by Peter Dean,
Dr Peter Dean is a Senior Fellow at Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
More Info >>

Executive summary

  • How we interpret ‘Anzac’ has important ramifications for public policy. The public’s understanding of Anzac has the ability to influence school curricula, bodies such as the National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary, funding to the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans Affairs as well as informing our understanding of the commemoration of war and foreign and defence policy.
  • In early 2010 a debate was opened on the Anzac mythology driven by a brave but controversial new book, What’s Wrong with Anzac? The members of the new National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary would benefit from a thorough reading of this book but they also would do well to learn from its mistakes and misinterpretations.
  • Only through a deep understanding of Australian military history and the Anzac mythology will the members of the National Commission avoid endorsing commemorative and educational events to the Commonwealth that will reinforce a simplistic nationalist interpretation of Anzac. This task is made exceptionally difficult due to the absence of an eminently qualified professional historian in their ranks.


National myths are important for all countries. They are a part of the social fabric that binds us together as a nation and helps to form our identity. The Anzac myth is one of the most important and powerful in the Australian national story. We have all heard of it, a lot of us participate in the rituals and activities (formal and informal) that help to constitute and reinforce it, a number of us have family or personal connections with it and some of us even claim to understand it. But no matter what interaction any of us may have with Anzac individually it is the national story that takes prominence.

This national agenda is embodied by the Commonwealth’s new National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary. The Commonwealth has decided to take public submissions and the ‘National Commission has been appointed to review the ideas put forward, and make recommendations to the Government on options to mark the centenary’. The public have been asked to provide submissions on ‘ideas, principles and/or recommendations for an individual commemorative project or broader commemorative program… national events and local community activities… [including] proposals for websites, films and books, as well as functions, parades and ceremonies’. This commission consists of two former prime ministers, two former officers of the ADF (one the current national president of the RSL), a journalist and a veteran’s advocate. This group, predominantly made up by former senior political and military personnel, will decide on how the centenary of Anzac will be commemorated.

The most glaring omission from the commission is that there is no place for a historian on this panel. This is a serious oversight.  The absence of a historian means that there is no professional to provide advice on whether the representations by the public (or, indeed, by this committee) have any basis in historical truth. There is no one with a professional eye to discern myth from reality. What is more surprising is the fact that, while small in number, there are several eminently qualified and experienced professional historians that specialise in either military history, commemoration, pilgrimage, war and society or grief and loss that the Commonwealth could have selected.

One only has to touch on any one of the number of debates that surround our military past to see how the decisions of this commission can influence the public’s interpretation of our past. For instance, will the commission endorse programs that remember the supposed ‘battle for Australia’ and the idea that the United States naval victory at the battle of the Coral Sea and the Australian victory on the Kokoda Trail saved Australia from invasion by the Japanese in 1942 or will it reject any commemorate ideas on this topic on the basis of (amongst others) Dr Peter Stanley’s 2008 work Invading Australia: Japan and the battle for Australia

While the qualifications and expertise of the existing members are not in question the composition of this panel and the lack of a professional custodian of the past skews the commission heavily towards an interpretation of Anzac that is cemented in ‘official’ national discourse.  One can only assume this was a simple, but glaring, oversight by the government when it set up the commission or a reflection of that fact that the Commonwealth believes that the Anzac Centenary’s place in Australian society can only be guaranteed by former military personnel and politicians. It seems that historians, the professional custodians of the past, have no place in casting their critical eye over the commission’s work (at least internally).  What role will historians play in the centenary of Anzac, especially since the fact that a number of eminent Australian historians released a stinging critique of the role of Anzac in Australian society at the very time that the Commonwealth announced its Commission?

Like all national mythologies Anzac is a contested space and from time to time all nations should stop and assess if the myths to which the people and the country prescribe are still relevant, still ‘real’ and still representative of the country that we have become and the country we want to be.  This was the thrust of the recent book by some of the country’s leading historians, Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Joy Damousi, and Mark Mckenna. They argue that a re-evaluation of Anzac is long overdue in Australia.

