Anzac instincts

by James Brown

IT IS A curious thing, perhaps unique to Australia, that someone appraising the phenomenon of Anzac – that shared national oath to remember military sacrifice and honour wartime service – must first present genealogical military credentials. It’s a defensive move; it declares you share the Anzac spirit, and have a claim to it – an inoculation of sorts against the charge of being unqualified to speak to a topic of such secular sacredness.

In a country where the Anzac spirit stirs passions it can also carve emptiness. How to connect with Anzac if you’ve never donned a uniform? How to feel martial pride when you are martially barren, missing a military link? Family ties help. So when respected journalists pen an analysis of Anzac they often append a notation of a family member’s military service in World War II, or better still World War I. Those addendums declare, ‘I am a part of this, not just a disinterested observer, my family story allows me to have a say in what this Anzac thing means.’

Some Australians apologetically cringe about their lack of military service. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is one. On the two occasions that he has visited the army’s First Brigade in Darwin and participated in morning physical training sessions, he has told soldiers ‘if I can’t fight with you at least I can sweat with you’. Prime Minister Abbott further lamented his lack of military service both at the opening of an Afghanistan war exhibition and at a Victoria Cross investiture ceremony by quoting Samuel Johnson, ‘every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier’.

It is a curious situation when the leader of a country, a man who has been in public life for more than thirty years and part of the Cabinet for more than a decade, should express such discomfort when face to face with members of the Australian Defence Force. He clearly admires the military as an institution, and has an obvious and deep regard for its leaders. Two of the first four Australians knighted by the Prime Minister under a revised Order of Australia have been former defence chiefs, one of whom is now the Governor-General. Prime Minister Abbott’s relationship with the military is typical of his colleagues in the Australian parliament: the Australian Defence Force is something to be regarded reverently, but rarely.

It is the lucky legacy of a peaceful continent that as few as 8 per cent of Australian parliamentarians have ever grappled with military issues prior to entering parliament – nearly half of those in brief student stints at university Army Reserve regiments. Only a few have had significant military careers or exposure to the Defence Department. The last parliament’s veterans included MP Graham Edwards, severely wounded during his service in Vietnam, and Mike Kelly, a former military lawyer with experience in the Middle East. Thirty thousand Australians have served in Afghanistan in the past fourteen years, and tens of thousands more in conflicts in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, and Iraq. Despite this, there is only one veteran of these conflicts – Andrew Nikolic AM, the Member for Bass – in the federal parliament. He, along with the Member for Cowan Luke Simpkins (a former military policeman) and South Australian Senator David Fawcett (an army aviation officer) are the only members of parliament with experience in the Australian Defence Force since the attacks of 9/11. Though the current Assistant Minister for Defence Stuart Robert is a former army officer and the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Gai Brodtmann once worked within the Defence Materiel Organisation, it has been a generation since Australia last had a defence minister with a background of military service. Of course, simply serving in the Australian Defence Force does not mean that a parliamentarian is automatically better equipped to deal with military policy issues, but it does at least equip them with the language necessary to grapple with an area of public policy that employs two out of five Commonwealth government employees and accounts for nearly $30 billion of funding each year, including some of the federal government’s most expensive projects. The $50 billion project to build up to twelve new submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, for example, is one of the largest single purchases any Australian government will make.

The intricacies of defence policy have largely remained off the radar as a federal electoral issue, with only 6 per cent of voters rating it a vote-deciding issue in a Morgan poll prior to the 2013 election. Reform of Veterans Affairs and policies on military personnel have only become political issues recently because of the polarising interventions of Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, herself a former member of the Australian Army.

It is all too obvious that Australian politicians are not on familiar ground when appraising the military. ‘How good are our generals?’ I asked a group of federal MPs and senators a year or so ago, and the consensus was that they are very good indeed. ‘How do you know, and how could you prove it?’ was my follow-up question. It was answered with an uncomfortable silence.

As Australians have fought and died in operations overseas in recent years, many of our political leaders have reached for the annals of Anzac to inform their awed rhetoric and heartfelt platitudes to military service. Yet in most cases a deeper understanding of what it means to go to war in the modern age is missing.

