Why do we in 2012 seem to have an endless capacity for military commemoration? Are there not other parts of our history which we should celebrate but which are being neglected?
Two events provoke these questions. First, we have the long-running argument in Canberra over whether we need new memorials to commemorate the dead of World Wars I and II. Secondly, there is the imminent hundredth anniversary of Gallipoli which, according to the Prime Minister, is to be commemorated over the period 2014-18.
Historians Marilyn Lakeand Henry Reynolds have described “the relentless militarisation of our history”, so that “the Anzac spirit is now said to animate all our greatest achievements, even as the Anzac landing recedes into the distant past”. Bob Hawke and John Howard were the pioneers. Nominating Anzac Cove for the national heritage list, Howard said, “You feel as an Australian it’s as much a part of Australia as the land on which your home is built”.
More recently, the proponents of the new memorials in Canberra referred to the two great conflicts as “the wars that matured our nation”. Nothing about democracy, depressions, industrialisation, the growth of cities, globalisation, universal education, mass communications, improved crop yields, the eradication of diseases, the Pill, subsidised health care, immigration, and all the other forces that most countries see as influences on their development and which might be expected to get a mention here, as well. Just those two wars.
Just this week, Julia Gillard added her own bit of rhetoric. “All of us remember, because all of us inhabit the freedom the Anzacs won for us.” The obsession with past conflicts has been driven by the successive anniversaries of the Anzac landing, the much-chronicled deaths of elderly veterans, the mawkish sentimentalism of some remembrance exercises, the rise of military tourism, the sending of expeditionary forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, the celebrity status accorded to Victoria Cross winners, the recruitment of children as aficionados of past battles through the Discovery Zone section of the Australian War Memorial and the promotional work of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) and, finally, the desire of politicians to be associated with military events, even military funerals.
Now, the Prime Minister says, we are to have four years of commemoration to cover the centenaries of Gallipoli and the battles on the Western Front. Indeed, the funding is $83.5 million over the next seven years to run commemorative services, provide grants to local communities so they can set up their own commemoration projects, give money to artists to produce “creations that showcase our military history”, and fund a multimedia education program “that has broad community reach to help Australians learn more about our military history”.
There may be a travelling exhibition of First World War memorabilia. There certainly will be an Anzac Interpretive Centre at Albany, Western Australia. Finally, there is to be “a scoping study for a restaging of the first convoys that left from Albany in November 1914 and carried Australian and New Zealand soldiers to Egypt and Gallipoli”. There is no suggestion of restaging any convoys returning home bearing soldiers blinded, gassed, mad or with missing limbs.
Nor is there any mention in Ms Gillard’s statement of the proposed Peace Studies Centre, recommended by the Anzac Centenary Commission in 2010. The Commission’s report also provided a handy list of some 250 potential commemorations during the period 2014 to 2018. These refer to everything from the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I to the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Australian Comforts Fund and the 25th anniversary of the departure of Australian warships for the Gulf.
This list will presumably be what local communities and artists refer to as they agonise about what events they should commemorate. Tallygaroopna perhaps may choose to remember the 95th anniversary (August 1914) of“the Battle of Emptsa, North Russia, involving a number of ex-AIF serving with British North Russia Relief Force” or the tapestry ladies of Townsville might want to stitch something to remember the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Australian (later Royal Australian) Regiment (November 1948).
The Lake and Reynolds book What’s wrong with Anzac? (2010) documents how a cashed-up DVA has promoted war remembrance. When the last veteran of World War II dies, there will be no risk that DVA will run short of work – or money. Even before the $83.5 million for the centenaries the department’s 2011 budget documents showed more than $6.5 million earmarked for “Veterans’ commemorative activities” each year till 2014-15. “There is continuing interest”, the department says, “in funding under the commemorations program, Saluting Their Service, and an increased demand for community awareness, education and website resources”. Demand which DVA cultivates assiduously.
But there is more to what is happening than public servants creating work for themselves (and, presumably, cash flow for manufacturers of bunting and fireworks). The burgeoning desire for commemoration can be attributed to much deeper reasons, reasons which say something about the sort of Australia we have become.
War commemoration reinforces our inclination to go off overseas and fight wars that have a tenuous connection to our own defence but where our presence serves as an “insurance policy” with more powerful allies. Even Kim “Bomber” Beazley, one of our most enthusiastic defence ministers, admitted in 2009 that “politicians need the Anzac myth, or they would never be able to convince soldiers to go to war”.