The Anzac Myth and Collective Narcissism. On Anzac Day 3

German child soldiers

[Part 3 of The Pure Bugle essay on Anzac Day. The child soldiers in the photo are of course in this case German. Note the little penises on their helmets supplementing their penis guns…]

3. The Anzac Myth, National Identity and Collective Narcissism

Anzac Day is of course more than a public ritual of mere war commemoration as common in many countries. Its structure and function is a complex one. However, the many strands of the ritual are centred around what is often even positively called the Anzac Myth, the core of a constructed Australian ‘national identity’ celebrated on Anzac Day and first consciously developed during and after World War One by Sydney Morning Herald journalist and Official War Historian C.E.W. Bean.

A succinct contemporary expression of this myth can be found in Governor-General Sir William Deane’s 1999 dawn service speeches at Anzac Cove and the Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli. It is perhaps also not without significance for an understanding of the myth’s cohesive power that, like Helen Garner, Deane was no right-winger but a left-of-centre Governor General under Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating and then John Howard, one known and respected for his concerns for the Aboriginal and marginalized poor.

Deane first summarizes the myth in a fairly typical list of positive abstract values:

For Anzac is not merely about loss. It is about courage, and endurance, and duty, and love of country, and mateship, and good humour and the survival of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of dreadful odds.

The fact that courage, endurance, duty, love of country, mateship, good humour and decency in adversity are not parochially restricted to Australian soldiers or Australians but are universal human values often displayed in many situations (and not only ‘in the face of dreadful odds’ and wars), of course does not penetrate or suit the nationalist narcissism so central to Anzac Day. To serve as core values for the construction of a ‘unique national identity’, an Australian exceptionalism, they need to be quarantined and monopolised.

Via this list the obligatory historical connection is then made to the identical values ascribed to the ancestors, specifically to the 19th century pioneers and bushmen. These are the carriers of the young colony that still – like some adolescents sent out into the world – obviously needed to be parentally ‘tested’ back ‘home’ where it counted:

These were qualities and values the pioneers had discovered in themselves […] They were tested at Gallipoli and on the ancient battlefields of Europe for the first time in the Great War.

Australians, in this proof-of-value perspective, it would seem had some kind of chip on the shoulder, some great sense of inferiority deriving, one assumes, from the derivative colonial origins, the ‘convict stain’, the historical youthfulness of culture and nationhood, the small population in an overwhelmingly vast, often hostile, continent. It seems this sense somehow needed to be ‘tested’, strenuously overcome, disproven by some ‘heroic’, ‘manly’, self-sacrificial act out in the ‘real world’, on the ‘world stage’ before the judgemental gaze of some imaginary audience of powerful nations and authority figures.

If, as in psychodynamic theory, the infant achieves primal identity through the loving gaze and unconditional love of the mother figure, then the infant settler-nation of Australia seemed to feel the need for the same admiration from the Mother Country Great Britain. In 1914 Australian men massively queued up and marched for days from all over the country to join the Australian Imperial Force and fight the British Empire’s war in Europe and the Middle East. It was the first time they had come together to do anything.

This infantile and adolescent attention seeking and collective inferiority complex (one aspect of which is actually known in Australia as the ‘cultural cringe’) would, as in another ‘young’ settler nation, the USA, seem to make up the socio-psychological explanation of the particularly strident and over-compensating form that Australian nationalism and ongoing compulsive ‘national identity-seeking’ frequently take to this day.

It is the national equivalent of the Napoleon complex or ‘little man syndrome’ also still often seen in the ‘drinking culture’ of Australian pubs or late-night streets: feeling weak or inferior, then bluster and bark loudly (‘what are you looking at!’), act aggressively, punch hard without warning. It also psychologically explains the peculiar Australian keenness to act as willing mercenaries for the imperial wars of the powerful British and US from 19th century Sudan and South Africa to Vietnam and Iraq. It is the adolescent compensatory psychology of the ultimately obedient larrikin.

The fact that Gallipoli was a military disaster then seems to, paradoxically, make it all the more suitable for heroic over-compensations. Here the spiritually ‘undefeated’ dwarf may unlock his mythic inner giant and ‘found’ a nation in obedient self-sacrifice and bloody slaughter. The thesis of the ‘Birth of Nationhood in War and Heroic Failure’ that is central to the Anzac Myth now inevitably appears.