In this respect their contribution to the debate is pioneering, courageous and highly commendable. The rise in popularity of Anzac Day combined with the increased volume of publications on Australia’s military past in recent decades means that amongst all of the comment, commemoration, and publications the country has lost sight of what ‘Anzac’ means and what role this mythology should play in our society.

Besides the courage to address the subject matter there is much to commend in their work. The authors have rightly pointed out that a high degree of sentimentalism has become entrenched around Anzac Day. The day, and its associated mythology, is now surrounded by too much ill-informed opinion, regrettably much of it being driven by politicians on both sides of the mainstream political spectrum. These historians have raised important and challenging questions of this mythology, such as whether the nation was ‘born at Gallipoli’ and what actually constitutes the ‘Anzac Spirit’.  They also rightly point out the growing mass of books on Australian military topics that grace the shelves of popular bookstores, a significant portion of which are poor history, with little or no analysis, that make only a very modest contribution to improving our understanding of the Australian experience of war, but have a much greater ability to affect public opinion and political debate.

While these all are arguments that the National Commission on the Centenary of Anzac would do well to consider, there nonetheless is a lot to disagree with in their argument most of which strikes not at the edges of the work, but at the core of how the Anzac mythology/legend is (mis)understood.  Ultimately the argument in What’s Wrong with Anzac? is driven by a misinterpretation of Anzac that views it as an extension of militarism and imperialism. Behind this misinterpretation is an admirable, but naive, pacifism that wrongly believes that Australia has only ever fought ‘other people’s wars’, but more importantly, and in order to justify their broader argument, these authors largely ignore the role of the ‘digger’ and other significant portions of the Anzac legend.  Ultimately, it is hard to agree with their argument that Australian history has been thoroughly ‘militarised’.

At the core of this work is the structural framework that is set out in the introduction. Here school teachers, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Australian War Memorial and Australian foreign policy come in for significant scrutiny. This broad ranging assault means that a number of these assertions are easily dismissed. It argues that World War I and Vietnam ‘deeply divided the nation’, yet fails to mention the significant support that the Australian public gave to both of these wars.  The book skips over the notion that it was in fact the conscription debates during 1916-1918 that divided the nation during World War I, not the war itself. From 1914 to the peace of 1918 the war maintained public support, while during the conflict in Vietnam again it was the issue of conscription that divided the nation more than the debate over the legitimacy of Australia’s involvement in this highly controversial conflict.

Military History and Australian Academia

What’s wrong with Anzac? confidently announces a number of other supposedly disturbing conspiracies. It states that ‘Australian history has been thoroughly militarised’, evidenced by the fact that ‘military history is usually given its own section of the [book] shop’ and these ‘shelves… groan under the weight [of books on Australian military history]’.  This, it is argued, is even more significant as once upon a time Anzac had no place in the national story, as evidence by the major texts on Australian history written in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s by academic historians like Frank Crowley and Stuart Macintyre.

In terms of sheer numbers it is easy to see that, while military history is a significant subgenre in Australian history, it does not outshine the combined weight of ‘other’ published historical discourse on Australia each year.  A simple stroll through the shelves at a few local major retail bookstores revealed a major presence of military history on the shelves but not dominance. In one outlet, for instance, a simple volume count saw over 136 titles in the Australian history section (not including biography, political history and many cultural history titles that are shelved elsewhere) while only 36 titles were in the section entitled ‘Military History – Australia’.

Now this is not to say that bookstore shelves do not include a significant portion of Australian military history titles. In fact, most of these stores do groan under the weight of military titles, but this is not a new phenomenon. More significantly it also must be remembered that the vast majority of titles in sections entitled ‘Military History’ are not focused on the Australian experiences of war. Rather, Australian titles are swamped by general military history books that focus on the First and Second World Wars through the experiences of Australia’s Allies as well as other conflicts such as Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. (This is not to mention the vast collections of titles covering European warfare from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era.) To argue that the rise in interest in military history is somehow new or recent is misleading. Publishers have long seen a market amongst the general public for military history and therefore it is only natural that some of this interest extends into the experiences of Australians and war.

