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Five arguments for downsizing Anzac Day

Many people submit articles to The AIMN for publication that might hold views that run counter to the views of the majority of our writers and readers. The fact that the opinions might not be to our favour are, however, no reason to ignore them. In this article by historian, David Stephens, about the growing emphasis on Anzac in our culture, some people may find elements they vehemently oppose. Others may agree with the sentiments expressed. In David’s own words, he belongs to a group of historians who are “committed to frank debate and expressing a diversity of opinions on specific issues,” and this attitude is certainly captured in this article.

Senator Michael Ronaldson, the Minister for the Centenary of Anzac, says that the forthcoming centenary will be the most important period of commemoration in our history. I beg to differ.

I want to present five arguments why we should make Anzac less important than it is now and as it looks like becoming in the next four years. I am not talking about Anzac Day (provided it is done with dignity) but about the Anzac tradition, or myth, or legend, that ever-widening khaki thread that runs through our Australian national tapestry.

My first argument for downsizing Anzac is the vainglory argument. “Vainglory” means “excessive elation or pride in one’s achievements”. Another definition is “boastful vanity”.

Quite simply, the way we commemorate and celebrate the military parts of our history is boastful and way out of proportion to the impact of our arms on most of the conflicts in which we have been involved. Of course, there are particular battles and campaigns where a case can be made that Australian forces were decisive – Beersheba 1917, France in the summer of 1918, El Alamein 1942, for example – but generally we have been bit-part players in overseas wars. In the Gallipoli campaign, birthplace of the Anzac legend, Australians made up just 6 per cent of the forces involved on both sides and 5 per cent of the casualties on both sides.

Our war commemoration is boastful also – boastful and insensitive – because it takes very little account of the broader human impact of war. Raw statistics are not, of course, the only way of supporting this argument (and every soldier killed in war is a tragedy) but how do the 100 000 or so Australian war deaths in the twentieth century compare with total deaths in wars around the world in that century?

We are measuring here not only military deaths but civilian deaths as well. Almost all Australia’s war dead were volunteers serving in uniform beyond our shores; in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, however, they tend to have wars in their own backyards which means they have more dead civilians.

One reputable estimate of total deaths in wars and conflicts in the twentieth century is 231 million. That makes Australia’s 100 000 around 0.04 per cent of the total.

We are not just Australians but citizens of the world. Our common humanity demands that we in Australia broaden our perspective on war and deaths in war to recognise the impacts of war beyond our own kith and kin. Wars are not just noisy and colourful highlights in a single nation’s history. They are not just occasions for commemorative exercises wrapped in patriotism and clouded with nostalgia. They kill people, lots of them, and they injure and traumatise lots more. We need to focus more sharply on what war does to people – the world’s people – than on what Australian people do in war.

We say that, beneath our commemoration of war, there is an abhorrence of war. We insist that we do not glorify war. These denials often come, however, as add-ons to moving, patriotic, feel-good – or at least bitter-sweet – ceremonies with lots of flags, eloquent speeches, remembrance of heroic acts, sonorous hymns, wide-eyed children and, now, sound and light shows. Rather than routinely repeating, as an afterthought to nostalgic commemoration, that mantra about not glorifying war, would it not be a more effective argument against war to highlight the impacts of war on civilian populations, the great bulk of that 231 million dead?

My second argument I call the strangulation argument. We do military history so well in Australia, through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Australian War Memorial and the various state memorials, through school curricula, through the endless flood of military history books, good, bad and indifferent, through military tourism for all ages, through movies and mini-series during the Great War centenary, through commercial hucksters flogging everything from Gallipoli champagne cruises entertained by Bert Newton or hosted by a retired General to a Gallipoli memorial swag, as well as lots and lots of commemoration, anniversaries of this battle and that, new memorials being built with government money, travelling exhibitions, re-enactments, performance art, symphonies, and so on, that there is a risk that some Australians, particularly young Australians, by the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, will think that really there is nothing in Australian history worth noticing except what occurs on battlefields.

Yet there is so much more to our history that we could be researching, presenting, popularising, and celebrating. We are a much more interesting country than we will seem if that khaki thread strangles all of the others.

Australian history is made by women, men, individuals, families, artists, philosophers, scientists, unionists, business people, public servants, soldiers and politicians. We carry the imprint of the First Australians, the builders of the CSIRO, the Sydney Opera House and the Snowy scheme, the pioneers of the bush frontier in the nineteenth century and the urban frontier in the 1950s, and “boat people”, whether they are convicts, post-war “ten pound Poms” and “New Australians” or asylum seekers. Australian history is to the credit – and the fault – of all of us, not just our Diggers.

My third argument is the devaluation argument, devaluation of the men and women who died. The type of commemoration exercise we engage in nowadays is really less about them – the Diggers – and more about us – about Australians today. Michael McGirr, writing in 2001, used the term “creeping Anzacism” to describe:

. . . the way in which the remembrance of war is moving from the personal to the public sphere and, with that, from a description of something unspeakable to something about which you can never say enough.

As fewer and fewer Australians actually know somebody who fought in World War I or World War II the commemoration of war has changed from a quiet remembrance of other people to an unrestrained endorsement of ourselves. As ideology comes to replace history, there are fewer and fewer faces to go with the stories. They have been replaced by a lather of clichés, most of which are as much about filling a void in the narcissistic present as lending dignity to the past.

People now seem to believe that in looking at the Anzacs they are looking at themselves. They aren’t. The dead deserve more respect than to be used to make ourselves feel larger.

I believe the tendencies McGirr described more than a decade ago have increased since.

My fourth argument is the bellicosity argument. “Bellicosity” means “an inclination to fight or quarrel”; it is sometimes rendered as “bellicoseness”.

