Last week when author James Brown was interviewed on ABC TV about his new book Anzac’s Long Shadow, it drew a predictable response. From the RSL National President to politicians who were interviewed the prohibition on criticism of Anzac day was clear. It is sacrosanct, and the way it is now celebrated is ‘what the people want’. Nobody would entertain the idea of questioning the nation’s priorities in respect of this day, much less offer any leadership about it. Well, I hope that away from the glare of the cameras they take time to read this book, and to think about the many issues it raises.
In a nutshell, Brown (a former army officer) argues that Australia spends too much time, money and emotion on the Anzac legend at the expense of current serving military personnel and our future defence needs. He points out that Australia is going to spend $325 million on WW1 commemorations, which is twice what the British will spend. Some of this will be spent on sporting events tagged with the Anzac brush, some on tours and cruises, some on more memorials in more places, bigger and better than what we already have, and $27 million of it is going to a company that’s going to manage events in Turkey. This is, as Brown says, a commemorative program so extravagant that it would make sultans swoon and pharaohs envious. It has become, he says without mincing words, a sort of military Halloween … with commemorative events at Gallipoli now more like an all-Australian jamboree.
But this is not a churlish harangue. Brown is genuinely concerned about significant matters on which we are not spending taxpayer’s dollars. While no Anzac commemoration can be too lavish, defence spending is in a parlous state, underfunded by 25%. It is naïve, he says, to imagine both that there are no impending threats and that our preferred option of diplomacy will always protect us. By celebrating the courage of the hastily assembled armies that fought in World Wars 1 & 2, and by fostering the myth of the Aussie digger (braver and smarter than all other soldiers anywhere, lack of training notwithstanding) we are deluding ourselves if we imagine that similar unpreparedness can be victorious in future wars in our vicinity. And we’re not doing ourselves any favours by perpetrating the pseudo-democratic notion of contempt for the officers who lead them.
In a 2010 memorial lecture for Sir John Hackett, the current chief of the ADF, General David Hurley, outlined the kind of skills needed to operate in a ‘volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous’ region. In his view, Australia would face particular challenges in defending itself in this turbulent new world, lacking advantages in military size and unable to maintain a broad technological edge over regional powers. Australia’s military leaders would need to operate remotely and autonomously, and possess a deep understanding of the cultures, languages* and ways of thinking of regional countries. In short, Hurley suggested, defence would need to adopt a highly innovative culture and mould a new kind of officer – one able to master innovative strategy, strive for intellectual excellence, develop deep knowledge as well as strategically important personal relationships in two regional societies, and most importantly, think critically and analytically. (p. 105)
* Tonight I heard ABC journalists from News 24 turn aside from the latest briefing about the missing Malaysian plane because a Malaysian journalist asked a question and was answered by the Minister in Malay. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, no journalist should be hired by any Australian media organisation unless they can speak an Asian language, and anyone deployed to work in Southeast Asia should be fluent in Bahasa.
Even if you’re a committed pacifist and don’t share Brown’s concern about our readiness for defence, there are other reasons to be dubious about our national priorities. Brown writes in a calm and measured tone (he’s a Military Fellow at the Lowy Institute) but the reader can sense his outrage about the complacency with which Australia has slid into distorting the original meaning of Anzac and turning it into big business while at the same time neglecting the mental health needs of former soldiers. As it says in the media release that accompanied this book, ‘for the same cost as the Federal government’s centenary program, a mental health professional could be provided for every army combat unit for the next 30 years’. Brown doesn’t use the word ‘hypocrisy’, but I will: is that kind of hypocrisy what we Aussie citizens really want? I suspect not, it’s just that we haven’t thought about our priorities, or if we have, we’ve been too constrained by the aura of Anzac to say anything.