Instead of the forensic examination of policy and performance mandatory in other portfolios, political leaders feel most comfortable when commemorating soldiers rather than addressing them – and their issues.


AND SO WE come to the Centenary of Anzac: conceived by consultants, succoured by civilians, and with its own government-endorsed merchandising plan. In these next four years, Australians are paying hundreds of millions to pay respects to those who shall not grow old. All up, more than $300 million – drawn from state and federal taxpayers as well as corporate donations – will be spent on a cacophony of centenary commemoration. Already the forecourt of the Australian War Memorial has grown heavy with openings of new historical galleries and a succession of activities designed to make sure that Australians remember the actions of one hundred years ago. On television there is an epic seven-part series, Gallipoli, in which every Australian seems a boy-soldier of fifteen and every British general sports a waxed moustache, barely hiding lips curled with disdain. Another television program, themed as one of the Anzac Centenary initiatives, will travel the country on a sort of Anzac Antiques Roadshow – allowing relatives to display and discuss family military talismans.

Explaining the endurance of Anzac several years ago, Inga Clendinnen wrote in The Monthly: ‘Anzac Day holds and is increasing its hold over “the Australian imagination” because it has the plasticity – the openness to personal readings and elaborations – to be, like the Spring God, constantly renewed. Anzac Day is for me, as I think it is for many Australians, a personal possession… That is how ritual works, as a portmanteau of past experience and of present emotion.’

The emotional outpouring that Anzac and the Anzac Centenary evinces is genuine, but there is much that this sentiment occludes. Among all this calorific commemoration, the retelling of retreaded Gallipoli stories, there is an uncanny void. The voice of the modern military is missing.

In some ways this is unsurprising. So much of Anzac has been and is for civilians. Philip Salom’s excellent poem ‘Seeing Gallipoli from the Sky’ reminds us that for most of the past century Anzac Day marches were usually civilian affairs:

Or consider the days of Anzac in the streets

not only those in suits come back on duty

but the ghosts among their ritual ranks

always in uniform.

A decade ago, joining the throng for Sydney’s Anzac Day marches, I would see battle-exposed soldiers in their early twenties choose dark suits over uniforms – self-conscious of too proudly displaying their newly earned campaign medals. While military re-enactors wore uniforms spruced to pay tribute to a martial way of life they had never known or been a part of, some of those Australians who had been closest to the recent war felt ashamed of folding themselves into the towering myths of the original Anzacs.

Ironically on Anzac Day, first gazetted as a rest day for those who had served, it is the military that now work hardest – fanning out across small towns and big cities to support dawn services and catafalque parties. The legend of Anzac is of civilians reluctantly called to arms, volunteering to stand and face the ultimate test, equipped with little more than their innate personal characteristics and their togetherness. As Jane Ross distils in The Myth of the Digger (Hale and Ironmonger, 1985), he is a soldier rather than an officer, an amateur rather than a professional.

In the Anzac legend war is seasonal, like bushfire. A nation can be quickly called to arms – each cricketer shown a grenade, each jackaroo issued a horse. Just as quickly, the ranks can be retired. It seems veterans of military service can be viewed in much the same way. Something to be taken out of the box on Anzac Day, then packed away far from sight for another year.

As a nation, Australia is not comfortable in thinking about soldiering as a profession or the military as a professional institution. Romantic notions of soldiering are painted thickly, through so many of the stories retold in government-sponsored school Anzac materials year after year, and the morning incantations on 25 April.

Even today, I suspect that most Australians have only seen a soldier directly during Anzac ceremonies. To many Australians, war is Anzac Day and Anzac Day is war. It may not be too much of a stretch to think that Australians have best connected with the war in Afghanistan through the funereal Anzac-like ramp ceremonies, lachrymose Gallipoli speeches or the elegiac Afghanistan paintings of Ben Quilty, one of which is featured on the cover of Enduring Legacies.

In Australia, war is emotional – all art and little science. This is a shame, because the modern Australian Defence Force and its veterans could use a better public appreciation of military science. The immense power of the Centenary of Anzac could be better harvested for the living rather than the dead.


