Friday, April 2, 2010

Australian history and ANZAC mythmaking

" This business of memory making demands analysis"
Marilyn Lake
As ANZAC Day approaches the new release section of my local bookshop groans under the weight of books on Australia's military history. I counted ten today and plenty more will appear over coming weeks. Most of the books have the word 'ANZAC' in the title.

I am currently reading two of these new books, each with differing perspectives on Australian history.

Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds's new book What's Wrong with Anzac argues that the Anzac obsession distorts Australian history and identity. They argue that official sponsorship of the Anzac legend, through commemoration and education, has often been used to mobilise conservative forces for political ends. Their reason for writing the book was:
"We are deeply concerned about many aspects of the Anzac resurgence. We are concerned about the extraordinary government intervention in promoting Anzac Day, most of which has occurred without people knowing its true extent. We are also concerned about the misrepresentation and forgetting of our broader history. History runs counter to myth making. We write to encourage a more critical and truthful public debate about the uses of the Anzac myth."
Lake and Reynolds argue that the myth of Anzac continues to exert its power and looms large in our historical memory (thanks in part to the research and PR Departments of the Australian government and the Australian War Museum). It is also part of what they describe as the 'militarization of history'. Marilyn Lake has written on these issues before here.

Alastair Thomson in his book Anzac Memories argues similarly when he describes war remembrance as selective forgetting- forgetting of the horror of war, the atrocities, the horrendous deaths, the brutality, the centrality of killing.

Many of the new books revisit the history and myth making of the Gallipoli campaign. A new book produced by the Australian War Museum sheds light on a little known aspect of the history of that campaign. Gallipoli Revisited: In the footsteps of Charles Bean and the Australian Historical Mission by Janda Gooding, tells the story of the Australian Historical Mission (AHM) who returned to Gallipoli in 1919 to research the campaign and the battles. The AHM was led by Charles Bean (Australia's official war correspondent during the Gallipoli campaign), artist George Lambert and photographer Hubert Wilkins, and its task was to understand what happened at Gallipoli and to communicate that to Australians so they could comprehend what took place there. The Mission walked the battlefields to collect relics and recreate what happened through photographs and artworks.

The book contains hundreds of original photographs, drawings, sketches, artworks, diary notes and letters, and images from the time. Because Wilkins's photos of the battlefields and the Gallipoli Peninsula were taken in 1919, so soon after the campaign, they convey the scale and grandeur of the landscape and the poignancy of what took place there. Wilkins's photographs really are the centrepiece of this book. They are stunning.

Upon completion of their mission Bean and a number of his colleagues returned to Egypt by train through the heartland of Turkey. The book includes photos of the Turkish landscape and haunting photos of Turkish soldiers returning from the war.

Despite the wonderful presentation and the significance of this book, I am troubled by some aspects of it. There is a silence about the role that Bean and his colleagues played as 'propagandists', in conveying certain narratives about the Gallipoli campaign back to Australians, and ignoring others. Gooding's book, for example, does not explore the way that the history of the Gallipoli campaign , which was heavily based on Bean and his colleague's work, was (and is still) used by the Australian military and political establishment to create and support an idealized mythology about Australia's involvement in war.

Despite the brilliance of his achievement and his legacy, Bean played a role in legitimising an idealised version of the Gallipoli campaign and contributed to the creation of a mythology that accorded legitimacy to some truths and silenced others. This continues today, so that alternative narratives about Gallipoli (and Australia's past and current military history) continue to be marginalized- the foreign invasion of a sovereign nation by Australian troops; the exploitation of Australian troops by their Australian and British leaders; the pointlessness of Australia's involvement in the geo-political maneuvers of imperial powers; Australia's unquestioning involvement in an imperial war; the incompetence and callousness of military and political decision makers- both British and Australian; the horror, brutality and pointlessness of war; the atrocities perpetrated on, and by the Australian military; the bellicose attitudes to war and the political uses that military and political leaders make of the work of well intentioned journalists, artists and historians.

1 comment:

Gregory House said...

Ok were do I begin
Well on too many levels this is a superficial reading of historical events and personalities. That in its way follows a prelaid party line, such as those evil British Imperialists, they dragged us into this war against our will and then did it again and again. I'm afraid that it is a great deal more complex than that. Instead involving personal and national ambitions for power and expansion as well as dare I say it rampant meglomania and incompetence in national leaders. The problem is that those leaders most afflicted by mental instability and rampant meglomania also commanded the largest armed forces as well as leading rigid monarchical unrepresentative states. So I'm not quite sure considering the times how Australia then still firmly attached to British foreign policy and defence commitents (not to mention culture and origin) was suppossed to do. What sit out? I doubt any party could have held government at the time if that was their policy. So I'm afraid rose tinted revisionism like this doesn't actually help us resolve the angst of being included in some else's current war.