What really unsettled me in reading this book was the chapter about the RSL. Of all our charities, the Returned Services League is the one that pulls most at the heartstrings, and we give generously to its appeals. Somewhat naïvely , I now realise, I have often dined at RSL Clubs in NSW when travelling, believing that I’m helping to support returned soldiers and their families. I did not know that while RSL Clubs may be decked out in military memorabilia on their walls, that they are separate from RSL charities. Less than one in twenty of its members have been in the military and fewer still have been to war. They are big business now, and they wield enormous political power as we saw when the previous government tried to introduce gambling reforms.
So colossally does the Rooty Hill RSL Club loom over western Sydney that for the past several years it has waged a campaign demanding its own postcode. Within its grounds are a full Novotel and bowling alley. Its gambling floor is a sea of hundreds of poker machines. The then prime minister decamped her entourage to the club in 2013 and it has played host to prime ministerial debates in the last two federal election campaigns. The ‘Last Post’ is played every night, governors have paid tribute at the club’s war memorial and the NSW RSL held its conference there in 2012 – but this suburban casino is no veterans’ organisation. In 2012, the Rooty Hill RSL Club brought in $71.5 million in revenue from its operations, with $41.6 million of this coming from its gambling activities alone. Donations to charities and community groups, including in-kind donations of venue space and hospitality, amounted to just $900,000 and Rooty Hill will not divulge whether this included veterans’ charities. The Castle Hill and Parramatta RSL Clubs brought in $52 million of revenue, yet less than half of a percent of this ($250,000) went towards ‘veterans’ support and welfare’. (p. 134-5)
When a club wins an award for its generosity to charity because it gives $1.2 million of its $9.3 million dollar profits – something is wrong, and when it’s trading on the RSL name but only two of the charities have anything to do with veterans, that’s a matter that should be more widely known. In Brown’s words:
The issue is not that RSL clubs aren’t doing charitable work. The issue is that they’re not doing nearly enough given the extraordinarily privileged position they occupy in society. (p. 135)
Ever wandered through the imposing War Memorial in Canberra, awed by its sombre exhibits? Me too, so it surprised me to learn that our national obsession has spawned hundreds of Anzac histories but that there’s no official military history of Australian service in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq or Afghanistan. None has been commissioned. Nobody has analysed events to learn what went well, and what didn’t. This neglect has much to do with the invisibility of the modern serving soldier, and our collective ignorance about what we need to do to avoid war in the future and to fight it well if it’s unavoidable. It’s quite shocking to read that
It took ten years and ten combat deaths before the parliament became sufficiently interested in the Afghan war to debate it formally. Six months earlier, however, it had found the time to debate petitioning the UK government for a pardon for ‘Breaker Morant’, who was court-martialled in 1902, during the Boer war. (p.75)
This is a brave book. Brown also tackles the ceremonial that we have come to expect from our politicians when a soldier dies on active service. Starting with the first casualty in Iraq, our political leaders have attended the funerals of each and every one. This expectation delivered a truly incongruous result when the Prime Minister, the defence minister and the chief of the defence forces rushed back to Australia – cancelling attendance at the Pacific Islands Forum, liaison with our old enemy Vietnam and a meeting with the US Secretary of State. All these long-planned events were important to our long-term strategic security. Is that really what we want? Is it really what the bereaved families want, when their loved one has given his life to improve our long-term strategic security?
Subtitled The cost of our national obsession, James Brown’s forensic analysis of the financial, emotional and social costs of the Anzac industry is a book that should be read by our politicians, military leaders, business leaders, and media organisations. It also needs to be read by our school teachers who are besieged with new pictorial histories each year and intense pressure to devote more and more of the school curriculum to this one single event in our history. Teachers are unwittingly complicit in a national program of Anzac inculcation, with the children identified by the Anzac centenary commission as an ‘important conduit’. That’s not something that should happen by default.
Anzac’s Long Shadow is part of the Redback series, published by Black Inc. Marketed as ‘books with bite, short books on big issues by leading Australian writers and thinkers’, this series looks like one to keep an eye on.
Author: James Brown
Title: Anzac’s Long Shadow, The Cost of our National Obsession
Publisher: Black Inc, 2014
Source: review copy courtesy of Black Inc
Fishpond: Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obession
Or from good bookshops everywhere.