Anzac's long shadow: The cost of our national obsession

Extract from Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession by James Brown, published by Redback. Available in bookshops now.

The breathless Irish voice on the end of the phone had been singing for four minutes straight on the majestic scale of the Anzac centenary. ‘It will be the biggest thing you’ve ever seen,’ she said. ‘It’s going to start with a gorgeous re-­creation of the Gallipoli convoy departure in Albany, Western Australia, on 1 November 1914, to book-end the whole centenary of celebrations. ‘Everybody’s involved,’ she gushed from her call centre: ‘Legacy, the City of Albany, the West Australian Government, the RSL, the Australian Light Horse Association – it’s going to be magnificent. You don’t want to miss out.’ Untroubled by the silence from my end of the phone, she homed in with her sales pitch: ‘So we’re producing the commemorative publication for the whole centenary, Gallipoli 100, distributed to 84,000 people and with introductory letters from the likes of the prime minister. Would you like to book a message of support and show the defence forces what you do?’ She outlined the options: the best spots up-front had already been taken by the National Australia Bank and a ‘gorgeous’ advertisement from the Australian Submarine Corporation, but $14,950 would buy me a full page. For a 50 per cent premium she could reserve a special spot right after the ode of remembrance.

I hesitated, and asked her to email me through a pamphlet. She duly did so. A thoroughly unsentimental advertising rate card was placed alongside a sweet photo of a World War II veteran being helped along to an Anzac march. ‘Gallipoli 100 aims both to commemorate the sacrifice of Australians who fought at Gallipoli, and by extension in other wars, and to educate the reader about what actually happened during the Gallipoli campaign,’ it read. ‘Many other scholarly and popular books are likely to appear for the Gallipoli centenary. This unique publication will stand out as the most comprehensive, accessible and attractive of them all.’ With the promise of fifty ‘lavishly photographed’ and ‘thought­-provoking and satisfying articles’ written by world experts, it was hard to say no. I told my new friend Nicky I needed time to think about it. She promised to follow up with me in a few days, adding, without the slightest trace of irony, ‘Lest you forget.’

A century after the war to end all wars, Anzac is being bottled, stamped and sold. Nicky is not the only one spruiking the Anzac spirit. The Anzac industry has gone into hyper-drive. The year 2015 will be a bumper one for battlefield tour operators as thousands of Australians wing their way to Gallipoli for what is being marketed as a once­-in-­a-­lifetime opportunity. One company, with a flash of brilliance and a tenuous link, is arranging a surf boat race across the Dardanelles. Another is organising marathon swimmers to make their way from Europe to Asia Minor. Off the shores of Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove, cruise ships will anchor so that thousands might nestle alongside the Anzac legacy. By morn on 25 April, pilgrims will embark in small boats as Anzacs once did, to join the throngs on the sand. By night they’ll rock away to Daryl Braithwaite and Kate Ceberano. Bert Newton will narrate the war.

It’s an all­-Australiana jamboree. Just issuing tickets for the Gallipoli event will cost more than half a million dollars, and an events management company in Melbourne is pocketing a cool $27 million for a multi­-year contract to keep everything well organised on the day. What started as a simple ceremony is now an enormous commercial enterprise. Cartoonist Michael Leunig has captured it best: ‘they’ve put a big thumping hoon outboard motor on the back of a tragedy’.

Anzac Day is also a time to honour and remember. That might best be done with a purchase from Australia Post’s limited edition ‘Sands of Gallipoli’ range of keyrings and medallions, which promises to ‘keep the spirit alive’ while earning millions for its savvy creator. In the view of the historian Ken Inglis, these little vials of sand are ‘relics from the holy land’. For just five instalments of $39.99 plus $19.99 in postage and handling, the Bradford Exchange offers the chance to ‘honour a loved one who served our country courageously’ by purchasing a ‘Lest We Forget Remembrance Watch’ with ‘iconic rising sun and slouch hat reproduced in shimmering golden­tone’. The Australian War Memorial, too, is devising an official ‘Anzac Centenary Merchandising Plan’ to capitalise on ‘the spirit’.

Selling Anzac is not a new phenomenon: one of Australia’s official World War I historians wrote of the scandal when a real estate venture was advertised as ‘Anzac on Sea’. Had the sacred word not been protected, he wrote, ‘the name was likely to become vulgarised’ and ‘Anzac companies would soon have sprung up like mushrooms’. For that reason, since the early 1920s the federal government has legislated to protect the word Anzac from commercial misuse. But just as restrictions on Anzac Day sporting events and trading hours have wearied over the years, so too have restrictions on the commercialisation of the spirit.

