by Marilyn Lake,
Professor Marilyn Lake was elected Fellow of the Academy of Humanities of Australia in 1995; and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia in 1999
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New publication
What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi, UNSW Press, 2010.

In recent years Australia has been bombarded with military history across all media: books, radio and TV documentaries, feature films, web sites, travel guides and curriculum materials of all kinds. Histories of individual battles vie with personal memoirs and biographical studies, weighing down the shelves of local bookshops. Stories of World War I are joined by tales from Kokoda, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Hundreds of books on Australia and war have been published since the 1980s, many of them, it turns out, with significant subsidies from the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

That this surge of interest in military history was no spontaneous outburst suddenly became clear to me when I addressed the Australian History Teachers’ Association annual conference in 2004. The conference satchel, writing materials and pens were provided by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, their logo, ‘Salute Their Service’ adorning every page of the notebook. I was shocked. Surely this wasn’t appropriate. I later found that DVA funding of history teachers’ professional activities went way beyond a few conference accessories. In our book we detail the millions of dollars that have been spent since the late 1990s inculcating our schoolchildren with the virtues of diverse military campaigns and their key role in shaping our history, heritage and national values. How had DVA come to be a key interpreter of Australian history?

We show that it hasn’t always been thus, that in past decades the commemoration of Anzac Day and the writing of Australian history were separate activities, that even or especially those historians who had served in World War II such as Bob Gollan, Geoff Serle and Ian Turner sought the dynamics of Australian nation-building elsewhere, in our industrial, cultural and political traditions. We show that just as CEW Bean’s romantic tribute to the Anzac tradition was one response to the terrible losses of the Great War, so revulsion against war and a grass-roots peace movement that produced a disarmament petition with over 100,000 signatures in 1931 was another. With few now in our society who can bear direct witness to the obscenity of war, our schoolchildren are charged with the onerous responsibility of keeping the legend alive, wrapped in the Australian flag, on the far shores of Turkey, imbued with history lessons about our soldiers fighting there for freedom and democracy. We wrote our book to document the promotional activities behind the recent surge in military history and the revolution – not resurgence – in the commemoration of Anzac Day here and abroad. We wrote to argue the need for historical investigation into Australian participation in World War I to counter the mystifications of the ‘spirit of Anzac’. We wrote to remind readers of our colonial status at Gallipoli – fighting alongside our fellow colonials the Indians and New Zealanders – and to suggest that far from seeing the birth of our nationhood, World War I tied us ever more strongly to the British empire. In the same year that our soldiers landed at Gallipoli at the behest of the British, Sir Rider Haggard arrived in Australia as an emissary from the Royal Colonial Institute charged with locking Australia into a vast new imperial settlement scheme after the war. We wrote to advance historical knowledge and debate about the causes and consequences of Australian participation in overseas wars from the founding of the Commonwealth in 1901 through to the present day. We hope that our book revivifies that debate.

Citation: Marilyn Lake, What’s Wrong with Anzac? Australian Policy and History. April 2010.


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