One of the major issues in the debate about Anzac is that interest in Australia’s military past has never really been at the heart of academia. To some this is a rejection that is some way seen to be a natural state of affairs. But this overlooks the fact that there are reasons as to why past academic studies such as those written by Crowley and Macintyre have shown a lack of interest in our nation’s military past. First, the ideological approach of some of these historians makes them, in essence, anti-military. Second, the study and writing of military history in Australia has long been rejected by the tertiary system. This can be generally attributed to the rise in post war university education in Australia which coincided with the political and social backlash against the Vietnam War. As Professor Joan Beaumont has argued:

…for the majority of academics in the humanities and social sciences, opposition to conscription became almost ‘de rigueur’. War was almost instinctively seen as a morally suspect activity.  To this must be added the impact of the shift within the historical discipline from political to social, cultural and women’s history…[which] also brought with it a critique of war as a gendered activity, reinforcing the stereotypical roles of men and women, and subordinating the powerless in society to the will of the hegemonic State.

These factors, and ‘the leftist tradition which allegedly characterised many aspects of Australian intellectual life’, meant that academia was ‘inimical to the serious study of war and the military’. This has meant that the ‘shift in recent decades from ‘epistemology to ethics’ has also done nothing [in academia] to encourage broad historical interest in Australia’s military history’. This understanding of the lack of a place for military history amongst the history departments of Australian universities is critical to interpreting the views in What’s Wrong with Anzac? The authors are the products of that era and system. This rejection of traditional military history by the university sector and its replacement with what Professor John McQuilton has called the dominance of the study of the social and cultural experiences of war is, at least in part, responsible for the oversight of Anzac and military history in previous decades as well as the often poor quality of the (traditional) Australian military history titles that grace the shelves of bookstores.

This rejection of military history by the majority of mainstream academia in Australia has meant that the vast majority of texts on Australia’s military history are written by journalists and amateur historians. Many of these books are unbalanced, overly nationalistic and lack considered analysis.  As Professor Robin Prior has noted, ‘the plethora of books on military matters – [are] mostly under-researched[,] badly constructed, huge in size, short on analysis -[and] …add little to a deep understanding on our military past’.  This is a situation that is peculiar to Australia and it stands in contrast to tertiary sectors in Europe and North America. Very few military historians (as opposed to historians of war and society) hold positions in university history departments in Australia. Outside of the small number at the Australian Defence Force Academic (part of UNSW) and a couple of academics at the Strategic Defence Studies Centre (ANU) one would be hard pressed to locate an academic that would identify themselves as a traditional military historian at any of the other 37 universities in the country.

‘Other People’s Wars’

It is little wonder then that a natural extension of the rejection of military history is a conclusion that Australia has always fought ‘other people’s wars’.  While this dedication to pacifism is to be commended it is nevertheless na├»ve, and this much overused criticism does not stand up to considered critique.  As Professor Jeffery Grey argued recently in Zombie Myths of Australian Military History, the idea that Australia fights other people’s wars rests on the notion that these wars are not in the country’s national interest. Therefore the most straightforward way to assess Australia’s involvements in conflicts since Federation is to ask ourselves in what way would have the victory, say of Imperial Germany in World War I, aligned with Australia’s national interests? (For World War I this question also should be asked in the context of an examination of the peace treaties that Germany imposed on Russia and Romania during the course of the war).  Similar outcomes can be arrived at for the vast majority of Australia’s military actions. Even if we look at one of Australia’s more contentious conflicts, Vietnam, our participation must be considered as part of wider strategic developments in our immediate region at this time.

One of the most glaring holes in this section of the argument in What’s Wrong with Anzac? is the fact that it conveniently skips over Australia’s involvement in World War II. Are we simply to assume that once again Australia was a submissive partner duped into a worldwide conflict by the British and Americans to fight their war against Nazism and Japanese militarism?   As a World War II scholar I am appalled by this oversight in the book.  As Robin Prior has noted the ‘only index entry of any substance [to World War II] is one which refers to rioting in the streets of Melbourne between American and Australian servicemen…hardly…[a] central issue of that conflict’.

