A furore has erupted over Australia’s Anzac Day legacy, with the authors of a new book which questions the day’s origins accused by a rival historian of failing to acknowledge the preeminent scholar in the field.

As Australians prepare to pay tribute to the country’s fallen soldiers, La Trobe University Emeritus Scholar Inga Clendinnen has declared war on a controversial new book What’s Wrong With Anzac? The militarisation of Australian history.

Clendinnen told Crikey that she was “shocked” by the book, which describes the day’s festivities as a “myth”, claiming co-author Mark McKenna had “failed” to sufficiently acknowledge Anzac Day academic doyen Ken Inglis.

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The stoush reflects a bitter split between historians over the significance of Anzac Day, with personal accounts of public mourning favoured by Clendinnen and Inglis contrasted with broader arguments that emphasise the deliberate reconstruction of the day by governments.

In McKenna’s chapter, entitled “Anzac Day: how did it become Australia’s national day?”, the University of New South Wales associate professor writes provocatively that “the ‘resurgence’ of Anzac Day…stands at the vanguard of a new wave of patriotism in twenty-first century Australia, [that] emerged out of the politics of nationalism in the 1980s.”

But while Inglis is cited in the footnotes, Clendinnen, who was tutored by Inglis at Melbourne University in the 1950s, says his response to previous versions of McKenna’s argument are deliberately granted short shrift — a serious allegation in academic circles.

“I was shocked actually, I shot down to the bookshop to pick up a copy when I heard about it. Historians have standards and I couldn’t believe it. Ken is the major scholar in this area but he hasn’t been properly referenced.

“He [McKenna] has been part of that approach that has their ear sealed. Ken is cited, but not seriously.”

Inglis said that “…the authors don’t mention my criticism of Lake’s and McKenna’s earlier versions of the argument.”

In 2008, Inglis released an updated third edition of his 1998 award-winning masterwork Sacred Places, in which he forensically examines the popular resurgence of Anzac Day, with a specific focus on war memorials. Clendinnen says Inglis has already addressed the militarisation argument in the updated version but that McKenna, and co-authors Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, deliberately chose not to engage with it.

Sacred Places is referred to in McKenna’s chapter as an example of the prevailing orthodoxy that he then goes on to challenge.

Clendinnen said McKenna, Reynolds and Lake were “cashing in” on Anzac Day to shift copies of their book, which was commissioned by the University of New South Wales’ publishing arm in the lead-up to next Monday’s public holiday.

“I was surprised to see the book come out. It hasn’t been a matter of import for any of those four authors. Mark McKenna is meant to be working on a biography of Manning Clark, so I don’t take his analysis seriously at all.”

Marilyn Lake returned fire when contacted by Crikey, claiming that Inglis, who was reluctant to be quoted for this story, and Clendinnen were of an “older generation”.

“It would have been weird, ugly and clumsy to respond extensively to Ken…I wouldn’t know what Ken could possibly object to. My impression is that he’s overreacting a bit.”

What’s Wrong With Anzac? focuses on Bob Hawke, John Howard and Kevin Rudd’s apparent desperation to marshall public sentiment to congeal Australia’s shaky sense of self, which the authors say has its genesis in the dispossession of Aboriginal Australians. Inglis and Clendinnen acknowledge that argument, but say that  “personal rituals” of remembrance, that often take place at arm’s length from governments, also deserve recognition.

Clendinnen told Crikey that the authors were “chest beating from high places” — an accusation usually levelled at defenders of McKenna, Lake and Reynolds’ stance that suggests Anzac Day is fast becoming Australia’s central paean to self-congratulatory jingoism.

McKenna defended his record when contacted by Crikey, saying that he had engaged with Inglis in the past, favourably reviewing the new edition of Sacred Places in a journal article for the Australian Academy of Social Sciences.

“They [Inglis and Clendinnen] have a deep and abiding respect for the Anzac tradition and so do Henry and Marilyn — but we disagree about the explanations of the resurgence.”

Asked whether he had not properly engaged with Inglis’ argument, McKenna was steadfast: “If the purpose of my essay was to reply to Ken’s a criticism than yes, that would be a fair criticism. But the purpose of my essay was not to debate Ken.”

“The main point is to provoke the discussion and debate that we’re having now. We have not had a critical debate about Anzac Day and we desperately need to have one. I’m not setting out to create a new front in the history wars, I’m setting out to create a new debate about Anzac Day.”

The split is set to widen this week as both camps take to the airwaves to defend their turf. Henry Reynolds will appear on ABC TV’s Q&A in an Anzac Day special next Monday, while Ken Inglis will take on his detractors on an edition of Landline.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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