Hugh White of the ANU has argued that the Anzac tradition encourages us to fight without thinking. I paraphrase his argument as follows. First, “soft” wars over the last 30 years – that is, wars with relatively low casualties – have made Australians more bellicose. Secondly, we regard the Australian-American alliance as vital to our national security so we are always susceptible to phone calls from the White House, seeking our involvement somewhere overseas.

Thirdly, Australians traditionally have not focused sharply on the purposes of war, either beforehand or in retrospect. We tend to go off to fight without too much analysis of why we are doing it. We don’t worry too much about whether and how fighting serves our national interest. Australians are altruistic warriors. Here is Prime Minister Abbott early in March addressing the troops returned from Afghanistan:

[Y]ou have fought for the universal decencies of mankind – the rights of the weak against the strong, the rights of the poor against the rich and the rights of all to strive for the very best they can. That’s what Australians do; we always have and we always will. Australians don’t fight to conquer; we fight to help, to build and to serve.

We say we are not militaristic. But the prime minister’s remarks suggest you don’t need to be militaristic to be inclined to fight.

Added to all this, says Professor White, is the reinforcing role of the Anzac tradition. While we steer away from why we fight, we focus sharply on how we fight, on the details of battles and the experiences of soldiers. (Think about all those military history books, all those commemorations of battles.) Professor White believes that part of the explanation for our failure to go into the purpose and cost of war is “the potent idea of war in Australian society, focused on the Anzac legend”. He writes about “the way Australians’ intense focus on military history, centred on the Gallipoli campaign, has shaped, and in some ways distorted, both our understanding of Australia’s history and our image of ourselves”.

My fifth and final argument for downsizing Anzac is the ideology argument. Geoffrey Serle years ago coined the term “Anzackery” to apply to the inflation, by excessive and bombastic commemoration, of a part of our history into a noisy myth. There are plenty of recent examples, many of them coming from our prime ministers on both sides of politics

I believe there is a risk that Anzackery will develop into “Anzacism”, a form of state ideology, built on a narrow base, justifying a particular set of policies and punishing dissent. (And I’m here taking Anzacism a little further than McGirr did when he used the same term.)

Anzacism as a state ideology might have a number of characteristics. Let me compare these possible characteristics with state ideologies we have known in the past:

  • A linkage with traditional national symbols: thousands of national flags as the main feature of party rallies in totalitarian regimes; national flags as a dominant feature in Anzac Day marches.
  • A requirement for ritual observance: historians of the old Soviet Union refer to the “reverential” attitude towards Leninism; here, Angus Houston, chair of the then Anzac Centenary Advisory Board, said: “The Board is determined to ensure that the Anzac Centenary is marked in a way that captures the spirit and reverence it so deserves”.
  • Moving mass ceremonies affirming loyalty to the ideology: May Day ceremonies; Dawn Services.
  • Adoration of mythologised ordinary people: Stakhanov, the super-worker; John Simpson Kirkpatrick.
  • Intrusion into fields where ideology is not normally present but where people gather en masse: compare the attitudes of the crowds at the 1936 Berlin Olympics with those at the Anzac Day AFL match or the Anzac Test.
  • Loyalty tests: pledging loyalty to a state ideology as a feature of communist regimes; the prominence of Anzac in the citizenship literature of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

There is nothing wrong with healthy patriotism but I think there is a problem with a narrowly-based patriotic ideology, a flag-draped, sentimental, often loud-mouthed Anzacism that is suspicious of, if not downright hostile to alternative views.

This may be an awkward attitude to have in the Anzac centenary years. Yet the freedom to have awkward views is presumably part of the freedom referred to on “the King’s Penny”, which was the large medallion received by the families of the men who died in World War I. The text on the medallion reads, “He died for freedom and honour”.

The last time I looked, it was not OK for children who believed in myths like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to lay into children who did not – and vice-versa. Nor was it acceptable for people of faith to seek to suppress the views of agnostics and atheists – and vice-versa.

The situation we are now facing is analogous. For example, a Coalition MP recently accused the ABC of lacking “situational awareness” for rebroadcasting in the centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War a segment which included questioning of the Anzac legend. Our group, Honest History, has been accused of the very same fault, labelled in exactly the same way, by a very senior Commonwealth official.

The myths and legends of our past must not become the basis of a jingoistic state ideology. An Anzac loyalty requirement – or any other pseudo-patriotic stipulation – is just as unacceptable as a fatwa against infidels or an edict against unbelievers.

David Stephens is secretary of Honest History ( Honest History is a broad coalition of historians and others, committed to frank debate and expressing a diversity of opinions on specific issues. Views in this article are the author’s own.


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  1. mars08

    As ideology comes to replace history, there are fewer and fewer faces to go with the stories. They have been replaced by a lather of clichés…

    Whenever I see some clueless bogan on TV blabbering about all the Australian soldiers who “died defending our freedom”… I want to bayonet them in the head!!! No you clown… there are thousands of soldiers who DID NOT die for “our freedom”! They just died following orders.

  2. A Veteran's Progeny

    I am surprised you have not noted James Brown’s book “Anzac’s Long Shadow” where he argues we are spending too much time on the Anzac legend.

    For me, it is perhaps it is because we have had no war of our own on our own soil that we are obsessed with the wars of others ? This seems to me to be an issue of identity that this country has and continues to have about who we really are as Australians having removed or reduced the original owners of this land.

  3. M-R

    I’m with him. To say that we are not growing more fervent in the glorification of war is to be deliberately obtuse.

  4. bobrafto

    Anzackery is an appropriate term.

    This issue has been bothering me for years but I wasn’t game to voice an opinion and never expected to read a well explained critique.

    Agree with the story in it’s entirety.

    Well done!

    By the way, are you wearing a flak jacket?