Preparation for the four years of the Anzac centenary is, in every sense, monumental. Governments, rarely able to lift their gaze beyond daily, even hourly, media cycles, have meticulously prepared for this anniversary for nearly half a decade. A federal Minister for the Anzac Centenary has been appointed under successive governments. In a small country already home to thousands of war memorials, debt­-struck governments are quarantining funds for more commemoration. The numbers are staggering. Australia will outspend the United Kingdom on the commemoration of the Great War by more than 200 per cent. All told, the centenary will cost Australian state and federal taxpayers nearly $325 million. With an additional $300 million expected in private donations, commemorating the Anzac centenary might cost as much as two-­thirds of a billion dollars.

While there is bipartisan consensus that the actual defence force is underfunded by 25 per cent, Australians are racing to outdo one another with bigger, better, grander and more intricate forms of remembrance. In Canberra a $27­-million renovation of the Australian War Memorial’s First World War galleries will give the gore of interminable trench warfare new zest. In Albany, Western Australia, a $9­-million Anzac Interpretive Centre will rise on the shores of the Indian Ocean alongside a further $8 million of Anzac infrastructure providing a peace park, an Avenue of Honour, an improved look-out and a refurbished war memorial. In Europe, years of diplomatic effort with the governments of France and Belgium will underpin a $10-­million Australian Remembrance Trail to link the Western Front’s most significant Australian battlefields and another interpretive centre. In Sydney, the state government is considering funding a multimillion­dollar ‘NSW Commemorative/Educational Centre of Excellence’. In Victoria, $45 million will go towards new World War I ‘Galleries of Remembrance’ at Melbourne’s already magnificent Shrine of Remembrance. The Queensland government has pledged more than $60 million towards the centenary, including a major capital project to upgrade Brisbane’s Anzac Square.

A cacophony of ceremonies will be needed to maintain the spirit for the full four years. The federal government is providing $125,000 to every electorate for community activities focused on World War I. The NSW and Tasmanian state governments will provide similar grants as well as funding the refurbishment of local war memorials. In anticipation, bronzing and stone masonry companies are advertising to veterans groups, helpfully advising them on how to best capitalise. The official start of the centenary will be a $3­-million re­staging of the departure of the first Anzac troop convoys from Albany to Egypt. Current soldiers from the Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy will be ordered to reprise the roles of their doomed forebears setting sail for defeat and bloodshed at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. This festival will be broadcast live nationally. In New South Wales, ceremonies will pay tribute to the families of World War I veterans and multicultural and indigenous communities. Specially established ‘live event’ sites will beam these ceremonies across the state. To accompany them, a ‘music project’, Anzac Notes, has been commissioned. It promises to give ‘an interesting insight into both war and music’.

Government’s role in all this will be hyperactive, leaping over veterans groups to become the ‘choreographer of commemoration and guardian of public memory’. The NSW Anzac Commission has recommended that the government ‘negotiate with media agencies for a palette of stories in daily newspapers, television, web, social networks and mixed media to provide a historical narrative throughout the Centenary period’. The NSW Ambulance Service has offered to sport commemorative banners on the side of all ambulances for the duration of the centenary. The NSW Roads and Maritime Service wants an Anzac logo to be placed on all departmental documentation. Sporting authorities have suggested convening international commemorative test matches. In New South Wales and Victoria, governments are leading the wholesale renaming of roads, avenues, rest areas and bridges in accordance with Anzac themes.

No priority is greater than raising awareness of Anzac. A $10­million travelling exhibition with truck-­mounted interactive panels the size of backyard swimming pools will traverse the country for four years to immerse Australians in World War I’s battlefields and ‘assist with education and understanding’. Anzac ambassadors, advertising budgets and a school education program will also contribute. Hours of TV programming will include 100 personal stories from the Australians at War Film Archive guaranteed to ‘blend human interest with a broad sweep of history’. New history research grants will allow families to learn about their military ancestors. A new $1­-million prize in Queensland will reward schoolchildren who can show how Anzac has shaped the nation with a ‘once in a lifetime’ trip to Anzac Cove to connect personally with the legend. A commemorative school student procession will be led across the Sydney Harbour and Anzac bridges.

