In the late 1950s and early 1960s Anzac Day was in decline – a malaise exemplified by Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year.
But in January 1964 a 34 year old ANU historian, Ken Inglis, gave a paper – The Anzac Tradition – at the biennial Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) which probably launched a new vision of what Anzac Day was and what it represented.
One Day of the Year was first performed in an amateur production in South Australia in 1960 after being rejected by the Adelaide Festival. It was treated as a controversial condemnation of Anzac Day and its commemoration. Yet 60 years later, re-reading the play, it is remarkably prescient in portraying different contemporary views of Anzac Day.
The son Hughie is a radical young student planning an expose of drunken Anzac Day behaviour; his father Alf is an embittered World War II veteran; and, Alf’s mate, Wacka, is an actual Anzac.
Hughie is as forerunner of every 1960s activist; Wacka is – having been through the actual experience – the most considered and reflective character; and Alf is a personification of what we now call Anzackery.
Ken Inglis was also remarkably prescient in his 1964 paper. I Wonder The Life and Work of Ken Inglis (edited by Peter Browne and Seumas Spark) is a new collection of essays and presentations from a colloquium in honour of Inglis held in November 2016. Graeme Davison, an Emeritus Professor at Monash, recounts the story of the 1964 lecture in his chapter including how Inglis delivered a strong attack on those who neglected the importance and value of the Charles Bean’s work on the official history of Australia in the Great War.
Davison reports that Inglis ended his paper with the words: “A study of the ceremonies of life and death performed on Anzac Day should tell much about our society; and national history which does not explore the meaning of these ceremonies is too thin.”
Inglis’ previous research had brought together history, sociology and anthropology and a specific interest in the concept of ‘civic religion’- a concept that had been (and still is) a very useful tool in understanding US history.
In the next decade or so there was renewed interest in the subject from historians such as Geoffrey Serle, Noel McLachlan, Lloyd Robson, Bill Gammage and Marilyn Lake who, along with Serle and McLachlan, were early entries in the sceptical column.
Inglis was by no means an uncritical observer of Anzac and tradition as Davison reports: when asked, in 1986, whether he identified with Anzac and Gallipoli, Inglis said: “I think I resist the word ‘identity’. I find it (Anzac) full of pathos. You have to respect the attempt to come to terms with death by people who can’t get sustenance from traditional sacraments and statements.”
The culmination of this Inglis ‘civic religion’ thesis was the monumental book Sacred Places War Memorials in the Australian Landscape which went through four editions from 1998 to 2008. Peter Stanley, in the colloquium volume, writes that it was launched in 1998 by the Governor General Sir William Deane at the Australian War Memorial. Deane’s father was a WWI Veteran who won a Military Cross but like Wacka and many other returned soldiers he never spoke of his experiences. Sir William took the opportunity to observe that “there are few memorials to…the Aborigines who were slaughtered in the ‘Black Wars’ of that period.” Inglis said at the launch that the frontier conflicts should be commemorated at the AWM although, Inglis said, “some mug Murdoch reporter” attributed his words to Sir William.
12 years later there is still no progress on that front – either in the AWM or the Murdoch media – even though space is being made in the AWM for giant displays of boys’ war toys.
Promoting Sacred Places the publisher, MUP (ah those were the days before they started publishing Mick Gatto!) said: “Sacred Places traces the development of the Anzac cult, as well as looking at those who rejected it. Sacred Places also examines a paradox: why as Australia’s wars recede in memory, have these memorials and what they stand for become more cherished than ever?”
And there’s the rub. The simple answer is that much of the cherishing was a result of the phenomenon of the invention of tradition, which was first discussed by Eric Hobsbawm in his edited collection of essays of the same name.
But there were also massive propaganda campaigns. Australia Remembers sought to honour WWII veterans but it was arguable that it was the impetus for a significant shift from one big Anzac Day central city march to the proliferation of local community based events, often at the many war memorials described in Sacred Places. Even the blog, who tries to avoid Anzac Day, spoke at one of them.
The centenary of the WWI was also the opportunity for an orgy of commemoration in which Australia spent more on commemoration than the United Kingdom did. A significant part of the money went on white elephant memorials in France. These memorials should also be reminders that, whatever Bean’s history is worth, his complicity with Sir Keith Murdoch in lobbying for Monash’s demotion is not something top of mind with today’s most ardent promoters of Anzackery – including the Murdoch media – let alone their associated promotion of the myth that Monash and Australian troops effectively ended WWI by their heroism at Villers-Bretonneux.
It has also suited conservatives to idolise Australia’s military history as they have committed our troops to a succession of long, unwinnable wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. That these are professional soldiers and not conscripts in the last two has meant they have not been as controversial as Vietnam was. However, too frequent rotations of too few troops has resulted in high levels of PTSD and events which, while not excusable, are an inevitable outcome of these policies.
Lastly, it is worth remembering that any given time the number of troops in combat is only a small proportion of those who handle all the logistics and tasks which have nothing to do with combat. These latter veterans and their descendants are often the most vociferous about the Anzac tradition.
But perhaps of Inglis’ 1964 observations the most important is – Anzac is a ‘civic religion’. Although religious difference has been significant in Australian history – just think of the Hughes’ conscription referenda divisions – we are now not a religious nation even if we do currently have a fundamentalist Christian Prime Minister.
But we have now developed a new form of civic religion – one which has transmogrified from quiet reflection to Anzackery just as early Christian church architecture transmogrified from spare simplicity to the gaudy horrors of the Baroque.