By Dr Richard Trembath
Almost four decades ago, when Malcom Fraser was riding high as Prime Minister, my wife shared an office with a young woman, a strong feminist. This young woman was one of those who protested on 25th April 1981 against the omission from the Anzac story of the sexual violence committed against women in all wars, not just those in which Australia played a part. Susan Brownmiller’s, Against Our Will, had appeared in 1975 and that best-seller drew attention to rape as a ubiquitous feature of war. The presence of women, carrying appropriate placards, in several Australian cities during the march was predictably greeted with howls of outrage by officialdom and the RSL.
Yet, if such protests were to occur now, I suspect these women might be lynched. They would at least attract as much abuse as did Yasmin Abdel-Magied for her comments on Anzac last year when she asked Australians not to forget Manus, Nauru, Syria and Palestine. Idiot Facebook comments such as ‘You Muslim maggot’ were to be expected but the Daily Telegraph’s synthetic rage was also extreme – ‘a sickening insult to the nation’s war dead.’ Abdel-Magied was, of course, looking for a reaction but she had neither insulted our war dead – she didn’t mention them – nor criticised Anzac.
Something has changed, rather some things have changed since 1980. Anzac has become a broad church in which groups who were once unwelcome (such as Indigenous veterans), or irrelevant (such as women), are now in the congregation. Anzac is now just one part, the most significant part, of the war commemoration industry in Australia. Anniversaries abound, bodies and forgotten battles are exhumed, research centres are opened. Footballers of various codes are vicarious Anzacs, at least in the matches held on Anzac Day. There are conditions, of course. To vary my metaphor, those inside the tent accept that tent’s rules. Participation in Anzac means accepting its elevated status for it is sacred, which can be short hand for ‘above criticism’.
I offer another metaphor for war is good at evoking images. Anzac is a jealous God. Carefully revived since the days of Bob Hawke, and government funded trips to Gallipoli, it is one of those rare things in contemporary Australian politics: the object of bi-partisan support. Shorten and Turnbull, shoulder to shoulder. That bi-partisanship spreads from Anzac to Beersheba, Kokoda, Hamel. And, as Marilyn Lake said in 2012, this is ‘orchestrated for the most part by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’, which has expanded its role from its original remit of administering benefits and services to former members of the forces and their dependents.
When Lake drew attention to the government endorsement of Anzac, through schools, ceremonies, education kits etc, she was making the significant point that this emphasis on April 1915 was crowding out other parts of our history which were as important. Australian History was becoming synonymous with Anzac History. Some of the reaction in the media to Lake’s argument was unkind, and even more of it ignorant. Naturally she was accused of ‘disloyalty’ as Anzac has now become a test of one’s status as a good citizen.
In the few years since then, those ‘defending’ Anzac have become shriller and sillier. We must be close to the height of absurdity when television hosts, Richard Wilkins and Karl Stefanovic, criticise cinema chains for launching the latest Avengers film on Anzac Day morning. It may be a ‘grubby cash grab’, but Stefanovic also asks how ‘are our kids supposed to breath in the significance of Anzac Day’ if distracted by Hollywood superheroes?
For Indigenous Australians, Anzac – in fact, the whole of Australia’s military legacy – is problematic. It is amazing how many Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders have served in the armed forces and are serving now. This is despite them being written out of the books and the parades until relatively recently. This is despite missing out on the soldier settlement scheme. This is despite formal provisions which restricted the forces to those ‘substantially of European origin or descent’. For many Indigenous Australians, however, the ADF has been a positive experience. In the past two decades Indigenous veterans have been featured prominently in the media, the RSL has come on board, NAIDOC week ceremonies have featured the achievements of these servicemen and women.
Yet there are still bumps on this road. Despite the prominence of Indigenous veterans on Anzac Day 2017, especially in Canberra, other centres around Australia, Albany, for example, banned any display of the Aboriginal flag on the march. The RSL has traditionally opposed any flag but the national one, appearing on Anzac This is a case of seeing what might happen in the future.
Other groups? Gay and Lesbian service personnel, for example. Bruce Ruxton, Victorian State President of the RSL, once famously said, ‘I don’t know where all these gays and poofters have come from, I don’t remember a single one from World War Two.’ Since the 1980s, the situation has greatly improved here too but that is a story which should be told by others, better informed.
We should applaud formerly isolated groups battering their way ‘into’ Anzac. Theirs can be a lonely and protracted struggle. Their acceptance improves our knowledge of the multifaceted story of Australia at arms and has lessons for political debate outside the forces. But – and this is an important but – the expansion of Anzac has drawbacks too. It means, as we have seen, that those who dare to point to the legend’s deficiencies, and its supposedly sacred status, are more easily dismissed as incorrigibly unAustralian.
*Richard has taught history at Victorian universities for many years. He is the author of several books, mostly in conjunction with colleagues. These include All Care and Responsibility: A History of Nursing in Victoria with Donna Hellier; A Different Sort of War: Australians in Korea 1950-53; Divine Discontent – The Brotherhood of St Laurence: A History (with Colin Holden);Witnesses to War: The History of Australian Conflict Reporting (with Fay Anderson). His most recent book is Defending Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service Since 1945(with Noah Riseman) which was published in April 2016. Richard’s current research interests are the history of military veterans’ organisations and the social history of contemporary medicine.