It is entirely fitting and proper to commemorate World War I and Australia’s military campaigns. Yet all of this ingenuity and industry is for an anniversary which is ultimately arbitrary. The only reason the centenary of Anzac is considered a special, once-­in-­a-­lifetime experience is because we have imbued it with that meaning. To be sure, we often mark centuries as significant. But the struggle and sacrifice of our forebears at Gallipoli will not be any greater in 2015 than it is in 2014, or was in 1915. The centenary marks an epoch that we have chosen for ourselves. And we have chosen not to commemorate it with a respectful silence and quiet reflection. At the War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park, inscribed words decree: ‘Let silent contemplation be your offering.’ Instead, Australians are embarking on a discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four­-year festival for the dead.

‘If there is anything in the Australian landscape that is above politics, it is the centenary of Anzac,’ says one federal parliamentarian. But the genesis of this four-­year festival is in politics, and commemoration has become an increasingly valuable commodity for political leaders. It is far too cynical to suggest that Anzac commemoration has been nurtured exclusively for political benefit, but it would be equally naive to ignore that this has become an area of public policy where political narratives can be shaped and secular objectives secured.

Since Bob Hawke renewed the practice, commemoration has become an important element in the political armoury of Australian prime ministers. Paul Keating, in the words of the historian James Curran, attempted to ‘shift the epicentre of Australian nationalism from Gallipoli to Kokoda’. Keating inaugurated a comprehensive program called Australia Remembers, with grants made to local communities to remember military history. He interred the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial, and travelled to Papua New Guinea, where he delivered a landmark speech and, with a theatrical flourish, kissed the base of a memorial. He declared Kokoda our neglected battleground, where Australians ‘fought and died, not in defence of the old world, but the new’. (Later, another Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, continued the Pacific War trend, choosing Kokoda and Long Tan for his most important commemorative activities.)

Prime Minister John Howard returned the emphasis firmly to World War I. As Ken Inglis observed, during Howard’s leadership the Department of Veterans Affairs ‘was doing more than any government agency had ever done to enhance Anzac observance’. Context is important here: Howard’s commemorative impulse came at the same time that he was fundamentally strengthening the budget and capabilities of the ADF as well as committing the nation to conflicts in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is the second Coalition prime minister to prefer commemorating the European Great War. Memories of conflict are splitting along party lines.

The major parties now compete with each other to deliver more commemoration, more meaningfully. At the 2007 federal election, the Labor Party promised that, if elected, a Battle for Australia Day would be inaugurated on the first Wednesday in September. In 2012, the Coalition noted that one of the five pillars of its policy for stronger borders was to have 19 February declared a Day of National Significance, to be known as Bombing of Darwin Day. Awarding new medals to thousands of veterans has become a feature of election campaigns. In 2004, the parties found themselves in a bidding war over a proposal for a new medal commemorating little more than that an individual had served in the military. The Coalition pledged to award the Australian Defence Medal after four years’ military service, Labor three. After the Coalition won the election, 242,000 of these medals were issued in ceremonies presided over by parliamentarians.

In 2010, the Labor government promised new medals for those who had served in Korea. The Opposition responded with a new Governor­General’s Cross to be presented to the next of kin of defence force members who had died since 1948.

Politicians cannot be blamed for embracing commemoration as public policy and sound politics. Unlike most areas of policy, it provides results that are timely, inexpensive, tangible and in demand from the electorate. There are more veterans and families than serving military members. Compared to actual defence, commemoration is extraordinarily cheap. Amid unpopular protracted wars and defence austerity, it is also quick and easy. Make the announcement, and medals, pins or a new ceremony can be arranged within weeks. There are persistent and vocal lobby groups petitioning for their causes to be recognised. Commemoration makes for majestic speeches and statesmanlike occasions. Like a magic cloak, Anzac can be draped over a speech or policy to render it unimpeachable, significant and enduring.

But too often there has been a remarkable gap between political ceremony and the attention given to actual defence. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the 2012 initiative for a Defence Family Pin. The prime minister, Julia Gillard, had just approved an arbitrary 10 per cent cut in military spending in order to meet the short-term political objective of achieving a budget surplus. She had made few significant interventions in defence policy, and would not find the time to release a National Security Strategy for another few months. Yet in a grand ceremony on the deck of a naval warship a week before Remembrance Day, the prime minister launched a set of new commemorative pins to show solidarity with defence families. Complimentary media coverage ensued, even if a year later only a few hundred defence force families had availed themselves of the offer.

Extract from Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession by James Brown, published by Redback. Available in bookshops now.  

James Brown

James Brown is a former Australian Army officer and the author of Anzac’s Long Shadow.

@captainbrown

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