  5. hemingway13

    I am a Vietnam Vet and Life Member of the RSL who has studied ardently the history of WWI because there are many parallels between it and the war I fought in. While I do not agree with every single point that David Stephens has made here, his overall argument that we need to “downsize Anzac” is one I strongly support.

    The history of Australia’s battles in WWI contains many other remarkable feats such as our making some of the last successful mounted cavalry charges in the history of modern warfare (depicted in two Australian films: “Forty Thousand Horsemen” and “The Lighthorsemen” for anyone curious about the desert campaigns).

    Moreover, Australia’s history leading up to and during our first generation of nationhood is far more complex and illuminating when we take pride in all of our myriad great endeavours. For example, how many of us know that Americans to this day still designate the secret ballot in elections as the “Australian Ballot”? How many of us know that in 2007 “The Story of the Kelly Gang” (1906) was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register for being the world’s first full-length feature film?

    Our identity contains a much wider spectrum of attributes than the ones exhibited by the soldiers at Gallipoli. Yes, there are many praiseworthy, even heroic, qualities which arise in war zones, but the very nature of battlefield conditions severely restricts some other of our finest qualities. Sadly, some individuals with whom I shared a tour of duty in harms way also exhibited some of the basest possible. The Americans’ slaughter of the innocent women and children at Mai Lai is an infamous example of how warped values can sometimes erupt.

    Naturally, I want us to show the deepest measures of respect for those who have died in the service of our country through celebration of Anzac Day traditions. Keeping the Gallipoli campaign in perspective is part and parcel of a healthy regard for our overall national achievements to provide a foundation when we look forward to a bright future of pursuits in multiple directions.

  6. Mozfromoz

    This an excellent argument, intelligently and bravely discussed and a long time coming.

  7. Richard

    Refreshing article ..thanks

  8. hemingway13

    I adopt the moniker “hemingway13” because that Nobel Prize author, who was badly wounded as an ambulance driver in WWI with AFS for the Italian army, held similar views about the glorification of war as those expressed by others here in the comments above.

    “There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
    Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

  9. flohri1754

    Extremely well written and presented column. The current government is so ready (apparently) to cut and slash and change funding (no matter what it may have previously promised or committed to) that it should reconsider and take about two hundred million out of the “Celebrating WWI” fund and devote it into taking better care of the thousands of returned servicemen and their families who are still with us.

  10. Bill Morris

    I thoroughly agree with everything David Stephens has said. The commemoration has become commercialised and sensationalised and is not what it should be.

  11. Inga Leonora

    Reblogged this on Australis Incognita and commented:
    I don’t usually reblog here. Especially of a more political nature. But I am deeply interested in cultural narratives, particularly Australian ones, and how they play into more spiritual considerations. Indeed, I personally think they are irrevocably intertwined, certainly in my own practice and understanding.
    I don’t celebrate ANZAC Day (April 25) myself, having almost no link to anyone who fought in the Great War. When it comes to remembering military related actions I’m more directly connected to, I often find cause to celebrate the democratic process that meant my parents could vote for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1972 who, ending military conscription in his first government, saved my Dad from having to fight in Vietnam, who’s “number” had come up only shortly before the election. A solemn and very real reminder that fewer lives “result” from war, and my own, and my sister’s, resulting thanks to that little piece of legislation.
    I think this is a very measured, reasonable article, highlighting what I have felt is a growing “khaki thread” that threatens to distort our history and sense of “nationhood”. It is often said that Australians look to overseas conflicts due to a lack of conflict on our own soil; internal or domestic conflicts often considered far more “nation-forging”. The fact is we’ve failed to recognise the very real and bloody conflicts that HAVE occurred on our soil, and thus, ANZAC Day serves to further marginalise and oppress the very real history of conflict experienced by our Indigenous Peoples. And in doing so, these conflicts still dominate, like all suppressed things, left to fester and gain power as they remain unexamined.
    I don’t deny the horrors of war. But I do believe we need to step further back and look at the story of our nation as broader, and more diverse than the overbearing ANZAC Day narrative.

  12. Stephen Tardrew


    Now there is some real sense. Having worked extensively with vets your suggestion is absolutely spot on.

    Use the funds to take better care of the thousand of returned servicemen, women and their families instead of garnering political advantage and browny points by ridding on the backs of those who did the work most politicians would never do.

    Flag waving by the incompetent fools that send our soldiers into unjustifiable wars. Service Men and Women suffer while they haul off life long pensions and benefits.

    They use patriotism to cover their responsibility while waving flags, making speeches and listening to military bands with tears in their eyes while covering their unwillingness to really defend their country.

    I am not against ceremony however limit the cost and maximize the benefits to Vets.

    Great article: David Stephens

  13. john921fraser


    @Inga Leonora

    You must be concerned that Australia has a former military leader as Governor General, the military being used to stop refugees arriving in Australia, as well as the military standing beside the Immigration Minister while he refuses to give Australians information about proceeding "on water".

    Hope you enjoy, and comment, on articles on this site.

  14. Billy moir

    Cogent argument that makes me very sad. I am lucky enough to have had a few beers with Flanders men through my dad’s big brother. My dad himself was in Tobruk and for 10 years after the war at least once a year we would traipse up to daws road and see him after being wired up a la cuckoo’s nest. It took nearly 30 years to allow Anzac Day into our lives. Since then me and the kids have celebrated that lovely sensitive man’s trauma every 25th April.
    As for ANZAC, we admire the Turk’s defence of their country and accept them as equals in war. At the leadership level Attaturk is revered and Churchill reviled.
    I had written to Gillard and snowdon expressing the view of joint celebration by inviting the Turks here to our memorial to read the poem by Attaturk. However SAD because a pommie I consider unworthy will be the face of australia in 2015 and that ‘shit happens’ lying misogynist has given me the only reason to switch off the TV and radios and hide myself in my house April 24, 25, 26. I hope I have the decency to overcome this awful mindset but I cannot see little billy challenging the rabbott enough for me to be able to re-assess my plan.

