Saturday, March 29, 2014

The hegemony of 'Anzac': a Review of Joan Beaumont's Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War

'The myth of Anzac was promulgated to enable Australians to live with the otherwise unbearable carnage of World War I. Broken Nation helps explain its provenance and continuing power'.
Marilyn Lake
Having just finished Joan Beaumont's excellent new book Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, I was interested to read Marilyn Lake's* review of the book in the Australian Book Review

Other reviews of the book are here and here.

Joan Beaumont's book describes the destructive impact of the Great War (WW1) on Australia, and challenges the official view, still promulgated by historians,commentators and political and military leaders, that WWI  somehow gave birth to the nation and the much celebrated ‘Anzac spirit’.

Beaumont tells the story of military grand plans, strategies, battles and the obscene carnage that took place on the battlefields of Gallipoli, Palestine and the Western Front and the terrible impact on the men who fought on the front line. She also tells us what was happening back in Australia-socially, politically, economically and in the hearts and minds of people.

Beaumont skillfully blends detailed description of Australia's military involvement in WW1, with political analysis of the political debates back in Australia, and detailed exploration of the divisions and conflicts that were opened up by the war in Australia, particularly the conscription debates and the impact of the terrible loss of life back in Australia.

In the opening paragraph of her review Marilyn Lake writes:
If you read only one book about Australia’s experience of World War I, as the deluge of commemorative publications marking the outbreak of the war becomes a veritable tsunami, make it Broken Nation, an account that joins the history of the war to the home front, and that details the barbarism of the battlefields as well as the desolation, despair, and bitter divisions that devastated the communities left behind.
Reading Beaumont's book is harrowing as she describes in great detail, the terrible carnage of war, the horror and brutality of the industrial slaughter of modern warfare and the incompetence, indifference and arrogance of military and political leaders who willingly sacrificed young lives in the cause of meaningless grand plans.

There are profound lessons in Beamount's impressive work.

Beaumont argues that the scars and conflicts opened up by the  war mobilized the forces of conservatism and provided opportunities for the forces to the right of the political spectrum to dampen and constrain the capacity for progressive social and political reform that had placed Australia in the vanguard internationally in the years before 1914. 

Beaumont also argues that the forces of war gave free rein to the political power of Australian xenophobia, which when combined with paranoia about so called 'left wing radicalism', intensified the potential for violence within Australian political culture.

Beaumont describes how the 'Anzac myth created by WW1  became hegemonic', reflecting narratives and values that now dominate popular culture and Australian public and political life. 

These narratives and values are deployed to justify and and legitimize military intervention in foreign countries, violence and aggression in sporting contests, national security, social cohesion, racist behavior and xenophobia and the individualistic and materialist culture of contemporary Australian society.

* Marilyn Lake is herself a distinguished historian, whose book What's Wrong with Anzac,  demolishes the Anzac mythology and exposes the ways that the experience of Australian soldiers during WW1 has been, and continues to be used by politicians and the military establishment to serve contemporary political purposes and militarize Australian history and Australian society.

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