IN AFGHANISTAN, I would explain to American military colleagues that despite the pomp and uniforms of Anzac Day and the pervasiveness of ‘the digger’, the veteran does not hold the same position in Australia as in the United States or the United Kingdom. In both countries I have seen innovative programs designed to help returning veterans reconnect with their communities, to bridge the gulf between the civil and military after returning from operational service.

Yet for decades in Australia, until only very recently, the veterans’ community has been moribund. The Department of Veterans Affairs has largely contented itself with the necessary task of cashing out veterans in need of compensation and support, and caring for the aged pensioners of previous wars.

This is vital work, but not what the tens of thousands of veterans of more recent wars need. Today’s returning soldiers are vastly more likely than not to return from conflict with no visible injuries. What they need more than anything else is status in a society that understands what they have done and can demonstrate that it is valued.

Australian political leaders have struggled to explain Afghanistan and Iraq, and why there is a need for Australian involvement, and as a result these wars have not been popular. Private veterans organisations like the RSL have lacked inspiration, relevance and accountability for all the hundreds of millions they have received over the years.

Australians are overwhelmed by the personal stories of past wartime sacrifice, and this has left them largely blind to the creaking, decrepit infrastructure barely supporting veterans returning from the wars of the Middle East.

It was with some trepidation that I wrote Anzac’s Long Shadow (Black Inc., 2014), and concluded that Australia’s national obsession with Anzac teeters on the superficial, that the Centenary commemorations have become a four-year lugubrious festival for the dead, that our modern military are being occluded, and that as a nation we have neither the head nor heart to think about the possibility of future war.

As is expected, I established my credentials and recounted my personal connection to the Anzac story. My grandfather’s service at Kokoda, the Gallipoli-era bayonet he carried across the Owen Stanleys and that I lugged through the highways of Iraq and the highroads of Afghanistan. It was my intention to critically analyse Anzac, but in doing so I did not want to injure the memory or the institution. For several years I had pondered a paradox: How could a country that so worships warriors know so little about war?

My personal response to Anzac is positive – there is much that is good about it. But it is hard to hold the good and the bad simultaneously: difficult to point out the awkward wrapped inside the sacred.


ONLY A FEW months after Anzac’s Long Shadow was published, I was in Paris for talks on strategic defence issues with representatives from the French government and various other military experts. Given it was late April, our genial French hosts thought my colleagues and I might like to attend the Anzac Day service at Villers-Bretonneux.

With thousands of others we made our way along hedge-trimmed country roads to a cold paddock on the side of a hill, flanked by white stone monuments. I was touched that so many people would come so early to such a remote place to commemorate soldiers, but torn by the recognition that the blood red carpet laid to guide the public to their seats had been thoughtlessly trailed over the first set of graves.

Soldiers spend much of their lives intricately handling the Australian national flag, folding it, raising it, lowering it in meticulous ceremonies in which it must never touch the ground. Seeing Australians at Villers-Bretonneux carelessly wearing our national ensign as a cape jarred the soldier in me, but then Anzac Day is laden with complexities. In the many official speeches of the morning there was that reverence again and tales of personal loss, and for me a sense of hollowness.

Two things were missing from the morning’s serious discussions. The first, a sense of why Australians had been there to fight: what strategic currents had dragged our men and women to northern France and what cause had our then-government thought important enough to lay down lives for? The second, the hard military science of what Australians had actually achieved in the fight at Villers-Bretonneux. There are different stories to tell about Australia’s Fourth Brigade that fought at Villers-Bretonneux, stories that don’t emphasise where its slain soldiers hailed from or how many family members they left behind.

They are stories of a military unit that was dashed against the sands of Gallipoli and slaughtered because it had scant training. A unit that then spent another three years patiently learning the science of war, and refining techniques, tactics and procedures. A brigade that learnt, among other things, that its most important soldiers were not the furious trench-clearers, but the radio operators who needed the closest instruction and the best care. The Fourth Brigade developed well-trained leaders who understood military staff work as much as weapons handling.

