The Trouble with ANZAC Culture: Why “Supporting our Troops” may not be the Right Idea

Less than eighteen months from now, we (Australia) are set to enter upon a genuinely phenomenal series of commemorations and ceremonies: the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015. Already the hype is building, already the ANZAC legend is assuming an even more central place in the national consciousness than is usual; and thus, already, it is becoming clear that the 2015 commemorations are going to embody many of the more troubling aspects of the way we remember our military history. As it stands, it seems that the centenary will bring nothing other than an extension and elaboration of current practice. And this is unfortunate, because there are many, many questions that need to be asked about Australian memorial culture.

For example, is it really appropriate or healthy to have young children dressing up in their ancestors’ uniforms and medals, and marching in a military ceremony? Is there not something harmful in the way we increasingly require acknowledgment of the ANZAC “spirit” as an essential component of Australian identity? Why are there now television ads suggesting that it is shameful or unacceptable to fail to attend an ANZAC Day service? Should we be identifying ourselves so completely with the experience of soldiers dead and gone, let alone soldiers serving and fighting today? All these questions deserve more attention, and I cannot address them all here. But I do wish to focus on what I believe is an especially important one. Why exactly is it so important that we “support our troops” – and what do we mean when we say that?

We are all familiar with how the issue is framed: we are asked to attend services or buy badges or whatever to show that we “support our troops,” and we are expected to be shocked and horrified at people whom we are told somehow do not “support our troops”. The big problem here, however, is that no distinction is usually made between supporting individual soldiers who are required to serve and work in a war zone, and supporting the larger project of sending them and maintaining them there in the first place. Personally, I have the utmost respect and sympathy for anyone who works, in any capacity, in a conflict environment. In that sense, then, I support the troops. Crucially, however, I do not believe that this mandates me to show any support whatsoever for the decision-makers responsible for directing those soldiers.

Vietnam-era protesters held up signs that read, “Support our troops – bring them home!”. Nowadays, for many people, that sentiment is unacceptable. If you are opposed to the ongoing commitment in Afghanistan, then you are, by association, assumed to have some kind of personal grudge against the poor men and women who have been required to fight that war. In the current dialectic, you are either an admirer of Australian soldiers and you are loyal to the military projects they are assigned to work on; or you are somehow betraying the efforts of the men and women who are out there working to ensure your freedom and safety. And that last bit – ensuring our freedom and safety – is the other most disturbing element of this new militarism. The reason we should support our troops, it is assumed, is because they are fighting to protect us. And if you suggest that this is not true either, then that, too, is an indicator of your appalling national disloyalty.

In fact it is patently inaccurate, by any measure, to assert that those Australians who have been killed in war have died fighting to protect Australia, or that the free and prosperous lives we lead today would not be possible if they had not made this sacrifice. Most of Australia’s wars have been fought to provide support to other, more powerful countries – first Britain, later America – in conflicts that did not directly affect us. Only the Pacific war with the Japanese was fought partially in defence of Australian interests, and even there, we know that Japan never had any intention of fighting Australians or invading Australian territory (the bombing of Darwin and the submarine incursion into Sydney Harbour were both intended as warning signals that Australia ought not to meddle in Japanese business). Above all, the original ANZACs who died at Gallipoli were fighting a campaign that had nothing whatsoever to do with protecting Australia.

Of course, a war that is not fought to defend one’s homeland or protect one’s interests may still be a just war, fought in a good cause. None should suggest that it was wrong for Australians to lend help in the struggle against Hitler, or to assist the Americans in lifting Japanese imperialism from East Asia. But it is important that we remain clear about the causes and motivations that were at work on every occasion when Australians were sent to war. Too often, today, it is simply taken for granted that our military engagements are fought to protect our freedoms and our way of life, and this response is becoming so automatic that many people seem to find it hard to conceive of the notion that our soldiers might ever have been sent overseas for any other reason. This is a dangerous attitude.

