Review: Anzacs Long Shadow

‘The Allure of ANZAC’ and the Australian Defence Force.

 Review of James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, Redback4, 2014, 184pp.

9781863956390

My great Uncle and Grandfather both served in Vietnam. My great Uncle was with the Australian Armoured division while my Grandfather was a member of the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Sydney (III). Growing up around these two men offer a paradox between serving members or veterans – especially the Navy – of how Anzac is commemorated and how the day is perceived in the public. While most follow the words inscribed on the Sydney War Memorial in Hyde Park, “Let silent contemplation be your offering,” others turn Anzac day into something that James Brown believes resembles more like a festival.

James Brown, a former commanding officer in the ADF, and now a fellow at the Lowy Institute researching military issues and defence policy, has produced a short, sharp and sophisticated analysis of Australia’s Defence Force and the role the ADF played in Afghanistan.

With 2014 being the centenary of WWI and also the upcoming centenary of Anzac in 2015, the Australian Government is planning to spend $325 million (with an already tight budget) on the prestigious event. In addition, there is an expected additional $300 million through private donations. In comparison to the United Kingdom (here we could draw on the famous lines of Andrew Fisher: “Australia will defend Britain with every last man and every last Shilling”), Australia will outspend the ‘Mother Country’ by 200 per cent.

The Australian Government’s funding of the centenary of Anzac and the First World War, is match by the commercialization of this ‘sacred day.’ Brown lists several commercial activities and products, including a paddle boat race across the Dardanelles and the ‘Sands of Gallipoli.’ Brown mockingly chastises such promotion that was legislated against in the 1920s. This extravagant event is best summarized by Brown himself: “This year an Anzac festival begins, a commemorative program so extravagant it would make a sultan swoon… But commemorating soldiers is not the same as connecting with them.”

After dealing with the formalities of the centenary of Anzac, Brown moves onto a more pressing issue facing the ADF. Brown highlights the growing rift between spending significant amounts of money on dead soldiers while neglecting those who are living and suffering from their experiences. The extent of this rift is felt from the public – that has no understanding of War in the Modern World – through to the Federal Government and well into the organisations established for the Returned Soldier – most notably the RSLs.

Brown believes that the Anzac legend has instilled a Nineteenth Century character that military structure, discipline, and strategy are no match for the individual, egalitarian Digger: an “idolatry of a culture suspicious of officers that favours egalitarianism.” The Anzac legend manifests itself in today’s soldiers: wearing thongs and shorts when attending dangerous duties.

Not only has the Anzac legend created a culture of relaxation and lenience in defence force personnel, it has also neglected other pillars of defence such as the Navy. Of the 96 Victorian Crosses awarded in all conflicts, not one mariner has been awarded the VC. Yet, a reoccurring theme is the posthumous awards for valor for Simpson and his Donkey.

The growing gap between the living soldier and that of the dead soldier is clearer in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. A war of great complexity – “we weren’t fighting one war, we were fighting hundreds across the country” – the Australian military performed with outstand professionalism and military precision. However, when it came to communicating what Australia’s role was, no politician or high-ranking military officer could articulate what the Australian role was: Australian soldiers would not combat against the enemy – but they did. Military personnel will not engage in narcotic operations – but they did. Much of the military debate or conversation on Australia’s defence force is focused on the past.

Brown’s analysis of Australia’s military is the strength and major focus of this book. The issue is not with fighting personnel, but rather those higher in command and also the politicians responsible for their deployment and policies. Compared with several other nations, Australian Colonels, Generals and Majors are not seen in the public debate. The military does not encourage those in high command to write or analyse previous decision, policies and mistakes Australia, or others, have made. For example, the Australian military does not analyse the amphibious landing at Gallipoli. Quantico is the only place to have conducted a detailed review and analysis by George Patten in 1938. Without this detailed information, it is possible that the D-Day invasion would not have had such success. The lack of review and writing process could also hinder the development of Australia’s defence force. Brown highlights new purchases made by the Australian Government without a shift in strategy or focus to use these new purchases with the desired effect.

It is this aspect is concerning for such a well renowned military force that communication is not encouraged, often leaving the public in the dark as to what policy are we applying, what are we doing in Afghanistan? And why are we doing these operations? This is where Australian politicians also fail. Stephen Smith and Joel Fitzgibbon who both held the Defence Minister positions are depicted as glib and uninterested with defence issues. Complex issues are ditched for easy and cheap defence policies such as a new medal or pin for military families.

Brown has found the middle ground in this debate, offering a well-balanced and analytical account of the issues facing the ADF and the well being of living soldiers. There are a lot of issues – past and present – wrapped up in this book, but Brown handles these issues with a brightness that is welcomed within this debate. Brown is not a historian, and does not claim to be, however, he has handled the debate over the Anzac legend with great poise, balance, fierceness and relevance to the issues facing the ADF and personnel.

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