What Happened to the Diggers?

While the ideas represented in What’s Wrong with Anzac? such as the militarisation of Australia’s past and the argument that Australia fights other people’s wars are problematic, by far the most challenging issue is the way that  the concept of Anzac is approached. In fact, one would almost believe that the core argument has been constructed without any reference to Graham Seal’s excellent work Inventing Anzac: The Digger and National Mythology. In this authoritative study Seal argues convincingly that there are in fact two traditions within the Anzac myth that coexist and depend on each other. First, the official notion of Anzac; that is, the traditional aspects that encompass the official apparatus of Anzac Day, the Australian War Memorial (AWM), the Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL) and government. These groups perpetuate a set of attitudes and values that espouse the ideas of honour, duty, bravery, sacrifice within a militaristic context and help perpetuate a nationalistic framework. This is the target of What’s Wrong with Anzac? It embraces a critique of the official version of the myth that rejects virtually any interaction with the second part of Anzac, that of the ‘diggers’. This is the major flaw of their argument and it seems that the simple reason for this approach is that the inclusion of the ‘digger’ would necessitate engagement with a tradition that has strong elements of anti-authoritarianism and larrikinism as well as a focus on the ‘citizen soldier’.

As Seal points out, while these two traditions, ‘Anzac’ and the ‘digger’, clearly can be seen as occupying space at the opposite end of the same spectrum they ‘are not isolated from each other but flow in and out of each other. These interactions are the means by and through which the Australian national-military mythology is powered, transmitted and sustained’.  The argument underpinning What’s Wrong with Anzac? is predicated on the idea that it can deconstruct one while largely ignoring the other. This is paramount to organising an Anzac Day march without arranging for any returned servicemen to participate.

This oversight has led to the illogical conclusion that Anzac ascribes purely ‘militaristic values’ and that these values have trampled the once dominant ‘civil and political values of equality and justice’ which it is argued were once thought to define a distinctive ‘Australian Ethos’.   Ignoring the role of the ‘digger’ in the Anzac Tradition has the effect  of surgically removing  the very part of Anzac that celebrates the ideas of equality, justice and the civil and political values that the authors of  What’s Wrong with Anzac? praise. This approach to Anzac overlooks the fact that diggers often were anti-authoritarian and anti-military (and on their return from overseas anti-war). They were citizen soldiers and they took their civic values into the military, in many cases refusing to conform to British military traditions and class structures that the Australian military forces had, initially, tried to replicate.

As Nathan Wise argues in his excellent study on the intersection between work and military service in the 1st Australian Imperial Force (AIF):

in this environment of daily work, many working class men also came to approach military service as a job of work, and they carried over the mentalities of the civilian workplace into their daily life in the military…they did not disconnect their civilian selves… Instead, they continued to exercise their civilian mentalities, in particular through the language of the workplace, to describe their daily lives.

This citizen approach to soldiering, driven in large part by the fact that the 1st AIF was composed entirely of volunteers, is what helps to define the Anzac ‘spirit’ and mythology. It is a system that is largely replicated by the 2nd AIF and it is these men, representing the bulk of the service personnel in Australia’s two largest conflicts, who create and cement the mythology.

Of course the ‘digger’ tradition, as opposed to the official apparatus of Anzac with its emphasis on its private interactions, face to face cultural exchanges, and its basis in oral tradition, is much harder to interact with than the official apparatuses of Anzac. But this is no excuse for its exclusion (in either an academic polemic or public commemoration). One needs only to look at the role that returned servicemen have played in opposition to the ‘official’ tradition to see that the nationalistic approach to Anzac, while undeniably dominant, does not exist in an uncontested paradigm. There are a large number of examples of former soldiers opposing the more dominate ‘official’ version of the Anzac mythology. From the mass of ex-service personnel who refused to participate in official Anzac day functions or  the activities of the  RSL, to those who joined pacifist leagues and associations at the end of the Great War, or those individuals like Harold Fletcher who dared to shout anti-war slogans at the opening of Melbourne’s Shire of Remembrance, or Hugo Throssell the Victoria Cross winner who announced in his address at a victory parade in Northam, Western Australia, that the war had made him a dedicated socialist and anti-war advocate.

