Anzac as Apologia and Religion
Soaked to the core, Melbournians gathered around the War Memorial in thousands, gazing at the flickering, all-resistant
eternal flame in an annual tribute to Australia’s fallen. Each year, the secular religion of Anzac (the Australian and
New Zealand Army Corps) receives more adherents, gathers a few more followers, and nabs a few more converts among the
This also shows in budget outlays. Between 2014 and 2018, $562 million will be expended in commemoration services of the
First World War. This staggering amount exceeds that of other nations involved in the conflict, including the combined
budgets of Germany, Russia, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Romania and the United
States. France, by way of example, is set to spend 120 million euros. (To date, only 30 million of it has been secured
from public institutions.)
What the Anzac Day ceremonies do not do is reflect on political folly and irresponsibility. This is the event’s greatest
triumph: that of political deflection. Human sacrifice is the enormous tent under which political blunders and military
catastrophes are subsumed, negating any questioning about decisions made and engagements undertaken in conflict.
Gallipoli in 1915 was a defeat of monumental proportions for the Anzac soldiers, a needless slaughter born from a
Churchillian gamble. Editors and politicians chose to see it differently, finding in murderous folly a “baptism of
fire”. Importantly, it was an invasion of the Ottoman state, a violation of sovereignty that has somehow been lost in
the annals of saccharine reflection.
The modern disaster theme, with wheels of doom re-invented for the next futile deployment, can be gathered in the latest
visit of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to Iraq and Afghanistan. These are both engagements without end, costly to life
and tax payer, and do little to mark out, let alone define, the national interest.
In the case of Iraq, the need to train local security forces always seemed absurd given the existence of a functioning
state prior to the ill-conceived, illegal invasion of 2003, of which Australia was an enthusiastic participant.
Having essentially destroyed Iraq, crippling its infrastructure and disbanding its security forces before a hail of
sectarian vengeance, Australian soldiers and personnel then found themselves in acts of feeble reconstruction.
The public relations here is typical, and again an annex of the deflection program so resonant in Anzac Day propaganda:
Australian forces deemed worthy participants in the Building Partner Capacity Mission at Taji, responsible, according to
the Sydney Morning Herald, for the training of more than 20,000 Iraqi Security Forces and 3,000 federal police.
As this training takes place, suicide bombers continue to act as deep, bloody reminders about this mission. Another is
the presence of Islamic State or Daesh, a target of the Australian Special Operations Task Group assisting the Iraqi
Counter-Terrorism Service, this, the offspring of a deranged mother of necessity in the wake of Iraq’s sectarian
violence in a post-Saddam world.
The vulgar pieties across the networks further serve to show how journalists have become votaries to the Anzac cult.
Priests and priestesses interview veterans and politicians about the current role of Anzac and its importance. Points
about how best to rehabilitate the broken on returning from conflict are bandied about without asking the question as to
why they were sent to a distant theatre to begin with. Questions are asked about how best to educate children on the
The Anzac Day Commemoration Committee states the prosaic point about carrying the rituals through the young. “By
building young children’s understandings about traditions, facts and folklore of ANZAC Day, the many real life stories
of sacrifices and heroism of everyday Australians will not be lost, but be handed down to future generations.”
The battle over what those facts are, let alone the mythologies that tend to obscure them, is not something of interest
to the memorialisers. (A few rear guard actions have been fought against this, notably by David Stephens and Alison
Broinowski in the edited collection The Honest History Book. )
More important are the social activities that might engage the entire family, as war can be so much fun. The South
Australian Advertiser lists five ways “to keep children entertained in South Australia on Anzac Day.”
These include horse drawn trams to Granite Island “where eagle-eyed kids can keep an eye out for penguins” or seeing the
Anzac Day Variety Concert at Elizabeth’s Shedley Theatre. To expend energy, children will find Lollipop’s Playland and
Café a treat. And so it goes on.
The rituals of the secular religion demand consistency. Turnbull has followed, unreflectively, in the steps of a
historically dysfunctional continuum. There is no self-examination, merely belief. There is no questioning, merely
Turnbull’s Facebook page supplies us an example: “More than 100,000 men and women have died in the service of our
nation. Many have been left wounded in body and spirit. Their sacrifice has protected our liberty and our values. And
their legacy continues in the work of those who serve today.”
Such statements suggest that the issue of true accountability, the need to haul the political classes and decision
makers before a tribunal of informed opinion, is most needed. These are the individuals, from Prime Ministers to
generals, who persist in needlessly damaging Australian citizens and those who suffer their virtue and values. Anzac Day
remains their great apologia, their alibi, and their exoneration.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.