  15. Stephen Tardrew

    Interesting post Inga Leonora.

    The appalling treatment of indigenous Australians and now refugees is a blight on our society.

    Great point John.

  16. pvcann

    Hopefully after the hoopla of the current centenary series, it will take a back seat

  17. corvus boreus

    A well reasoned article from someone with an obvious studied consideration of the consequences of war beyond the trauma inflicted upon the soldiery. I also appreciate Inga’s comments regarding the conflicts and slaughters that occurred during the displacement of our indigenous peoples. Where pride in national achievements is collectivised, incidents of national disgrace must also be acknowledged.
    For me the conduct of some of our countyfolk as “gallipoli tourists” is particularly disrespectful to all concepts of sensible reflection on the realities of war. Getting loudly drunk at dawn on a foreign beach dishonors anything you claim to be “commemorating”.
    I have personally, when questioned by someone over my working on ANZAC day, responded by asking which more appropriately honored the spirit of “the digger”; drunken gambling or getting the job done?

  18. JulieT

    This is an excellent article with which I completely agree, without taking respect away from those who fought and died and those who fought and lived. Australia is so much more. I feel these days that ANZAC Day has just turned into another party day and holiday, another excuse for Aussies to get on the grog.

  19. jbk803178

    The centenary of Anzac is already in danger of being hijacked by commercial interests. So, in that sense, David has a valid point. I cringe when I read of inflated claims of bravery and heroism when it is obvious that such claims are being used to promote politically motivated ends. These claims usually contain a reference to Anzac. I also abhor the obsession we have with flags. But I cherish Anzac Day. It is, for me, the only sacred day of the year; sacred for Remembrance and Honouring and nothing else.

  20. John Kelly

    Excellent article and not before time.

  21. David Stephens

    Great to read the comments and hope they keep coming. An encouragement to us at to keep plugging away, though sometimes the tide of Anzackery is a bit daunting. Inga Leonora’s dad and I were in a similar position. I don’t believe many people today have a proper appreciation of what Australia was like in the Vietnam era. We have glossed over the societal division and cynical government bastardry of that time, just as we have done the same regarding the division and nastiness during WWI. Recommend as one small vignette of the atttitudes endured by some Australians in World War I. In this case the protagonist was an American but the jingoism and bile was universal.

  22. Ricardo29

    ‘[Y]ou have fought for the universal decencies of mankind – the rights of the weak against the strong, the rights of the poor against the rich and the rights of all to strive for the very best they can. That’s what Australians do; we always have and we always will. Australians don’t fight to conquer; we fight to help, to build and to serve.’

    The words of Abbott. What hypocrisy given his government’s actions via the budget.

    I wish to add my congratulations on this article.

  23. idontcarewhatyousayorthink

    You know something is becoming corrupted for others purposes when they start to use it to sell their products and politicians wrap themselves in its flags

  24. andyaswas

    Thank you for articulating so concisely the current of ‘khaki thread’ which underlies much of the propaganda in mainstream media.

  25. diannaart

    Thank you for this article.

    One day there will be a sorry day for all the young men and women whose lives were lost fighting wars around the world and those who returned damaged but expected to simply pick up their lives and raise families. Then apologies to the children of war-vets who have suffered along with their parents and their children’s children…. so it goes (with thanks to Kurt Vonnegut who published much on the waste of war).

  26. Kaye Lee

    My father was a very intelligent, compassionate man. When he volunteered to fight in WW2 he failed the eye test so he got a copy of the eye chart, learnt it off by heart, went back, and was accepted. On his last day of leave before going off to war, he was sitting on his mother’s verandah when a troop train pulled up opposite. He was subjected to loudly shouted abuse and had white feathers waved at him (a young man not in uniform must be a coward). His mother quickly went inside and brought out his slouch hat, at which stage the soldiers on the train raised a cheer.

    My father never attended an Anzac Day march though he certainly went and had a few beers with mates while playing two-up. I asked him why he volunteered and he said they genuinely believed that their families were in danger. He went to Egypt (where the Aussies caused a lot of problems with drunken rampages) and he fought in New Guinea where he told me a dreadful story about the Aussies surrounding a Japanese camp, cutting off their supply chain. When they finally stormed the camp, they found the Japs had cannabalised their own casualties. He also told me of a guilt he couldn’t shake when the tent he shared with his mates (who were like family) got blown up while he was elsewhere going to the toilet. They were all killed.

    These are the true stories and horrors of war. There was nothing glorious about what he and so many endured and their experiences affected them for life, as we are now seeing with so many of our Vietnam vets, and more recently, those who have fought in Afghanistan. Mr Abbott may say “we fight to help, to build and to serve” and there are many instances of our military doing just this eg East Timor. But for the people who actually have to face the death and destruction, there is nothing to celebrate.

  27. David Stephens

    Thanks for comments, Kay. Reminds us that families of soldiers also serve. Today 71st anniversary (more or less, no-one knows for sure) of my uncle, one of the forgotten few left behind in the jungle after fall of Singapore Died six years before I was born but a presence throughout my childhood.

  28. Isola

    For my WW1 relative the chance to leave the isolated pioneering farm life in Tasmania and join the 12 Bn must have been the greatest of opportunities ! How many stories there must be of young men wanting adventure and none of the means to have it which war service offered ? What they found when they got there must have been the beginning of their end when they discovered that war was not the chance.

    Our private didn’t last long and died at the Hindenburg Line six months after he got there. From a sheltered farm life to a battle field probably didn’t give him the strength or resilience he might have needed.

