BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
WHAT'S WRONG WITH ANZAC? The Militarisation of Australian History, by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds
, June 12, 2010
Re-writing our history
WHAT'S WRONG WITH ANZAC?
The Militarisation of Australian History
by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds (with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi)
(Sydney: UNSW Press)
Paperback: 192 pages
Rec. price: $29.95
Reviewed by Bill James
This book is heretical, not in the fashionable sense of daring and original (its commonplaces will be comfortingly familiar to its trendy-left target audience), but in the classical theological sense of a half-truth.
Most of what it says about the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, and its treatment by subsequent generations of Australians, is true.
There were certainly sound reasons for opposing an expansionist Germany in 1914, and Australia displayed good global citizenship in helping Britain to do so.
However, even though the Second Reich founded by Bismarck in 1871 was authoritarian (and, in German South-West Africa, actually barbaric), the ideological stakes which it represented did not remotely approximate to those raised by the later Nazi Third Reich 1933-45, and the communist imperialist de facto Fourth Reich 1945-89 in Eastern Germany.
A case can therefore be made that the threat from Prussian militarism was not on such a scale as to warrant the sacrifices made by Australian soldiers, including 60,000 dead.
What is more, the heroism and mateship displayed by Australian troops at Gallipoli, as well as on the Western Front and in Palestine, while impressive and memorable, were not unique.
The Diggers' valour and suffering undoubtedly deserve to be remembered (though not by wrapping oneself in an Australian flag at an Anzac Cove backpacker love-in); but it is questionable whether their achievements constituted the birth of our nation and the foundation of our freedoms, as has been frequently and hyperbolically asserted.
So far so reasonable, but Lake/Reynolds et al then embark on a devious policy of elision, conflation and false analogy, whereby they seek to discredit all of Australia's wars.
In contrast to its military commitments in World War I, Australia's subsequent military commitments have involved fighting truly repulsive ideologies: Nazism in World War II; Stalinism, neo-Stalinism and Maoism in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam; genocidal imperialism and Quislingism in East Timor; quasi-fascist Baathism in Iraq; and Islamofascism in Afghanistan.
Some of these campaigns, while directed at unambiguously abhorrent regimes, might have been injudicious, which is quite different from saying they were immoral.
The Vietnam War conceivably came under Thomas Aquinas's ruling that a war, on balance, must do more good than harm.
It could be argued that the suffering of Vietnam's civilians from the continued fighting bade fair to outweigh the suffering resulting from their falling under Stalinist totalitarianism.
I myself demonstrated against the Vietnam War (and opposed the Iraq invasion until it was a fait accompli), but without any adolescent romanticising of the thuggish dictator Ho Chi Minh, who was determined to impose his communist party's gangster rule on Vietnam's population no matter how many years and lives it cost.
Lake/Reynolds et al display their obscurantist unconcern for Vietnamese communism's past and ongoing mistreatment of the Vietnamese people, by citing the aberrant American My Lai massacre, while ignoring the massively worse, and officially planned, slaughter at Hue by the Viet Cong.
Lake/Reynolds et al try to argue that Australia should celebrate its achievement of a free, democratic and egalitarian society (in contrast to Vietnam's) rather than its military achievements, but they are peddling a false dichotomy.
Fighting murderous tyrannies in countries which deny basic human rights (such as the freedom to publish your opinion in a book like What's Wrong With Anzac?, just to pick an example at random) is complementary to, rather than incompatible with, the open society which we have created in this country, and is something we can be justifiably proud of.
Lake/Reynolds et al complain that Australian soldiers killed people, but that is what all soldiers do in all wars, just and unjust.
If they disagree with killing per se, then they should have written a polemic in support of pacifism.
The real heart of their objection to Anzac Day is their obvious fury that a genuine people's movement, a phenomenon which leftists are supposed to celebrate, has spontaneously occurred (contra conspiracy theories about its being manipulated, it was well under way before Howard's election) without the masses seeking approval from their bien-pensants betters in the media and academe.
A few concluding observations.
Historians such as Manning Clark, he of the "Christ-like" Lenin, and Stuart Macintyre, who has never apologised for his former support of mass-murderer Mao, are cited uncritically.
Taking a leaf out of the ABC's book, Lake/Reynolds et al quote the occasional soldier who came to disagree with the war in which he participated, as if he were representative of all his comrades.
They also discuss "peace" and "international co-operation" movements of the Cold War era without any in-depth exposure of their real identity as hypocritical Stalinist front organisations.
Their "hermeneutic of suspicion" is applied very selectively.
Finally, the co-authors never acknowledge the elephant in the room: Australian participation in World War II, which involved many of the factors of which they profess to disapprove.
It was fought in other people's countries, at the behest of Britain, against countries such as Germany and Italy with no designs on Australia; caused enormous suffering to civilians; involved incarceration of "enemy aliens"; incorporated conscription; was accompanied by restrictions on civil liberties; and was conducted alongside (as Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell pointed out at the time) that most evil of allies, Stalin's Soviet Union.
Fortunately the anti-Axis forces won, but no thanks to the pro-"peace" and pro-disarmament elements of the 1930s Left, which did everything possible to hinder military preparations against fascism, and whom Lake/Reynolds et al eulogise.
The challenge is not to "demilitarise" Australian history.
The challenge is rather to move on from a preoccupation with Gallipoli, and teach Australia's proud record of fighting repressive regimes and ideologies, tyrannies which we confronted in the hope that their victims would one day obtain the same universal human rights which Lake/Reynolds et al and the rest of us enjoy.