Anzac: a class struggle

 ‘History wars’ are about how to control the future. They are not disputes over the past. Stories about the past are pressed into service to buttress the needs of classes, imperia and social strata. Nowhere is this practice more blatant than in the reinvention of ANZAC since the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Turkey on 25 April 1915. The propaganda sought to suppress opposition to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Legend is to oil us into the conflict that the US war-machine turns to next.

The ALP grabbed the opportunity of the 1990 anniversary to paper over the wounds that Indigenous Australians and their supporters had inflicted on Hawkie’s ‘consensus’ when we rained on the 1988 bi-centennial parade. From then on, all governments have thrown money at the War Memorial and into marketing ANZAC-ery. Every other cultural institution has suffered annual two-percent cuts, misnamed ‘efficiency dividends’.

Keating promoted Kokoda to get away from the Brits and to put us more firmly into the US orbit.  The 30-second roll-over of film clips of Australian forces fighting from 1914 to 2014 leaves people wondering whether the ANZACs fought at Kokoda. Surveys have shown that even the backpackers who hoof it to Gallipoli know little more about ANZAC day than that it is when Essendon plays Collingwood.

 Cultivating ignorance

Despite all the money that has been poured into celebrating slaughter, the level of ignorance can never be over-estimated. In countering the propaganda, activists cannot afford to take anything for granted. People are likely to be turned off by being hit over the head with a barrage of facts. Posing questions casts doubt over larger false assumptions. For instance, how many members of parliament know: that the ‘I’ in AIF stands for Imperial, not Infantry?; that an Imperial Japanese cruiser escorted the ANZACs to the Middle-East?; that Russia was ‘our side’ in both world wars?

By raising what seem like trivial pursuit questions, we set people thinking about what else we all need to ask. Such questions open the window to the suspicion that there is a lot more that we are not being told.

Central to the ANZAC landing at Kanakkale was a scheme by Churchill to supply the Czarist regime through warm-water ports. The aim was to make sure that reverses on the Eastern front did not provoke another revolution against Czardom. That had happened in 1905 after its defeat by Japan. The Dardanelles campaign was aimed against the Russian people. Churchill’s fear was well grounded as 1917 proved. To reverse that revolution, the Allies demonstrated their commitment to ‘self-determination’ by sending armies of intervention into the Baltic and Siberia from 1919 to 1924. As at the Dardanelles, they were driven into the sea.

 Defending Australia by defeating conscription

Above all, we need to promote positive stories from the war years. Nothing will be gained from standing on the sidelines throwing rocks. Our aim is to change people’s minds, not to assert moral superiority. There is no place for a local up-date of the Pharisee’s prayer: ‘thank you god for not making me like other Australians’.

The most potent approach is through the two conscription plebiscites. Majorities of the population twice voted NO against conscription for overseas service. Those votes blocked a more overt dictatorship by the compradors. Our liberties were defended at home and not on the Western Front.

Along with the defeat of the Ban-the-Reds bill in 1951, the anti-conscription victories are the most important achievements for us all to absorb. Each is many times more significant for the nature of Australia’s polity than the 1688 counter-revolution in Britain that Pyne rabbits on about for the national curriculum.

Jack Simpson and comrades

Lacking the tens of millions of dollars to combat the government’s distortions, we have to take advantage of the yarns that the war-mongers are peddling. There are free kicks in regard to Jack Simpson-Kirkpatrick and his donkey. Jack wrote to his mum in England asking when the workers there were going to have a revolution and get rid of the millionaires and dukes. The Department of Veterans Affairs funds a school essay competition which perpetuates lies by omission and suppression about Simpson’s proletarian politics. The truth is in Peter Cochrane’s just reissued book.

Each region has its own left-wing diggers. VC winner Hugo Throssell came home a socialist and anti-war activist. So did fellow West Australian Bert Facey, as he retold in A Fortunate Life. And so did the last Anzac, Tasmanian Alec Campbell, who acted as bodyguard for railways union militant Bill Morrow in the 1930s.

What we need is not a set of counter-assertions. Students are turned off by being preached at. Instead, we can challenge the official line by posing questions. Hence, rather than asking students to write essays about Simpson as an industrial militant, we can kill two lies with one question: had Simpson survived Gallipoli, how would he have voted on conscription in October 1916? That question becomes a reminder that the closer the troops were to the front-line the more they voted NO.

Grizzling about the lavish funding of pro-war propaganda won’t cut through to the attitudes of the ninety-nine percent. One practical step from the ACT Branch of the Society for the Study of Labour History is an essay competition to bring attention to the war on the home front. Other groups should approach their local schools to see what is possible. Teachers will find lots of useful material on the honesthistory website.

 The real battle for Australia

Since 2012, a band of Aborigines from the Tent Embassy has led settler supporters behind the official 11am march up Canberra’s ANZAC Parade. The marchers carry placards documenting the ‘Frontier Wars’. The crowd welcomes the contingent with applause.

            Anxious to bring the indigenous inside the tent, the War Memorial now stage-manages a special ceremony to honour the indigenous who served – after decades of neglect. RSL clubs had long refused to admit them. The Memorial also has displays highlighting their contribution. One matter on which consensus is unlikely to be reached before the war celebrations end in 2020 is how to deal with the ‘Frontier Wars’.

            It is one thing to support the erection of a memorial to them. But it can have no place among memorials celebrating the imperialist side of the frontier. How many indigenes want to be tied to the settler troops sent against the Maori?

War against workers

War and peace are class questions. Every war memorial is a monument to how working people from every country were used to advance the needs of monopolising capitals. We have to reclaim those statues and lists of names for our class as sites of conflict.

We also need to appreciate why plenty of workers could embrace ANZAC Day as ‘the one day of the year’. Alan Seymour’s 1962 play of that name ends with the father cornered into admitting that ANZAC Day is the only time when anything he has done in life is given any public acknowledgment. His work receives no recognition. This explanation for his chest-beating is an indictment against the destructiveness of capitalism, second only to the slaughter itself.

We can extend his insight. ANZAC-ery is reducing the notion of serving the people to war service. The hour-by-hour service to the well-being of communities from nurses and teachers is marginalized. The choice of yet another general as governor-general reinforces the lie that men with guns embody what it means to be Australian – never forgetting the mining magnates and stock-exchange jobbers whose interests those guns protect.


BACK TO Australian History