Consuming Anzac: some thoughts on the Anzac centenary

Consuming Anzac: some thoughts on the Anzac centenary

by Carolyn Holbrook

ANZAC the unauthorised biography by Dr Carolyn Holbrook book cover

Anzac: the unauthorised biography, by Dr Carolyn Holbrook

If prizes were given out for the enthusiasm with which nations commemorate the centenary of the Great War, Australia would be first by a long shot. Numbers tell the story. Britain is spending approximately AUD $110 million on centenary commemoration, France $90 million, Germany $6 million, Canada $31 million, New Zealand $140 million, and Australia $552 million. The Australian figure is more than all other nations combined.

The Australian total includes a Commonwealth contribution of $331m, $140m from the states and territories and $80 million from the private sector. The estimate is conservative, because it includes a low corporate contribution. If the corporate figure is higher (and Lindsay Fox, the initial co-ordinator of corporate donations, once boasted that he was aiming for $300 million), the Australian total could climb as high as $650-$700 million. I suspect we might see some winding back of the Anzac rhetoric under the prime ministership of Malcom Turnbull—and perhaps even some revision of financial allocations for such things as the $100 million Sir John Monash Interpretive Centre at Villers Bretonneux in France (a pet project of Tony Abbott).

Not surprisingly, the enormous currency of the Anzac ‘brand’ has seen corporations increasingly positioning themselves for reflected glory. Carlton and United Breweries has been very cleverly spinning off the connection between sport, blokeyness and beer for several years now. Each year, CUB produces a new ad for the ‘Raise a Glass’ campaign. The company is given permission to use the Anzac brand by the government and the RSL because they donate $1 million to the RSL and Legacy each year. This year’s version of the ‘Raise a Glass’ ad was filmed in front of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and showed a group of 338 young men singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. The men represent the 338 members of the 16th Battalion who were killed in the charge at Bloody Angle on Gallipoli in May 1915. The Victoria Bitter website says ‘Most men tremble when faced with death. The 16th Battalion AIF sang a song’. Gradually the singing fades and the men’s heads drop—a moving symbol of their deaths in battle. And more palatable to viewers than the reality of death in battle—guts spilling out, heads exploding, dying men crying for their mums. Brilliant advertising. But is it morally defensible? It certainly perpetuates the dangerous nexus between Australian masculinity, alcohol consumption and physical violence.

Blokeyness and patriotism are also artfully combined in a CD called ‘Spirit of the Anzacs’ by the popular country singer, Lee Kernaghan. The title song, ‘Spirt of the Anzacs’, features Kernaghan alongside other popular artists such as Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll, Megan Washington and Jessica Mauboy. The chorus of the song draws on Paul Keating’s eulogy to the Unknown Soldier: ‘He is all of them, He is one of us’. The lyrics and the video seamlessly blend diggers old and diggers new. Thus, we hear of soldiers in ‘the trenches at Lone Pine’ and ‘the Flanders firing line’, as well as the ‘nurse in Vietnam’ and the soldiers ‘on patrol in Uruzgan’. In the video, images of diggers from World War One are mashed up with those of soldiers in Afghanistan. Old battle ships are mashed with modern jet fighters, navy ships and helicopters. It’s all part of one big, feel-good Anzac legend. There is no room for moral questions about war and human suffering—only for nostalgia and patriotism. Lee is currently touring his ‘Spirit of the Anzacs’ album.

The most notorious failure in the ‘Brandzac Day’ stakes this year was Woolworths, whose ‘Fresh in our Memories’ campaign became a public relations disaster for the ages. Leading up to Anzac Day, Woolworths encouraged people to post images of people affected by war. At the bottom of the images, Woolworths’ picture generator inserted the now-infamous slogan ‘Fresh in our Memories’ along with the Woolworths logo. The social media response was swift and damning. One person wrote on Facebook: ‘How dare you appropriate the image of an Anzac soldier to sell your wares in the way that you have. Do you know who the soldier is? Did he survive? Or don't you even know or care? I actually feel quite ill’. The force of the backlash led Woolworths to withdraw the campaign and apologise.

Anything that suggests a connection between the Anzac legend and sex will not be tolerated by the Australian public. The ‘Anzac Pin-Up’ girl t-shirt, which was being sold on an American website called Zazzle, was removed at the request of the Commonwealth government amid public condemnation. A pre-Anzac Day edition of a ‘men’s magazine’ called Zoo was removed from sale after similar public reaction. The magazine had images of bikini-clad model Erin Pash holding a poppy while posing suggestively with Anzac posters in the background.

Australians do not seem to be interested in seeing thoughtful representations of the Great War on television. The Gallipoli television show was a seven-part, critically lauded mini-series that failed to find an audience. After investing heavily in the production, which took three years to make, and promoting Gallipoli heavily in preceding weeks, Channel Nine expected it to be the biggest show on television in 2015. More than one million people tuned in for the first episode on 9 February, though perhaps the writing was on the wall when the show was beaten by My Kitchen Rules. That audience had dropped by half the following week, and the series rated 19th in the top 20 shows for the week. When the audience continued to fall away, Channel Nine ‘burned-off’ the series, running double episodes.

Australians did not want to commit themselves to seven episodes of excellent television, but I don’t think that necessarily means they are suffering from ‘Anzac fatigue’, as some commentators have argued. Record numbers of Australians turned out to Anzac Day services this year. Despite the rain in Melbourne, there was a record crowd of 85,000. An extraordinary figure of 120,000 people went to dawn service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. People might not be interested in watching several hours of gritty television about the Gallipoli campaign, but they are clearly interested in Anzac as a ritualised emotional experience.

What are the implications of the fact that Anzac is becoming a commercial opportunity in the vein of Easter and Christmas? Critics fall into two camps. There are those boosters of Anzac who feel that commercialisation cheapens the Anzac legend, much as Christians feel about the commercialisation of Easter and Christmas. Although, perhaps they gave up decades ago. And then there are those critics of Anzac who claim that commercialisation has the effect of sanitising war, perhaps even of glorifying it. What are the moral implications of buying your kid Anzac Ted or Nurse Florence soft toys? Do these toys teach kids to respect the sacrifice of the Anzacs, as some would claim? Or do cute, cuddly soft toys deceive our children about the true horror of war, with potentially terrible implications?

My hope is that people at least pause and ask themselves these questions, rather than being unwitting consumers of an Anzac legend that is increasingly exploited for commercial profit and political gain.

Dr Carolyn Holbrook

Dr Carolyn Holbrook

Dr Carolyn Holbrook is the author of Anzac:  The Unauthorised Biography, New South Books, 2014. The book has recently won a number of literary awards:

  • Winner of the Queensland Premier's Literary prize for History, 2015
  • Joint winner of the New South Wales Premiers' History Prize for World War One, 2015
  • Shortlisted for the CHASS Prize for a Book, 2015