    I don’t believe that the majority went as patriots for England and/or Australia. I think that many went to war as a way out of the droll lives they were facing with no choices in the first years of our country.

    My own father was thrown out of the army to begin with due to what were called “mental problems” when his sister was killed in an accident after visiting him at training camp. No tolerance for a man who was grieving and feeling guilty. simply judged “unsuitable” by the system. Later he rejoined and became an ambulance driver in NT where he thrived in the communal and worthy atmosphere it provided.

    My father in law was shamed as a non-participant due to an old farm injury and while this was understood his identity was interferred with by not being able to serve, to be “one of them”. He wasn’t a true Aussie for not joining the ranks.

    And now my own son is a veteran of East Timor who records collecting villagers out of harm’s way as a most memorable service to them. It was better news that intervention changed from empire to assistance, but now questions are raised about the politics, the oil.

    I’m please to hear that individual stories are being celebrated. It tells more about our country than the reams of history pages written elsewhere. Real people and real lives caught in someone else’s story.

  29. hemingway13

    Regarding David Stephens’ comment about the Vietnam era:

    Historian Michael Sexton in “War for the Asking: How Australia Invited Itself to Vietnam” provided profoundly saddening evidence that the Australian government eagerly sought the Americans to allow us to deploy combat units in Vietnam. Chief purpose for our top military brass was that there was then a paucity of Australian officers and NCO’s with battlefield experience because those from WWII and Korea had been been discharged or promoted to high level ranks.

    Just think what a “lucky” situation in terms of battle hardened leaders our military has now in the aftermath of a decade of experience with Pres. G. W. Bush’s Coalitions. Of 48 countries in the Iraq Coalition, only 3 had troops fighting with its invasion force: UK, Australia and Poland. The physical and psychological injuries of this most recent cohort of “lions led by donkeys” (as WWI Diggers were often characterised) are the tragically high price which now and in the future must be paid along with the continuance of untold sectarian killings in the chaos left behind. This past week alone at least another 74 Iraqis died in attacks across Iraq.

    Hopefully, Afghanistan won’t be so chaotic when the current 10,000 US forces finally go home ——- after all, they rebuilt the world’s largest (90% of total) illicit opium growing industry, whose rich warlords will frown on anything that’s bad for business. Here’s the BBC’s report from last year:

    “………..although the Afghan government and the international community initiated opium eradication programmes, many farmers say promises to provide high-quality seeds and fertiliser, carry out developmental projects and promote alternative careers have not been kept.
    And despite an aggressive campaign to destroy the crop, the total area under poppy cultivation increased by 18% in 2012, reaching 154,000 hectares (380,000 acres), compared with 131,000 hectares in 2011, according to a 2012 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report and Afghan officials.”

    Like the WWI Anzacs, we Vietnam Vets were sent to war for the noble cause of fighting for democracy just as were our mates of the current generation who’ve followed us into combat zones. How did and how will that pan out? I am grateful for the way that David Stephens’ group, Honest History, is striving to illuminate myriad dimensions of that question.

  30. David Stephens

    Thanks Hemingway. Your earlier quote from Farewell to Arms reminded me of this one:

    I was at the front for thirteen months, and by the end of that time … [t]he war had become an everyday affair; life in the line a matter of routine; instead of heroes there were only victims … [T]here was no rhyme or reason in all this slaughtering and devastation; pain itself had lost its meaning; the earth was a barren waste … Most people have no imagination. If they could imagine the sufferings of others, they would not make them suffer so.’

    ThIs from diary of Ernst Toller, German soldier, 1916; soldiers’ attitudes and words are universal. BTW, always looking for new writers on Honest History!

  31. David Stephens

    Meant to say earlier that versions of this material were given at Canberra Peace Convergence at an Anzac service in Lismore, run by Remembering and Healing, who have a fresh, future oriented vision of how Anzac Day should be commemorated. There is a video here:

  32. David Stephens

    sorry should be an ‘and’ : Canberra Peace Convergence and at an Anzac sevice in Lismore

  33. mars08

    Oh… and can we please challenge the tale of Australians enlisting for the sole purpose of “serving the nation”????

    It’s a great generalisation for keeping the ANZAC myth alive, but I’m sure it’s been a long, long, LONG time since altruism was fashionable.

    For the past few decades, Australians have been enlisting for all sorts of reasons. But I doubt that “serving the nation” is one of them.

  34. corvus boreus

    A lack of other options, aggressive recruiting techniques (travelling “drummers” to “call of duty”), peer group/social pressure, a desire for opportunity and experience, genuine patriotic responsibility or the desire to kill; sometimes perverse reasons, occasionally noble, but all too often cynically deployed and all to rarely put to the common good.
    Do not despise the man at arms, but despise that he is needed.

  35. Margaret McMillan

    I find the disclaimer at the top of the article particularly interesting. While I can understand that some people might take an article like this in the wrong way, there are many articles posted on this site that could be offensive to some. It is a measure of how far this glorification of war – fostered by Howard – has come that the AIMN feels the need to distance itself.
    In my opinion, it is almost too late to turn this tide of false nationalism so beloved of the shock jocks and the tabloids. It is most reassuring to know about David Stephens and Honest History; to know that there are thoughtful people who are prepared to stand up against this popular narrative, which in essence is a lie. More power to them.

  36. David Stephens

    Margaret thanks for this. Turning the tide is a tall order but asking awkward questions and being a damn nuisance is a worthy objective in the meantime.We will continue to gather resource material especially at for those who are of similar mind, as well as teachers and students.

  37. corvus boreus

    Deep bow of respect to your adherence to the purest principles of history, David. To mangle Gildas, you are bringing forth a broader sample of narrative to clinically examine common report to determine likely past events to inform posterity.
    Those who assume history to be the cliche of a narrative written by the the victors,
    and disdain to examine the agendas of their sources
    are cursed to be manipulated by manipulators of popular narrative and power,
    into repeating the grossest errors of the past.