Too often the voices of the ‘diggers’ have been overwhelmed in the Anzac mythology, but  the digger tradition remains just as important as the ‘official’ version of the Anzac myth, not just because of the ideas (rightly or wrongly) of larrikinism and mateship but also because it contains elements of anti-war sentiment. It is odd to see any historian argue that they ‘want to do justice to Australia’s long anti-war tradition’ but then choose not to interact with the anti-war segment of the Anzac myth. How many returned soldiers or servicemen that any of us know say that they emphasise the glory of war? How many returned servicemen from World War I, World War II, Korea, or Vietnam etc. (be they conscripts or volunteers) talk of militarism?

This incorporation of the digger tradition, including its components of civic ideas and anti-military and anti-war sentiment, also is one of the greatest challenges for the National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary.The Commission must engage with this element of the Anzac tradition if it is going to provide a balanced approach to the centenary commemoration. This will be particularly difficult as the two politicians, the national president of the RSL and three former officers who make up the bulk of the commission are heavily skewed towards the ‘official’ apparatus of Anzac.  It also should be noted that the former service personnel on the Commission are far removed from the citizen soldiers who overwhelmingly made up the two AIF’s.  These officers (as opposed to soldiers, sailor or airmen) are the product of a highly professional post World War II defence force. New Zealand historian Dr Chris Pugsley has noted:

…as a former professional soldier who graduated into the New Zealand Army from the Royal Military College Duntroon in 1969 I have always had difficulty with…the larrikin image of the soldiers who were the foundation of [the Australian] success. It is certainly not how I saw the Australian Army throughout the 22 years of ongoing contact. While the soldiers were still called ‘diggers’, I was more struck by the strict formal discipline, and the rigid code that defines relationships both between senior and junior officers, and between officers and other ranks. I was also aware of the high degree of professionalism. Yet all of this was in an army that still prided itself on egalitarianism, and one that believed it continued that ‘digger’ ethos. The traditional image was at odds with the professional reality.

Pugsley’s comments also should remind us of the importance of our links with New Zealand. For too long historians, writers, newspapers, and governments have spoken of Anzac only in terms of Australia. As Professor Philippa Mein Smith, the director of a specialist trans-Tasman research centre at the University of Canterbury noted in 2009, ‘We’re often not mentioned in ceremonies and indeed many Australians sadly seem to have no idea we [New Zealand] were there at all’. (Let’s not forget here John Howard’s infamous snub of the New Zealand service at Gallipoli on Anzac Day 2005.)  The National Committee on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary can do justice to the real meaning of the term ‘Anzac’ only if they provide significant scope for the inclusion of New Zealand in its activities. It is about time that Australia rediscovered the ‘NZ’ component of Anzac.

Militarism in Australian history
The argumentpresented by the authors of What’s Wrong with Anzac? regarding the link of the contemporary interpretation of Anzac with militarism overlooks the reality that the peak of militarism in Australian society does not lie in the historiography of recent years but rather in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. This was when militarism, cadets and the espousing of the value of our citizens for their military prowess were at its peak.  These notions, however, were destroyed by the carnage of World War I. The war of 1914-1918 led to a fundamental re-evaluation of nineteenth-century notions of great victories and great leaders and ‘dealt a heavy blow to ideas of individual heroism’. The concept of ‘sacrifice’ personified by the likes of the nineteenth-century British heroes such as General Gordon of Khartoum was completely redundant in the post World War I period.  Sacrifice was no longer ‘noble’, sacrifice was now seen by many to signify nonsensical slaughter. Under this cloak of national grieving, with no great victories to hail and no truly great leaders to honour, the official historian Charles Bean sought not to elevate the leaders of the AIF in 1914-1918 to national icons, but rather to celebrate and valorise the Australian soldier. The great men of Australia’s military history became, in effect, the ordinary men (the citizen soldier). This fall from grace for martial ideas was no more prominently displayed than in the absence of ‘sites of memory’ for Australia’s military leaders and ‘heroes’ of the First and Second World Wars. In the post Great War era Australia’s monuments became, as Professor Graeme Davison has argued, ‘more democratic’ and less representative of the ‘heroic individual…The shift in terminology from ‘monument’ – with its associations of celebration and glorification – to ‘memorial’ or ‘shrine’ was indicative of the public mood’.