When the battle of Villers-Bretonneux came they were able to handle the complex machinations of a night-time advance into the small town, using innovative techniques to co-ordinate their progress with flanking units. The Fourth Brigade at Villers-Bretonneux was as much a professional military unit as any Australian unit since. But that is a difficult story to tell on a monument or memorial.

In my discussions back in Paris we spoke little of physical courage and mateship. Instead, we spoke of an uncertain strategic environment, space-based systems, Russian-supported proxies in Ukraine and the renewed nationalism behind assertive maritime territorialism in the South China Sea.


IN THE 1930s, the famous American General George Patton Jr. (then a Lieutenant Colonel) was dispatched to Anzac Cove to analyse the fight that had happened there in 1915 between Turkish and Australian soldiers. He found that the Australians were ‘entirely inexperienced’ whereas the Turks were ‘carefully trained’. He concluded: ‘Undisciplined valor accomplishes little but to insure [sic] losses.’ His report from Gallipoli was closely analysed by the US Marine Corps in the late 1930s, and with further detailed tactical experimentation formed the basis for the successful amphibious landing doctrine that helped America win the war in the Pacific and saved thousands of soldier’s lives. Even today, the US Marine Corps still scientifically teaches Gallipoli to its junior officers as an example of poor military preparation.

Australia’s junior military officers, however, only touch Gallipoli through the prism of Anzac Day and its ceremonies.

Perhaps the true paradox of Anzac is that even now, a century later, Australians have not yet truly owned responsibility for the defeat at Anzac Cove. Some fail to acknowledge it was a defeat at all: Alan Bond at the 1983 America’s Cup, for example, declared the win as ‘Australia’s greatest victory since Gallipoli’.

Defeat and tragedy have traditionally been among the most powerful motivations for militaries to reform, but Gallipoli did not seem to spur tremendous innovation in Australia. Perhaps that is why so little of the widespread concern for Australian soldiers needlessly slain at Anzac Cove, or the ingrained (and mostly false) history that says Australians were poorly commanded at Gallipoli, has converted into detailed efforts to ensure that today’s military leaders are up to the task of leading an amphibious operation, let alone winning a war. Which is ironic, because the Australian Defence Force is currently building a large amphibious force once again.

I’ve been lucky enough to receive hundreds of emails responding to Anzac’s Long Shadow, and interacted with plenty more people in the past year’s engagements. The responses that have most warmed me have come from the veterans’ community, expressing thanks for articulating the disconnection they feel from this Anzac we have created in 2015 and for flagging the awkwardness of Afghan veterans who are returning home to a community that doesn’t understand their service, but is furiously engaged in creating more memories of Gallipoli.

The most important responses though have been from those who previously felt that Anzac, and the intricacies of military service, were not theirs to discuss. Anzac is too significant a thing to only belong to the scions of those who served, or to the institutions that husband it today.

The military is too important a national institution to be neglected by those who otherwise take an interest in public policy. And the military is trying to better understand its place in contemporary society. The Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison, who warmly endorsed Anzac’s Long Shadow the week it was released, has spoken often of the perniciousness of the Anzac myth for the military:

…the Anzac legend – as admirable as it is – has become something of a double-edged sword. For the army, the most pervasive distortion about what really happened in Turkey in 1915 is that many Australians now have an idealised image of the Australian soldier as a rough-hewn country lad – hair gold, skin white – a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms. In the Australian psyche every soldier is Mel Gibson in Gallipoli. This is a pantomime caricature, and frankly it undermines our recruitment from some segments of society and breeds a dangerous complacency about how professional and sophisticated soldiering really is.

His last point about the sophistication of modern professional military services is critical. In the century since the Anzac landings Australian soldiers have largely prided themselves, and been regarded by society, for their tactical skills and individual attributes. But now the problems of the Australian military are much more strategic – and its capabilities and systems take decades of patient nurturing to develop. A society schooled in the language of Gallipoli is not well placed to understand or help guide the development of the Australian military as it contemplates an uncertain future in which war is still a small but very real possibility.

More politicians, of all stripes, are now taking an interest in the future of the Australian military rather than just its past. But more voices from among the military are needed in this national conversation. And in time I hope they will emerge.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 48: Enduring Legacies © Copyright Griffith University & the author.