized Anzac ‘Digger’ uniform near Lake Burley Griffin (Canberra Times 2004). The work, entitled ‘If the boots don’t fit’ is a direct comment on militarism. The ACT authorities dismissed the installation as a stunt, but the removal suggests that ridiculing the Anzac legend offends an emerging orthodoxy.

Militarism versus civil liberties: Silencing dissent

Western governments have argued that a protracted ‘war on terror’ demands unique sacrifices of citizens. By characterising the campaign as a war, the Government brings the Anzac legend to bear on popular thinking. In criticising the Prime Minister’s glorification of Australia’s past, moral philosopher Raimond Gaita says that I do not remember a time in Australian politics when I heard the word ‘un-Australian’ used so often. Nor do I remember a time when jingoism was so persistently mistaken for patriotism (2004, p. 35). Critics object that infringing against civil liberties ensures the victory of terrorism, but governments respond that old concepts of human rights no longer apply. Jenny Hocking (2004, p. 247) notes that terrorism provides ready legitimacy for ‘a pervasive surveillance infrastructure and a diminution of established legal and political protections before the law’. Legal affairs commentator Richard Ackland (2006) describes some disturbing developments in the case of accused terrorist Jack Thomas. When convictions against Thomas were overturned on appeal, some sections of the media asserted that the law was at fault and saw the decision as an outrage against Australian victims of terrorism. Subsequently, the Attorney-General used the recently passed anti-terror laws to place a ‘control’ order on Thomas. This is the first such use of the Act and could well lead to challenges about the executive encroaching on powers normally exercised by the judiciary (Williams & Macdonald 2006).

Recent announcements in the defence field have barely raised a murmur in objection.

Some recent announcements in the defence field have barely raised a murmur in objection. While the Labor opposition did criticise the extra commitment of troops to Afghanistan, subsequent announcements about Vietnam veterans and the size of the military created little reaction. The Prime Minister achieved bipartisan support for his parliamentary statement about Vietnam veterans on the 40th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan (Howard 2006). He spoke warmly of the courage of those who served in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and expressed regret for the way they were treated on their return. He explained the poor treatment while referring to a division of opinion about the commitment. He implied that opponents of the war were responsible for the poor treatment the Government and community gave the veterans. ABC television news that night illustrated the story with footage of a lone protestor smeared with blood attempting to disrupt a parade of returnees.

In fact, supporters of the war placed the troops into that predicament but there was little public dissent from the Prime Minister’s blanket apology. Terry Lane (2006) was among the few to object that opponents of the war had no reason to apologise to the veterans. He argued that the Government should apologise to the Vietnamese families destroyed in the war. Vietnam veterans have been treated disgracefully. Shunned by veterans of some earlier wars, they have had to fight for recognition. They have been denied adequate counselling and compensation for post traumatic stress disorder and successive governments denied their claims about the effects of Agent Orange. Despite the Prime Minister’s statement, some veterans remained unhappy about their recognition and services available to them and their families.

Mark McKenna (2003) has argued that the Prime Minister has strategically developed an image of Vietnam veterans as victims of protestors in order to stifle dissent about current military engagements. By claiming that failure to support Vietnam veterans resulted from divisions of opinion about the commitment, the Prime Minister has constructed a warning against dissent and audible protest. McKenna made the case about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but his analysis holds true for other military developments. McKenna shows that there were many welcome home parades for the veterans, and so demonstrates the falseness of this aspect of the Prime Minister’s revision of the Vietnam period. Indeed, the Government itself created problems for returnees by providing welcomes only for those troops who arrived with their units by sea. Many soldiers, especially National Servicemen with their shorter terms, returned in small groups by plane and were demobilised with little debriefing.

Within a few days of the Long Tan speech, the Prime Minister announced, outside the chamber, an increase of the military by some 2,600 personnel. Perhaps the Long Tan commemorations had prepared people for the announcement, as only Senator Kerrie Nettle of the Greens expressed any doubts in principle (Sydney Morning Herald 2006). Clearly the resources of the Australian military are being stretched by current commitments, but there has been little public debate about how appropriate these commitments are. There is good reason for regarding use of the military as a last resort and any developments that make deployment of forces seem like normal politics should invite severe scrutiny. The Prime Minister took great personal risk in 1996 to make Australia safer domestically by removing firearms from the community. In 2006 he seems to be endorsing the proposition that more weapons can make Australia safer internationally.

The myth exploited selectively

The pervasiveness of the Anzac myth could make Australians reluctant to discuss defence issues. In early 2003, polls suggested that most Australians opposed the invasion of Iraq, but once troops were in combat opposition waned. If Australian troops are permanently on overseas duty, a similar effect can be expected. Repeated reports of sexual harassment of female personnel and bullying of juniors suggest that the military avoids the critical scrutiny tended to other institutions (see for example, Allard 2005).

The pervasiveness of the Anzac myth could make Australians reluctant to discuss defence issues.

Reluctance to criticise the military has its origins in the notion that troops are risking their lives for us. A more realistic and non-militaristic view would acknowledge that while troops might well die for Australia, their primary role is to kill for Australia. The media have provided extensive coverage of the inquiry into the death of an Australian soldier shot with his own weapon in Iraq, but scant attention to the killing of an Iraqi body guard near a trade delegation in June. We are mindful that when we send Australian troops on overseas postings they could die for us, but seem to ignore the reality that in order to do their jobs they must threaten to kill on our behalf, and sometimes do so. Allegedly, at least one British soldier killed himself because he feared that he might have been required to kill child suicide bombers in Iraq (Canberra Times 26 August, 2006).


It is unfortunate that governments that claim that ‘everything’ changed on ‘9/11’, appeal to a legend that has not moved into the 21st century. No-one should doubt the potential of the Anzac legend to influence Australian attitudes. Professor Bruce Scates, author of Return to Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of the Great War, notes that there is an element of pilgrimage in the journeys of Australians, and argues that young backpackers have ‘almost a craving’ for ‘spiritual experience’—they might arrive with ‘simplistic, even chauvinistic notions’, but most leave with a sense of the ‘waste and folly of war’ (Sophocleus 2006). The Anzac legend must be handled with sensitivity, but not without critical analysis.

The Anzac legend can be employed as a blunt instrument. In the past, the legend has excluded many women, Aborigines, migrants from lands other than Europe and men whose masculinity is not consistent with the military ethos. When he was Education Minister, Brendan Nelson said that if Muslim schools cannot accept and teach Australian values they should ‘clear off’ (ABC 2005). Asked for examples, he cited the story of Simpson and his donkey rescuing the wounded at Gallipoli. The Anzac tradition is a core element of the Government’s understanding of Australian values and Dr Nelson’s subsequent portfolio is Defence. He will need to exercise fine judgment to ensure that during his oversight of the defence forces, the militarists in Australia do not create a new counter-productive paradigm that divides the country in ways reminiscent of the Vietnam era. Jenny Hocking argues that ‘what is needed as part of the struggle against terrorism are not further constraints on effective political participation, but a more inclusive politics; not less democracy, but more’ (2004, p. 249). True heirs of the Anzac tradition will cherish the democracy that the originators of the legend fought to defend.


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Tony Smith is a regular contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs. He has taught Australian Politics at the Australian Catholic University, Charles Sturt University, the University of Technology Sydney and The University of Sydney.

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