  38. corvus boreus

    PS I also mean, I appreciate the links.

  39. Michael Taylor

    Margaret, we by no means distance ourselves from this article, and if that is how you read the disclaimer then it was obviously worded wrongly. We simply realise that this is an issue that can invoke a fair amount of passion and would probably have offended many people – which it hasn’t, as it turned out. We were simply attempting to make the point that it is the opinion of the writer, and not the official position of The AIMN.

    We don’t usually feel the need to issue a disclaimer, however, on this occasion we did.

  40. Kaye Lee

    This article has stirred emotions in me as I am sure it does for many. It has clarified for me what I think our heritage should be from our military history. Rather than grand tales of battles and analysis of strategy, it should be a collection of memories from individuals who served our country, and from their families who lived the terror of waiting for a telegram, and who then tried to erase the horrors of war from the minds of those who returned. The stories and letters, poems and paintings and photographs from those who were there, these show the truth of war – there are no winners.

  41. Kaye Lee

    We should also hear the same from people from other countries about the death, fear and destruction they faced. And we must acknowledge the struggle many of our living veterans face. We ask of them something no person should have to do. I long for the day when wars are recognised for the unforgivable waste that they are.

  42. john921fraser


    It shows how far down we have gone when we send the might of our armed forces to "repel" asylum seekers.

  43. Stephen Tardrew


    The many stories I herd from vets of bravery and brutality on both sides are enough to turn anyone against war and to strive, with all our might, to end this abominable absurdity. The many serious physical and mental health issues that caused untold suffering and violence to families and also severely affected the children as well. Whole families are torn apart. With dogged effort some extremely courageous women patched their families together again. Sadly some are lost to suicide and many to alcoholism and drug addiction. I don’t know if many of you realize but PTSD can cause permanent brain damage and lesions. And now we have to deal with brain trauma from IEDs.

    David you are doing the same historical work that Howard Zinn did with his fantastic book A People’s History of the United States.” Even after his death he is pilloried for telling the truth about the suffering of ordinary lives of black, white and coloured people in the US.

    Keep up the good work. There are so many lies perpetrated by our governing elites to cover up the truth when we have acted to destroy nations in the cruelest and most inhumane manner. Just reading Noam Chomsky on war is enough to make me unbelievably angry at the rulers who cause so much suffering without the slightest guilt or remorse. Then they fabricate ceremonies to cover their guilt, glorify war and claim the moral high ground. Meanwhile Vietnam Veterans were vilified for doing nothing other than following their governments orders – draftees included. Heady days on the streets protesting to end the injustice. It is well and truly time to march again.

    One day will will have to face our history front on and take responsibility for our actions. To do so we must know the facts.

  44. David Stephens

    Thanks Stephen Tardrew. The comparison with Howard Zinn is much appreciated but ill-deserved; I wish I knew who pinched my copy of his book! Love to have you browsing and/or subscribe to updates.

  45. mars08

    PFC Manning is one of the bravest soldiers of recent years… sacrificing so much, for nothing!

  46. DanDark

    My Grandfather(my mothers father) came here in 1929 at age of 17 by himself, and met Blanche a couple of years later, but he missed his country and family very much, he had hundreds of letters from family in London, and he sent hundreds over many years up until 3 weeks before his death of a stroke at 78yrs, and Blanch died a year later
    My grandparents Eddie and Blanche went to England after they retired,
    for a holiday, family came out here for a holidays over the years
    Irene, Eddies sister eventually came to live here a few years later
    Australia was Grandpa’s home,and his heart was here, from the day he docked in the Port of Melbourne,
    he loved this country and its fruits and vegies, and its fresh air, and the concept of “a fair go” for everyone.

    War is glorified, money wasted on bells an whistles, at the cost of who are really suffering the effects of war
    when its happening, and when its over, my extended family sure suffered during and after the WW2,
    the real stories of a cold hard war on people and their land seem to have been lost to the past
    I personally love history, and the more we are aware of the dark side of history(not sugar coat it)
    maybe we have got less chance to repeat it
    Thanks for your article David Stephens, hope you enjoy reading my little bit of family history
    I have another letter dated 22/9/34 detailing the decorations and celebrations in readiness for
    official opening of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne to family in London, huge crowds turned out

    Eddie J
    Mt. Evelyn P.O VIC
    July 1st 1941
    Dear Irene,
    We received your letter O.K, and it was only a couple of days after reading about
    Cohen’s Trade Mark (I think that’s what is says, its written in black ink and beautiful old English handwriting) that we saw the demolition of the Towers on the News-Reel, as you described it, and also the Trade Mark,
    They did come down very impressively, no doubt they were a help to the bombers over London,
    as I remember how you could see them from miles away, especially the sun shining on the glass,
    and the scrap iron will be very handy too, that reminds me of a long time ago, those words “scrap iron”
    I don’t think you will know about it, but Mum and Dad will remember the dances in the big playground
    in St Jame’s where Grandpa was caretaker. I think it was every Friday night in he summer,
    and all the young people used to call it “Scrap Iron”

    Judging by the papers and news reports, you are having a respite from bombing,
    and that the R.A.F is giving them some hurry up over in France and Germany.
    I hope that they will get it all back twice over, by the way how’s the boyfriend? If any
    And send us Leslie’s address( his brother) Also tell Mum that what she mentions about money
    in the bank and Co-op is a bit vague, does she mean he C.W.S that I remember
    had offices in either Leman St or the Minories, I think it was Leman St.