War, to repeat the clichéd but accurate characterisation, is hell on earth. The decision to initiate or participate in war is perhaps the most momentous, extraordinary decision that any government may ever have to make. It is a decision that should be subject to closer, more rigorous, more stubborn public scrutiny than anything else that a government does. It should not be possible for any government to send soldiers to war without being forced to provide the most comprehensive and convincing justification that it can possibly offer.

This is an ideal – in reality, very few populations ever demand this level of justification from their leaders. In reality, it is tragically easy for politicians to send young men to war. But we do not need to accept this. We should always be striving for a higher standard of accountability from our decision-makers. That means requiring them to explain exactly why it is right to send a soldier to a war zone, every single time that choice is made. Yet right now in Australia, we are moving in the opposite direction. A culture of unquestioning adulation, in which we take it for granted that all our military endeavours are heroic, and anybody who suggests otherwise is labelled an anti-patriot and hysterically shouted down, is a culture that only makes it easier for more and more Australian soldiers to be sent overseas to die.

This article originally appeared in Woroni on 13 June 2013.

One response to “The Trouble with ANZAC Culture: Why “Supporting our Troops” may not be the Right Idea

  1. Hi Rob,

    At the risk of being labeled an unthinking hysterical patriot, I must say that I take issue with the whole tenor of this piece, and on intellectual and not political grounds. Indeed I myself have severe doubts about our attitudes towards ANZAC day, but I would not feel just to tell of them until after critiquing your own.

    I can only say that this piece is either highly confused, or terrible dishonest. Your initial topic is Australian memorial culture (ANZAC day) and our attitudes toward it. The problem with it, you say, is that we are not asked to differentiate between supporting and respecting the hardship of individual soldiers on the human level and “supporting the larger project of sending them and maintaining them there in the first place”. This is laid out as the driving motivation of your piece it seems. However it is exactly pieces such as your own which confuse that very (important) differentiation. The military in Australia is, thankfully, not political but professional. Politicians, as representatives of their constituents, pay respect to soldiers as memorial services, but the services are very clearly directed toward remembering the human sacrifice and hardship of the soldiers, not in hurrahing over victory. After all politicians go to remember the pasts soldiers, soldiers do not go to remember the pasts politicians/generals.

    Now, of course I am not claiming that there are not overly militaristic elements of the right in this country who attempt to make something perverse out of the spirit of ANZAC day, for there certainly are, and the media are game in this. However there is no essential difference between them doing that and you using ANZAC day as a chance to have a go at the political motivations behind many of the specific wars the solders have fought in. By the end of your piece ANZAC day is virtually forgotten and the woes of war in general have taken center stage, so in a crucial way your piece seems simply the other side of the same coin. The heads of the jingoists and the tails of the pacifists on the one crude coin that is the politicization of ANZAC day.

    The public institution of war memorials and memorial services is in its essence deeply non political and has nothing to say about the rightness or wrongness of the wars the soldiers we are remembering died in, we are simply remembering that there were wars and that soldiers did die in them, and we try to imagine what that meant through history and what it means now. When one considers the legal framework within a standing army in a democratic nation exists the truth of this can hardly be rationally denied. Soldiers fight for their country, when and where their country asks them to. Politicians are the elected representatives of that country, and get to do the asking (on our behalf). In such a system the soldiers are always and can only be fighting for their country, because they join not to follow a demagogue or to support a political party. There membership in the armed forces has nothing to do with who is in power and thus how they are likely to be deployed. They are professionals. Thus you make an astounding category error when you conflate soldiers fighting to defend their country with political interpretations of what defense constitutes. Your criteria are applicable only to the political decisions and not in anyway way to the soldiers. Thus to throw these criteria around in the context of remembrance of the soldiers is, as I say, either highly confused, or revealing of a deeper motivation which merely used the topicality of ANZAC day as an excuse, a form of intellectual dishonesty.

