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As the centennial celebrations approach, David Kent warns of a half-decade set to be filled with “legislated nostalgia” of the ANZAC legend.
At this time of year, newspaper supplements and magazines often publish “best books” lists drawn from the previous year’s publications. The works recommended to readers usually fit into clear categories and have merits attached to that particular genre. Very rarely is a book simply listed as “important”, but for Australians there is one work that truly merits that description and is, arguably, the most important book published in 2014.
James Brown’s ANZAC’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession should be compulsory reading as we come ever closer to the centenary of the Gallipoli landing and the next four years of undifferentiated celebration and commemoration. Brown’s book attracted a modest degree of favourable comment, but its central message (as captured in the sub-title) is too uncomfortable for it to have received the attention it deserves. It questions the way the political and military establishments and the public at large have avoided serious discussion of Australia’s capacity for, and attitude to, its military and warfare. It will also disconcert and upset those who like their history told in simple, uncomplicated stories and who enjoy the vicarious thrill of tales of heroism and battle. The reason why it has this effect is because Brown does not accept the “legislated nostalgia” that has grown around the First World War and the Gallipoli misadventure in particular. Brown does not explore “legislated nostalgia” directly, but, perhaps unconsciously, that is what his book is all about.
Douglas Coupland first used the term in Generation X, published in 1991. to describe a process that forced “a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess.” As the concept has evolved and been more widely applied it has come to mean “Nostalgic images or ideas presented in such a way that even people who were not yet born seem to “remember” that time.” In a manner of speaking, it allows people to have (for them) real, personal memories of a past they did not experience. Events of great drama and trauma, like the horrors of the Great War, lend themselves to this kind of treatment.
The real danger is in the tendency of such memories for nostalgia to presuppose a degree of sympathetic yearning for a past that is viewed with a largely uncritical warmth or affection. This is what Brown reveals in his wide-ranging analysis of the consequences of the national obsession with the ANZAC legend, but to discuss here the military, strategic and political consequences of Australia’s ostrich-like attitudes to warfare and the roles of its servicemen and women would spoil the discoveries awaiting the reader. I am more concerned about the ways in which the already strong “legislated nostalgia” is being reinforced on a previously unimaginable scale. It has not yet descended to the level of bread and circuses, but many of the scheduled events are clearly more celebratory than commemorative.
We have already seen the start of a wave of nostalgia that will flood every media form and reach tsunami proportions after 25 April. The process began last November with a re-staging of the departure of the first troops from Albany, an event that cost over $3 million, and was broadcast nationwide. The festivities were more reminiscent of the start of the Sydney to Hobart race than the commemoration of the first stage in a great human tragedy.
The Federal government is funding community events dealing with the Great War by giving $125,000 to every electorate. State governments too are providing funds for what Brown calls “a cacophony of ceremonies” too varied to list here. The bill to the taxpayers will be close to $325 million and possibly as much again will be available from private funding. Australia will spend 200% more on the Great War centenary than the United Kingdom and to what precisely will the expansively funded activities amount? One thing alone is clear; there will be no departure from the “legislated nostalgia” already enshrined in the ANZAC legend.
Nations and national identity, as Benedict Anderson observed, are products of the imagination and the stories we choose to tell ourselves about our past. Australia has a long-established story of the Gallipoli landings and the Western Front. Myths are preferred to historical accuracy and reality. The story of the Anzac and the Digger, already established deep in popular memory by decades of “legislated nostalgia”, will be embellished in publications, commemorations and celebrations over the next four years. Do not expect, however, to see any deviation from the familiar script, nor any shortening of the long shadow.