What ANZAC can really teach us

According to media reports, the education minister, Christopher Pyne, is set to review the national curriculum with the review to address concerns about the history curriculum “not recognising the legacy of western civilisation and not giving important events in Australia’s history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as Anzac Day”. He also wants the curriculum to celebrate Australia.

I welcome more understanding of Australian history. As a sometimes employer of savvy young people, I have been occasional startled by bewildering gaps in knowledge about our past. More than one water cooler argument has revolved around an insistence that Australia wasn’t forged from a revolution at a stockade, but became a federation in a close run contest at the ballot box.

So if students are to learn more about ANZAC, then this too is welcome. But we should present the full story not a whitewashed mythology. There is much to tell.

Before we get to Anzac cove, they could explore how our fledgling settlement managed to insert ourselves into almost every international conflict since the Napoleonic wars in a bid to show Britain we were no convict outpost.

This includes wars such as the Sudan conflict, the 2nd Boer war, the Boxer rebellion and even the White Armies invasion of Russia with few having war aims with any conceivable bearing on the territorial integrity of our island.

They could be taught how the titular protagonists of the First World War were three reigning monarchs, including two absolute rulers, who were cousins and grandchildren of Queen Victoria, jostling for territory and influence across Europe.

Lessons might ask how a generation of young Australians, many underage, were cajoled and bullied with ‘’white feathers” and propaganda into signing up to a foreign slaughterhouse of 20th Century technology fought with 19th Century thinking, despite Australians rejecting conscription for the war twice at the Ballot box.

They might recall how survivors came back wounded in body and soul and how many reviled the veneration and glorification of war until their dying days.

They could be told that the landings at Gallipoli, the crucible of the ANZAC legend, are highly contested, while remaining a tribute to the blood and sacrifice of the young Australians who fought there.

They could be invited to ponder the wisdom of the landings on a beach before rugged hills, ridges and steep gullies and the failure to knock Turkey out of the war.

They could discover Gallipoli actually represented an offensive action: the invasion by Australia of another country – Turkey. A place which in turn is not simply the gallant guardian of Anzac Cove, but wears the odium of great crimes against Armenians under the cover of war. Crimes that inspired the Nazi’s yet were largely forgotten by the world and punished by no one.

They could learn how later in 1919 the then Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes used the fledgling legend of ANZAC and Australia’s sixty-thousand dead to press for a regime of harsh reparations from Germany at a postwar world conference at Versailles, while opposing a covenant on racial equality in the charter of the League of Nations proposed by Japan.

They might ponder whether such interventions undermined the liberal position at the conference, forged by US President Woodrow Wilson, who strove to win the peace through a sustainable international architecture founded on modern ideals of open diplomacy, equality of travel and trade bound with a strong League of Nations.

Students could absorb books and programs on inter-war Germany, such as those by Laurence Rees. They might grasp how Versailles created economic and political conditions for vast numbers of unemployed, aimless and resentful demobilised German soldiers to devolve almost immediately into private military units called Friekorps, dooming any attempt to demilitarise and democratise Germany at its birth.

They could discover that a convergence of these paramilitary groups, a host of nationalist political parties and economic downturn lead to a second war which resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews, dissenters, people with disabilities and gays while cutting down another generation of 39,649 Australian diggers who answered the call to service.

They could be told how after this war, the legend of ANZAC was deployed to promote Australia’s involvement in yet more wars such as Korea, Vietnam and even Iraq.

To round things off they might tally how many of our wars involved neither a direct territorial threat or benefit to Australia and didn’t achieve their war aims.

Let’s teach and learn about ANZAC. As we do let’s acknowledge the potential for learning about history not only to celebrate Australia, but to unwrap legends and discover how they’ve shaped us, for better and for worse.

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.

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