    But perhaps the philosophic approach is not the most convincing for you… I will turn to some more historical considerations. Consider now that when you introduce the phrase “patently inaccurate” you are adding a third ingredient to your conflation. Already you have conflated the important philosophical and legal distinction between a professional soldier and his public master, but now you also conflate that soldier’s own agency with ideological perspective. To claim that it is “patently inaccurate, by any measure, to assert that those Australians who have been killed in war have died fighting to protect Australia” seems quite strange, when surely on one rather important measure, namely what the soldiers themselves considered themselves to be fighting for, the evidence overwhelming indicates that, in their own eyes, this is exactly what they died fighting for. So now you are conflating the professional, the political and the morally psychological elements of war. You do not know the soldiers well enough to do this, and if you honestly think that your own evaluation of what the soldiers died fighting for is more important than their own then you have missed the simple, emotional and heartfelt core of remembrance traditions completely.

    I am currently editing and introducing memoirs from the Gallipoli campaign for the 2015 celebrations and I can tell you that the huge majority of their authors saw the conflict as a matter of the Empire going to war; they were part of the empire and identified as such. They felt it was every bit as much their war as it was England’s; they were in it together, culturally, historically and militarily. That is exactly why it is so worth remembering and so central for our nations cultural formation, because we do not feel like that any more and Gallipoli was the first great shock in the divide. The sense of unique Australian identity so evident in your piece we owe to those diggers in a very real sense, who found it out for themselves in the hardest of all possible moment of sudden cultural maturing, in war. A claim such as “the ANZACS who died at Gallipoli were fighting a campaign that had nothing whatsoever to do with protecting Australia” is reliant on a hopelessly thin conception of history. The Australia you seem to be referring to didn’t exist in a meaningful way, so how on earth could they have died defending it? They created it! Self identity is a strange beast and the means at our disposal with which we can create it change rapidly with time, suddenly new options appear and old options die, Gallipoli perhaps marks the single largest change in potentiality of Australian identity in our history, as wars often do.

    The fact that it did is what places it, rightly, at the center of our remembrance traditions; the fact that we have lost the requisite historical imagination to think seriously about it is what has now perverted those same practices. But do not think yourself clean of the perversion in this highly politicized and historically thin piece, we can none of be clean, as we have collectively come to think about history so poorly. You say “I have the utmost respect and sympathy for anyone who works, in any capacity, in a conflict environment.” That is all that civic virtue asks of you, that should have been your whole piece. You go on to say, “I do not believe that this mandates me to show any support whatsoever for the decision-makers responsible for directing those soldiers”. You are correct, but ANZAC day isn’t asking for that. Anybody who does is a huckster, but in responding to them you give them voice, and your own politics are revealed. The simple emotional tradition is lost in a pointless “war is good / war is bad” nonsense, when the very institutional structure of our nation ensues it need not be.

    That is all, but a few more pedantic notes,

    1) You seem to interpret “defending Australia” as the literal defense of the physical integrity of our borders; thus only the Japanese war in the pacific is considered vaguely legitimate. Do notions of general national security, wellbeing and prosperity really need to be reduced to border protection? Is it really impossible to defend your country except on your own countries soil?

    2) You are a scholar and a gentleman and should be beyond making assertions such as “war is hell on earth”, even if you knew anything about war, which you ought to remind yourself, you do not. Thus do not attest to the truth of a cliché which in truth you only suspect to be true but only actually know through the cliché.

    3) Look at the media coverage, remember the protests, the “decision to initiate or participate in war” IS “subject to closer, more rigorous, more stubborn public scrutiny than anything else”. What do you mean “should be”? It is! Of course it is, it so obviously is… What other issue is subject to more? What is idealistic in your account is not asking for this, but in asking for what already is, and in doing so in asking for nothing. You are correct, we “do not need to accept this”, for if we don’t the government will lose the next election….

    4) What do you mean it is easier and easier for more and more Australian soldiers to be sent overseas to die? Have you taken leave of your senses? The facts are simply against you on this. It is harder, we send far less, with far lower casualty rates, and much higher levels of care. If that is what you are worried about then your worries are entirely unfounded, if in fact that is just a piece of lyrical scaremongering then… well I don’t know it’s to depressing to think about

    5) In conclusion, if you set out to investigate a complex cultural phenomenon then that is what you should do. From the odd times you have appeared on my news feed I have noticed you becoming steadily more political over the years. I think it is sad, it kills thought.

    W. Haines

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