Does the Anzac legend fit our multicultural identity?

24 April 2015

The question perhaps is not whether there is a place for multicultural Australians in the narratives of Gallipoli and other battles of the past, but whether the values that the Anzac legend enshrines are ones that transcend culture, ethnicity and faith.

'Anzac' is often described as what it 'means to be Australian'. But as we approach the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 it is time to ask whether all Australians in today's multicultural society see the Anzac legend as the core of national identity.

Anzac was, after all, originally a story about white men. When World War I broke out, the vast majority of Australians were either born in Australia or traced their ancestry to England, Ireland and Scotland. Unless they were 'substantially' of European descent, they could not volunteer for the Australian Imperial Force. Despite this, at least 850 indigenous men managed to enlist, as did a scattering of men of Chinese and other ethnic backgrounds. More than 3000 Australian women also volunteered to serve as nurses. But still the experience of battle, which was at the heart of the original Anzac legend, was a male one.

Today the majority of Australians are women.  And although around three-quarters of the population still claim to have Australian, English, Scottish or Irish ancestry, the other quarter is a kaleidoscope of peoples from across the world.

Is Anzac relevant to these culturally diverse groups?  Most of them emigrated after the two world wars in which the majority of the Anzacs served. Many of them are of faiths other than Christianity which infuses the rituals and language of Anzac even today. Some have come from countries which were Australia's enemies in past conflicts.

The question of Anzac's significance for multicultural Australia generated considerable heat three years ago. A report of the official National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary suggested that Australia's military history was 'something of a double-edged sword'.  The centenary might provide opportunities for a great sense of national unity but it might also prove 'a potential area of divisiveness'. The community simply did not know what recently arrived Australians thought about the commemorations', but the centenary commemorations should be 'culturally sensitive and inclusive'.

These comments were promptly dismissed by the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who announced that she completely disagreed with the Commission. Her experiences of attending dawn services in Melbourne, she said, showed it was often children who convinced their parents to go along. "When you can see that kind of enthusiasm ... I think we can say as a nation it's an important part of our national identity."

This had nothing to do with multiculturalism, but the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia assured Australians that Anzac Day was 'a day of national significance' and 'solemn reflection' for all Australians, 'including Australia's culturally and linguistically diverse communities'.

The storm died down, and there have been various attempts since to make Anzac more inclusive culturally. The Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans' Affairs, for instance, have invested in public information and research on indigenous Australians, while the Museum of Chinese Australian History in Victoria has developed an exhibition on Chinese Anzacs.

How much impact has this had on the wider population and ethnic communities particularly is not known. One clue might be found in the 1168 Gallipoli centenary grants that DVA has made to each of the federal electorates. Generally these have funded activities such as the repairing of war memorials and honour boards, the renewal of avenues of honour, local histories into members of the AIF, exhibitions and the design of new memorials (do we really need more?). This is not surprising, given the DVA guidelines, but the grants in effect reinforce the original rituals and narratives of Anzac. There seems little scope in this scheme for radically new modes of remembrance, which might reflect other, different war memories of multicultural Australians. Very few explicitly ethnic communities applied for DVA grants, with the exception of the Jewish and Turkish communities, though there were occasionally Indigenous, Maltese, Coptic Orthodox and Greek-related projects.

Of course, it might argued these local commemorative activities are only part of Anzac. The legend is also, and primarily, about values and ways of imagining the national identity. These values, if the inscriptions on four pillars of the memorial at 2002 Isurava on the Kokoda Track are any indication, are currently courage, endurance, sacrifice and mateship.

Intriguingly, these do not mirror exactly the values that the original Anzacs embraced. They were often staunch British imperialists and prided themselves on being effective killerssomething we tend to forget today when soldiers are often depicted as victims of catastrophe and trauma.  But these values are arguably those which Australian society needs to affirm in the 21st century when, for all our materialism and rampant individualism, we still need at least some individuals to volunteer to subordinate their personal interests to the collective good. Anzac, in this sense, can validate not only the men and women of the Australian Defence Force who are the direct heirs of the legend of Gallipoli, but also the service of police officers, civil defence forces and fire fighters.

So the question perhaps is not whether there is a place for multicultural Australians in the narratives of Gallipoli and other battles of the past, but whether the values that the Anzac legend now enshrines are ones that transcend culture, ethnicity and faith.

Joan Beaumont, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University is author of Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, joint winner of the 104 Prime Minister's Award for Australian History and the 1024 NSW Premier's Award (Australian History).

This article was first published in The Age.