A central narrative ... troops leaving for Gallipoli in 1915.
Anzac Day once seemed destined to die a natural death. In the 1960s, veterans of the First World War still lived among us, their missing limbs covered by pinned sleeves and trouser legs. These soldiers were mortals whose day was destined to pass.
By the 1970s, the new nationalism tried to build an identity separate from the mother country. Anzac Day, commemorating a disastrous battle in a horrific war fought to preserve the British Empire, did not fit.
The Anzac Legend, though, is now entrenched in our definition of what it means to be Australian. This development has troubled historians such as Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, who wish we would remember better stories about our democratic and republican traditions.
"The ordinary Australian writ large" ... Don Bradman.
Anzac is centred on men and was, in Lake’s words, "White Australia’s creation myth". In the same way, former prime minister Paul Keating prefers the more Australian experience of New Guinea during World War II as the defining moment of nationhood. Anzac is a false historical memory.
Inventing national traditions, though, is nearly impossible. The Fourth of July is not about historical truth and neither is Bastille Day. The Americans and the French are always adapting their history to the concerns of the present.
Every American political party or social movement has eventually created its own version of 1776 to prove its American-ness. Many of the founding fathers owned slaves but in the 1850s Abraham Lincoln seized on the idea that ‘All Men are Created Equal’ to denounce slavery.
More recently Tea Party Republicans have channelled the spirit of the revolutionaries by wearing frock coats and tricorn hats as they denounced the Obama administration’s spending and taxes.
So the question for Anzac is not what happened on April 25, but "how is Anzac woven into Australian life?"
The narrative that is central to Australian identity is not simply about proving national manhood against overwhelming odds at Gallipoli. The larger truth, repeatedly embraced as Australian identity, tells of a small nation proving itself among the great.
Australians lionised prime minister Billy Hughes when he faced down American President Woodrow Wilson to remove the ''racial equality clause'' from the League of Nations Covenant. When Wilson asked Hughes if he was prepared to defy the rest of the civilised world on that issue, he replied bluntly: "That’s about the size of it."
Sport is particularly rich in such exploits. Sir Donald Bradman, despite his own troubled service record during World War II, epitomises elements of the Anzac narrative: He was born in small-town Australia and taught himself the skills of the game with the proverbial cricket stump and golf ball - so he was a natural cricketer in the same way the bush had "trained" the Anzacs.
Bradman was tried by the mortal threat of the bodyline series against England in the summer of 1932-33 and he came back with almost superhuman feats in the 1948 tour of England. On the final day of the Fourth Test at Headingly, Bradman led Australia to victory with 404 runs scored in 345 minutes.
In 2001, Bob Carr, then the premier of New South Wales, highlighted these ideas in Bradman's obituary: "Don Bradman was the ordinary Australian writ large, who came from an ordinary house in a small provincial town … But he found his calling and practised it, and with it he electrified a nation and startled an empire."
The 1983 victory of Alan Bond’s yacht Australia II in the America’s Cup shows how easily Anzac-type heroes can be manufactured. Bond himself now modestly calls the win "the sporting triumph of the century" - but few Australians would have contradicted him on September 26, 1983.
Throughout the challenge, Bond emphasised that Australia was the underdog and when victory came, we knew it was a shared national moment re-enacting the essential Anzac story: Australians can beat their toughest rivals, no matter how daunting the odds. That story is revived every time Australians claim victory at the Olympics, Wimbledon, the Ashes, or even a contest as esoteric as the America’s Cup.
This reliving of the Anzac narrative is embedded in Australian culture. Clive James, for example, recounts in his memoirs that he arrived in London as an unsophisticated Australian who soon conquered the capital. He learned to dance the twist, could seemingly drink with the best of them and was finally accepted into Cambridge University. We know the rest of the story: James, an ordinary boy from suburban Jannali, becomes a cultural guru in London.
Our most popular fictions also echo Anzac. Crocodile Dundee is a bushman whose charm and guile allow him to conquer New York. Whether Dundee is experimenting with the bidet, figuring out the gender of a cross-dresser or comparing knives with a mugger, he’s a larrikin triumphing over the American metropolis.
These are but two examples of Anzac stories – the tales Australians tell themselves about how they are punching above their weight. Nobel Prize winners such as Peter Doherty or Elizabeth Blackburn fit this model. So, too, did Patrick White. Despite his jaundiced view of Australian life, winning Australia’s first Nobel Prize for Literature made him a household name.
When Australian stars shine in Hollywood, their experience back home gives them an edge. Director Peter Spierig, for example, recently told reporters: "You have to be tough just to survive as an actor in Australia. It isn’t a culture of princesses; the glamorous side of film-making is largely an American thing."
In March, New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell could offer no higher praise of Dame Joan Sutherland than these words: "I think what’s fantastic about this woman, who was just such a magnificent singer, was that it just demonstrates that Australians can do anything on the world stage."
So, far from being a narrow, misremembered tale of a horrific war, Anzac has become the template of Australian identity: Even if Australia is small, the common people’s wisdom and talents triumph in the much larger world.
The Anzac narrative assumes that Australia is an outpost of Western civilisation and it is in that arena we still want to prove ourselves. We may export raw materials to China and Japan but we measure ourselves by whether we can make it in London or Los Angeles.
Anzac is a very protean narrative but the key elements were in the original reports of Gallipoli from the British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. He campaigned against the Mediterranean strategy, believing it was a strategic disaster. His April 25 dispatch from Gallipoli, published in Australia in early May, noted that the boats had almost reached the beach when the Turks opened fire.
"Australians rose to the occasion. They did not wait for orders or for the boats to reach the beach, but sprang into the sea, formed a sort of rough line, and rushed the enemy’s trenches. Their magazines were uncharged, so they just went in with cold steel."
Despite the odds, the colonials were "practical above all else".
"This race of athletes" scaled the cliffs oblivious to the Turks firing down on them. Of the wounded, who were "shot to bits", Ashmead-Bartlett wrote: "They were happy because they knew they had been tried for the first time, and had not been found wanting." These "raw colonial troops" were the equal of the heroes of the major battles on the Western Front.
Anzac is not the centre of Australian national identity because the nation could only be forged in the crucible of war. That gets the process backwards. Anzac became the celebration of Australian identity because it embodies the story we’ve long told each other about what it means to be Australian. That Anzac narrative has many variations but they all explain that, even as a small nation, Australia is the little country that could. And Australians tell those stories to each other every day of the year.
Critics who doubt the meanings of Anzac are fighting a losing battle trying to correct false Anzac memory syndrome. National identity is not about historical truth but about what we imagine ourselves to be. And, like it or not, Australians are still talking and thinking about proving themselves on the world stage and those who succeed are our heroes. Anzac was simply the original version of that story.
Ian Mylchreest is an Australian journalist living in Las Vegas.
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