Lacking home-grown battle sites apart from the tax riot of the Eureka Stockade and those of Aboriginal massacres, and, in a de-sacralized world of identical airports and shopping malls, perhaps even secretly envying indigenous notions of sacred sites, Turkish Gallipoli becomes another of the many Australian secular ‘icons’ like vegemite or the Hills Hoist rotary clothes line, and is simply symbolically expropriated and colonized as an Australian (read: white, male, Anglo-Celtic) ‘sacred site’:

And it [Gallipoli] was heroic even in failure. And what makes it unique is that it was where the people of Australia and New Zealand found their nationhood. […] The campaign failed but the men were not defeated. There is a crucial difference. […] While Gallipoli is Turkish land, it has become a sacred site of our nations.

Despite the official Christianity and God-references, Deane openly indulges in the blatant paganism or quasi-Shintoism of the Anzac Day belief in some sort of Valhalla of guiding warrior spirits still mystically informing the nation to this day. These ‘Anzac spirits’ are thus to be taken not only figuratively but quite literally:

They [the dead young Anzacs] are constantly with us in their and our homelands so far away. There, their spirit walks abroad. To challenge, to guide and to inspire. For as long as we remember. For as long as our nations endure.

The speech closes with another list of abstract nouns cementing in the Anzac basis of constructed ‘national identity’. The nouns then realize their own limits and we are quickly again in that special zone of Helen Garner’s ‘mysterious, nameless’, the zone of the nationalist participation mystique that is simply (Deane here citing leftist historian Manning Clark’s phrase) ‘too deep for words’. It nevertheless can be heard, albeit as a ‘whisper’, and, in a revealing and potentially threatening note of exclusion, only by the ‘true’ patriots:

We feel it in the quiet of our hearts. The sense of great sadness. Of loss. Of gratitude. Of honour. Of national identity. Of our past. Of the spirit, the depth, the meaning, and the very essence of our nations. And of the human values which those first Anzacs – and those who came after them – embodied […] And let us all be conscious of the whisper of things “too deep for words” that can be heard at Gallipoli by all who have true love of our people and our country in their hearts.

It is surely a mark of the Australian insularity and collective narcissism which Anzac Day itself celebrates that even non-right wing Anzac Day believers and ‘national identity’-forgers like Garner and Deane seem blissfully unaware of how close or even identical to other nations’ traumatic historical experience and dangerous myth-making their own notions actually are. The historical construction of the Anzac Day Myth they enthusiastically propagate could also be quite accurately described in the following fashion:

The memory of the war was refashioned into a sacred experience which provided the nation with a new depth of religious feeling, putting at its disposal ever-present saints and martyrs, places of worship, and a heritage to emulate.

The description, however, is not one of the creation of the Anzac Day myth via Charles Bean and others. It is US historian George L. Mosse’s description of the process by which the German political Right and the Nazis after 1918 created their potent, heroic and sacrificial ‘Myth of the War Experience’, the function of which was to mask the actual horrors of mass slaughter, to justify the war’s imperial purpose and ultimately to ‘legitimise bellicose nationalism’ of their own fascist kind. As an important practical expression of this bellicose nationalism and political myth-making, the Nazis, according to Mosse, made the cult of the war martyrs ‘central to their own political liturgy.’

Whatever else it may be for many uncritical, innocent or left-of-centre participants, a pagan religious ‘cult of war martyrs’ Anzac Day certainly also is. (As is its permanent architectural embodiment and Canberra’s core ‘sacred site’, the Australian War Memorial, an obligatory excursion venue for many a school class. As a ‘sacred’, ‘cult of war martyrs’ site, it is an exact Australian equivalent of the controversial Japanese Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo or the Nazi Ehrentempel for their ‘martyrs’ in Munich destroyed as part of US ‘denazification’ in 1947.)


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 19, 2015.

One Response to “The Anzac Myth and Collective Narcissism. On Anzac Day 3”

  1. humans are so easily herded…wish we’d rally around peace instead of war…but i guess peace is boring…

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