    Also whatever happens, try and make your minds up to come out here,
    It would be a revelation to you all, and I know you would all like it.
    You wouldn’t have to wonder if you could get an orange or peaches, we grow our own.
    Oranges here are from 1/2d to 2d each, a 2d one is a whopper too. and peaches, well, 1d a lb
    to 4d a lb. We are going to send Mum a Birthday cable, so don’t forget to let us know if she gets it O.K
    about that too. Do you remember when I sent the Lamb over to you one xmas, I only wish I could
    send another, but we are restricted in that, and I cannot send the parcels too often as it is prohibited,
    but if I get Leslie’s address. I’ll see if I can send him one occasionally. I’ve a cold at present, so has Blanche,
    and Ronnie is getting over his, but we’ve had such cold and wet weather lately, that is only to be expected.
    Well dear this is all tis time, Love to all
    Blanche, Ronnie and Eddie xxxxxxxxxxxxx
    P. Ronnie is learning how to write, so we’ll get him to write a note soon, we sent Mum a birthday card
    by Airmail this week…Eddie xxxxx

  47. corvus boreus

    On US history, I would also thoroughly recommend “Bury my heart at wounded knee”by Dee Brown. It gives an indigenous perspective on the unfolding of manifest destiny.

  48. David Stephens

    Thanks Dan Dark. Wonderful letter and the one about the shrine would be wonderful also. We at HH often have to explain to people that we distinguish between respect and pity for the men and women who bore the brunt of war – the victims – and the politicians who sent them (in most cases for the most cynical of reasons) and who now bask in reflected glory on commemorative occasions. We are less interested in what Australians did in war than in what war did to Australia and Australians – and to the people of the world, who get very little say in whether and how wars are fought.

    Corvus boreus (nice handle): thoroughly agree about the Wounded Knee book. Recommend also Evan Connell’s book on Custer.

  49. Isola

    Kaye Lee, I agree. In a world that now celebrates individualism we are looking more into the stories of those people who went off to war…who were they, what did they really feel etc.

    I believe the country’s troops ideal has numbed us to the casualties of war when we think only collectively of their “service” to the country or empire. Now, with the old ways no longer powerful, we can comfortably explore the individual experiences it will make war and its creators/ followers less influential.

    Instead of picking out legends and heroes like Simpson and his donkey for example, may be find heroes in everyone who was on those dreadful shores.

  50. Isola

    And had there been the ability of individuals’ stories to be taken into account we may not have had the “silence” that lingered for so many years from the veterans.

  51. JulieT

    Also read “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan.

  52. DanDark

    David Stephens here is the other letter I mentioned I had, thought I would give a bit of background to him migrating to Aussie
    My grandfather Edward(Eddie) came out here as apart of the migration policy
    Because after he left school the only job he could get was as a debt collector, his parents worried for his life, so suggested he come to Australia for a better life, than what he faced as a clever educated young man in London at the time, the Great Depression had just hit, and the streets were dangerous

    At the time with the “Empire” he was sponsored, to migrate, but when he arrived in Melbourne on the ship, His sponsor family was not there to meet him, so he was taken to Carrajung(I only live about 30 ks from Carrajung now and it’s still isolated bush land) he was given a tent, a saw, a bit of food and told he was to stay there in the most isolated bush land all by himself, and to clear as much as he could in the next 6 months, he said, “he lasted 3 months, as he was going to freeze to death” he then worked and lived on a large farm as a work hand for a while, until he established himself as a builder, who built many houses around Melbourne for many years

    Life was bloody hard back then, but we never knew until after his death, he did keep a lot of his hardships hidden from his family back in England and here in Aussie, he also enlisted in the Australian army in WW2

    Eddie J
    November 22nd 1934
    (no address on letter top)
    Dear Renie(Irene)
    I’m keeping my promise at last by writing to you, still better late
    than never, isn’t it. I suppose you’ll be surprised to hear that
    you have a new sister? (Blanche)
    Still I suppose it won’t be long before you get coming home at midnight
    and Dad will tell your boy to bring you home earlier, I know, because Dad used to say
    that to me three nights a week, the other four nights he was in bed,
    and if it was 12 o’ clock, he’d say you’re late and I’d say in an injured voice
    that it was only 11 o’ clock. I suppose you got t the pictures a lot, and I suppose
    the old “Popular”(The flea pit) is finished now the new one is there.

    We’ll soon be having some fun here when he celebrations are started,
    they are putting thousands of electric lights on all Government buildings and
    the main Railway Stations, They have put hundreds of poles up in the city streets
    about 30 feet high and 20 feet apart and they have been nicknamed “Lollypop sticks”
    as the brightly painted colors make them look like a nursery rhyme with a headache.
    These will have lights hidden in them and festoons suspended between them.
    Main buildings will be floodlit as well, so Melbourne will be a bright spot.
    Dozens of big ships will be anchored in the bay, as well as several battleships
    which different countries are sending, still I’ll send you the papers with it all in,
    so bye-bye and love to you
    From Blanche and Eddie xxxxxxxxx
    P.S Tell Dad that he must be getting a “tummy” if he weighs 12 stone,
    I weigh about 10 stone 10lbs. How is Tibby getting on and have you had another dog snce old Min xxxxx
    P.P.S Tell Mum to still send the letters to The B.B Movement for the present xxx

    Hard to believe all this fanfare and money spent, during the Great Depression, when money could of been better spent on the returning soldiers and families, yes “lest we forget” but at what costs to humans that survived and associated consequences

    The Dedication of the Shrine of Remembrance … – YouTube
    ► 4:12► 4:12
    Jan 9, 2013 – Uploaded by ShrineMelbourne
    The opening of the Shrine of Remembrance on 11 November 1934. “This noble Shrine has …

  53. Bill Reid

    Inga Leonora claims that the election of a Labor government in December 1972 ‘saved my Dad from having to fight in Vietnam, who’s [sic] “number” had come up only shortly before the election.’