The sociologist  Soel Encel has argued that the real value of the military in Australian society lies not in militarism and the professional military caste, but rather in the ‘enormous value of being a returned serviceman’.  This notion, coupled with Australian soldiers’ ‘casual if not downright hostile attitude’ to the British style of military hierarchy that the Australian Army adopted in both world wars has only served to reinforced this more ‘democratic’ view.

Outside of the twentieth century’s two major conflicts the military has never played a great role in Australian society.  At the school level cadets have all but ceased to exist in the public school system and remain a point of focus in only a handful of exclusive private boy’s schools. Unlike in the United States, military service is not a (virtual) prerequisite for political office in Australia.  Furthermore, if ‘militarism’ is being entrenched in Australian society then one would also expect to see this reflected in the role and importance of the contemporary Australian Defence Force (ADF). Instead the ADF continues to struggle to meet its recruiting targets. Ships and submarines sit at dock, unable to be put to sea due to a lack of crews, while the operational demands that see our soldiers, sailors and airmen constantly deployed overseas only serves to exacerbate the ADF’s personnel problems. Australia’s involvement in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has never enjoyed widespread support amongst the populace (although the military personnel serving in them do) and the fact remains that in the face of a strong economy and the absence of a strong militaristic tradition the ADF is failing to meet its recruiting targets.

There are many more questions that undermine the importance of the arguments put forward in What’s Wrong with Anzac?, including:  the belief that the national soul has been stolen out from under the left and supposedly taken over by the right; that school teachers, once Howard’s enemies on the culture wars front, are now somehow blind participants in a form of militarism driven by government and directed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the AWM; and the apparent resurgence of Victory Pacific and Remembrance Day as well as the equation of militarism with imperialism and the idea that Anzac ideals are holding us back from independence and a republic. While most of these arguments are not well developed and do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny they all operate in the shadow of the failing of the authors to deal with the digger element of the Anzac tradition.

I cannot help but admire the intention of the authors of What’s Wrong with Anzac? and the importance that the views that they express in this highly evocative book should take in public debate. Nonetheless one can only hope that this is only the first salvo in a long and rigorous debate into the notion of the Anzac legend/mythology, rather than simply a ‘commando’ raid on one of our most important institutions and sources of national identity.

What is missing from both this recent academic critique of Anzac and the National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary, however, are some specialist military (or war & society) historians who can bring a balanced and detailed understanding to both Australia’s military history in general and to Anzac – be that the Myth, the Day, the Legend, or its cultural significance. This commission would benefit by engaging a panel of professional historians to help them with their work. The consequences for our national identity and public policy are too important to leave these questions and issues to narrow interpretations of Anzac.

Selected further reading:

Graeme Seal, Inventing Anzac: The Digger and National Mythology, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2004

Craig Stockings (ed) Zombie Myths in Australian Military History, UNSW Press, Sydney 2010

Chris Pugsley, The ANZAC experience: New Zealand, Australia and empire in the First world War, Reed, Auckland, 2004.

Graeme Davison, The Use and Abuse of Australian History, Allen & Unwin, St Leonard’s, 2000
Joan Beaumont, ‘The State of Australian History of War’, Australian Historical Studies, Vol 34, issue 121, 2003

John McQuilton, ‘Teaching ‘military history’ in academe’, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, 19, (November, 1991), 33

Robin Prior, ‘Fighting on the Beaches: the Battle for Australian history’, Australian Review of Books, May 2010

Citation:Peter Dean, Assessing and Reassessing Anzac in 2010. Australian Policy and History. September 2010.


Print a pdf of this articleDownload a PDF of this paper.