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Reflections on Anzac Day - why did we fight?

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Why did Australia send troops to fight in World War I? Did Australia commit itself to war in Europe in 1914 and 1939 simply because Britain declared war on Germany or did Australia have security concerns of its own? Or more bluntly, has Australia largely fought in other people’s wars and unnecessarily so?

On Anzac day these would seem important questions to discuss and debate. However, as the number of people attending Anzac day services and remembering the sacrifice of Australians at war increases significantly year by year, the study of Australian history at schools and universities steadily declines.

When these wars are discussed, the focus is increasingly on individual soldiers and battles rather than on the broader political decisions. This personalisation of Australia’s war history sees us as a nation honouring and recognising individual sacrifice and valour, but becoming less and less concerned about the bigger picture of why our government sent troops to war to begin with.


Some argue that we should leave politics and controversy out of Anzac day, and that its purpose is to remember the women and men of the past who, caught up in the web of global politics, served their country proudly. However, doesn’t discouraging debate contradict the values of democracy and personal freedom that Australia has supposedly fought for in the wars of the last 100 years?

It seems important to ask whether our forbearers fought for a just cause, or at least, a well justified cause. The conventional portrayal of World War I and World War II shows the First as a futile conflict while the Second is the so-called good war if you were on the Allies’ side.

Historians have long disagreed about many elements of World War I. The conservative historian Niall Ferguson argues in his recent book The Pity of War that World War I was the greatest error in modern history. He claims that Britain could have bypassed fighting Germany with limited negative consequences and speculates that a German victory on the continent would have led to the formation of a German dominated European Union. Other experts like David Stevenson in his highly acclaimed 1914-1918 argue that German militarism was highly expansionist and thus needed to be confronted.

Where does this leave Australia given that World War I is so central to the Anzac legend? If Britain’s entry into World War I was unnecessary or lacked conviction as many historians claim, Australian sacrifice seems perverse and foolhardy. On the other hand if German expansionism was potentially global then Australia, with the German colony of New Guinea to its north, had reason to fear the German war machine.

Studying history does not provide easy answers to such long-standing debates but it does enable one to venture an opinion on how sensible it was for Australians to die in the fields and hills of Europe.

And die they did: 61,508 Australians died during World War I, with the war claiming the lives of approximately 15 million people. The ill-conceived Gallipoli campaign where 8,709 Australians died in less than a year or the brutal first day of the Battle of the Somme where 19,240 British soldiers died are the sacrifices of a less democratic age. Unfortunately this “war to end all wars” turned out to be the prelude to 55 million people dying in World War II.


Thankfully attitudes to war have changed considerably. Avoiding war rather than seeing it as a tool of statecraft has generally become the norm. Citizens today are less committed to serving their country and governments much more wary of sending soldiers to their grave.

If World War I presents as the tragic war with its lost causes, horrific trench battles, and its complex alliance politics, World War II presents as a clear cut case of good versus evil, not just in Europe with the battle against Hitler’s Germany but also in the Pacific against Japan.

However, in world politics no nation is entirely innocent. As much as Japanese aggression toward its neighbours and treatment of POWs was truly reprehensible, an honest account of the causes of World War II and the conduct of the allies would force us to confront uncomfortable questions.

Australia strongly opposed the recognition of the racial equality of the Japanese at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Did this opposition contribute to the Japanese turning away from its former Western allies and becoming more aggressively nationalistic? And more obviously, was firebombing numerous Japanese cities and dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? Once again these are weighty and important questions which would seem appropriate to discuss on a day which commemorates our involvement in wars. Instead Anzac day dawned with a conspicuous lack of political commentary.

None of this is meant to discourage Australians from attending dawn services and other commemoration events. However, surely as a robust and enquiring democracy we should be able to simultaneously recognise the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families and debate the wisdom of Australia’s involvement in wars. Anzac day should not just be a day of commemoration but also a day of conversation about our nation’s history.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on April 25, 2008.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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