    In the interest of honest history, it must be pointed out that the withdrawal of Australian troops and all air units from South Vietnam continued throughout 1971, under the direction of the Liberal/Country Party Government, with the last combat forces leaving on 7 November that year. Only a handful of advisers, soldiers with considerable experience and seniority, remained. Their withdrawal was hastened at the direction of Mr Whitlam after his election in December 1972.

    Any man whose ‘number had come up only shortly before’ the 1972 election was never going to serve in South Vietnam. I hope that no-one was genuinely angst-ridden by that canard.

  54. John W

    As a child in the 60’s I saw many returned veterans from both Wars beating each other up (and their wives and families) after drinking to excess in the pubs (and in the RSL’s) and sleeping it off in the Parks on a regular basis. I wondered why the neighbour in his 40’s that used to stand at his front gate screaming at the sky (and at any passer-by) whilst drining. His poor elderly mother (who was in her 80’s) was the only one there to try and settle him and coax him back inside the house. I asked my mum and dad why was all this happening? Their reply was that they were suffering from “shell shock” from the wars and that they drank trying to erase the horrible memories of what they’d been through and that I shouldn’t go near them.

    I joined the regular Army in the late 70’s and served for 20 years. I found that the military bars and clubs were full of ex-serving members (especially Vietnam vets) that were suffering from the horrors of war. They felt a certain sense of safety amongst us. We looked after them and put them to bed and rang their wives and girlfriends when they couldn’t go home because they’d been in a fight or couldn’t drive. All they ever wanted was a bit of respect and help from society for doing what they saw as their duty. Once again they were shunned and ignored by society.

    There’s nothing new under the sun some might say as in the first half of last year 15 young Diggers from the Iraq and Afghan deployments had committed suicide… waiting for society to give them the help they desperately needed.

    Well Australia you go and have your little “feel good” party at Anzac Cove next year. But I think you’ve missed the point (and the old Diggers would wonder what all the fuss was about). If you really want to do something worthwhile for this great country join the Defence Force, CFA, SES the Police Force (or the like). But above all look after and respect those who have served and paid dearly for it. Don’t shun them, try and understand and reflect on what they and their families have been are going through. Then you might know a little bit of what the the Anzac spirit is all about. Otherwise history will just repeat itself. A soldier always looks after his mates.

  55. Tung

    Thank you David Stephens for writing a thought provoking article. You have said everything I have ever wanted to say concerning down-sizing Anzac Day. The time for public debate and revising Anzac Day is long overdue.

  56. Ed Wallace

    I think Anzac day now has some problems. It is supposed to be a day of remembrance not celebration. Anzac day now has been overly commercialized and for want of a better term boganized.

    The over the top hype seems to have started with the AFL football match and since then Anzac day has become more and more commercialized and tacky.

    The obsession with Gailipoli a severe military defeat is getting ridiculous, there were many other battles in WWI.

    The bogan line is now something like “they fought for our freedom when they won at Gallipoli against the Germans!”.

    I remember growing up in the 80s Anzac day was the dawn service and the march for mostly veterans and old guys like my grandfather and no one payed much attention, now it is a day of hype and trashy tacky commercialization.

    It is a day for remembrance of our fallen soldiers not a tacky drunk yobbo bogan fest which is what it has become.

  57. Mary Senior

    A view I have quietly suppressed, well said.

  58. Ash

    This is a very persuasive argument but I am still of the belief that ANZAC Day is justified.

    My great Pa lost an eye in World War One and I am ever greatful of the many soldiers who risked their lives and died for us.

    I don’t think ANZAC Day glorifies war or boasst about winning but this article was extremely well written.

    Before anyone tries to convince me I am wrong (and I know there will be some who don’t accept my opinion) I did take the time to read this article (despite the fact I disagree) just so I could see both sides of this discussion.

  59. Ash

    But saying that it had been over the top recently.

    I remember it used to mean getting up early and going to a dawn service with my dad and pop to honour the solders who fought but now it seems that people use it like any other public holiday and an excuse to get off work.

  60. Louise

    Thank you, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for saying this aloud.

  61. no comment

    war is a gay as bowen

  62. Rossleigh

    While I have no wish to denegrate anyone who fought for their country, I’ve always found it a little confusing to hear the rhetoric around our soldiers invading Turkey in order to fight for freedom. That’s about as convincing as a Japanese holiday celebrating all those who lost their lives while trying to conquer Australia.
    Every now and then I’ve found it interesting to ask people about our role in WW1 with the following question, “So which side did we join, the one whose leader got shot, or did we join those defending the terrorist?”
    Makes for a lively discussion!

  63. Rossleigh

    While I have no wish to denegrate anyone who fought for their country, I’ve always found it a little confusing to hear the rhetoric around our soldiers invading Turkey in order to fight for freedom. That’s about as convincing as a Japanese holiday celebrating all those who lost their lives while trying to conquer Australia.
    Every now and then I’ve found it interesting to ask people about our role in WW1 with the following question, “So which side did we join, the one whose leader got shot, or did we join those defending the terrorist?”
    Makes for a lively discussion!

  64. Tim Osborne

    Ah, was a relief. I’ll leave the historical talk and proof etc. for other people in that field. But as a human being who is capable of understanding the logic behind things, ANZAC day to me is absolutely ridiculous (in the way that it is currently celebrated). Those soldiers who ‘Died for the country’ didn’t actually die for the country. The majority of them enlisted just for fun or because they felt like they needed to due to social pressures. The fact that our contribution didn’t really achieve much and that it was planned so poorly makes me cringe so hard when I hear people talking about it and celebrating it like we had fought off enemies trying to over-rule the country. Seriously. Really pisses me off that we celebrate something like this instead of something that Australia has done that has contributed to humanity.
    I hope I’m alive to see the year that this nonsense ends.

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