In Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys one of the characters says: “The best way to forget something is to commemorate it.” Nothing exemplifies that more than the way that Anzac Day commemoration has resulted in Australians either forgetting what they knew about Gallipoli, or never learning the truth.

For many returned servicemen and women and their families Anzac Day is a solemn day of remembrance, but much of what Australians believe about it, and what images and ideas it inspires, have been products more of recent PR and propaganda than of memory.

Alec Campbell, socialist, trade unionist, republican and the last Australian who served at Gallipoli, was almost deified by John Howard. Brendan Nelson wanted all Australian schools to teach “values” through the prism of  John Simpson Kirkpatrick, (the famous Simpson and his donkey) who, it is generally agreed, was a drinker and a brawler; jumped ship and came to Australia as an illegal immigrant; was a bit of a slacker at times and probably acquired the donkey as a way of avoiding working with anyone else; was in favour of a revolution to “clear out millionaires and dukes”; and, had enlisted so that he could get back to his family in Britain.

These realities were conveniently omitted from the Howard-Nelson version of history, although it is tempting to think school kids would be better off learning about the Campbell and Kirkpatrick values than some other ones stuffed down their throats.

The basic facts about Gallipoli are also well-known, but seemingly feature little in either Anzac iconography or political rhetoric. For a start Australia suffered 8709 casualties at Gallipoli (Department of Veterans Affairs Anzac website) compared with 86,692 Turks, 21,255 Britains and 9798 French.

There were also 1358 Indians and  49 Newfoundland casualties. Gallipoli has been a battleground for millennia and its modern significance is probably mainly due to Kemal Ataturk’s role there, and subsequently in modern Turkey. Yet Australians have been persuaded to believe that its significance is primarily Australian through a process that framed the event as a founding national event; promoted it as a unique opportunity to express Australian patriotism; and then commercialised it through tourism and other activities.

The legend was shaped from the very beginning by British journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett;  Australian war historian C.E.W. Bean; Sir Keith Murdoch; and C.J.Dennis in The Sentimental Bloke.

But why it has became newly iconic after being in long-term decline from the 1960s is a puzzle. Ken Inglis’ view of Anzac as providing something sacred for a secular society is persuasive. Inge Clendinnen is right to remind us of the significance of his work just as Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake are right to ask why we celebrate Anzac Day and not our pioneering role in unionism, social welfare and women’s suffrage.

But the full picture is impossible to grasp without considering the expensive and well-planned PR programs designed to help us remember Anzac Day in a particular way.

The long-term decline was reversed from the 1990s, first, by Bob Hawke at the Anzac Day 75th  anniversary. It was then consolidated with the Australian Remembers campaign in 1994-95 to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. And it culminated in the Howard government’s deification of the digger and militarism.

While the speeches, events and commemorations were the public face of a memorial campaign, behind them all were PR and marketing campaigns. The Australia Remembers campaign was run by the minister for veterans affairs, Con Sciacca, his chief-of-staff Greg Rudd, John Engledow, deputy head of an Australia Remembers Taskforce and Peter Thomas as a roving ambassador.

Peter Thomas, a former army officer, and an experienced PR practitioner who had headed Telstra PR, said in a case study summary of the campaign that it was “possibly the last opportunity for many veterans, servicemen and servicewomen to be honoured. These people, and those who served but are no longer with us, have a special place in the history of Australia. They are an enduring beacon for us all”.

And many of us who worked on the campaign sincerely believed that. Yet there is little doubt that there was also political calculation involved — and it was fairly easy for some of us to believe in the Australia Remembers and the Labor cause at the same time.

Traditionally the RSL leadership (although many ordinary diggers were on the left) were strong supporters of Empire, Crown, conservatism and strongly anti-Labor. Australia Remembers gave the ALP the opportunity to re-position itself as the patriotic party — which it had always been but which conservatives had managed to frame as otherwise.

Later state ALPs adopted similar tactics. Victorian ALP veterans affairs adviser and Vietnam vet John Phillips played a brilliant role in building bridges with ex-service people and the RSL, working to get a better deal for veterans and using skilful commemorative tactics to re-position the Bracks and Brumby governments among veterans.

Australia Remembers used the full gamut of PR activities — particularly at grassroots level. Grants were made to local communities to conduct events including community events around local Anzac Day services that, instead of the main Anzac Day March, became (and continue to be) the focal point of Anzac Day services around the country.

Forty years ago there were fewer and fewer marchers and fewer and fewer onlookers. After the Australia Remembers campaign there were thousands of small community events involving hundreds of thousands of people across Australia.

Many of the campaign elements — re-enactments, commercial tie-ups, events — were standard PR techniques that tapped into the patriotism that had been kindled as part of the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations; the 75th Anzac Day anniversary; and gave local people an opportunity to develop forms of commemoration distinctive to their community.

They also, unfortunately, produced a platform for the new nationalism; distrust of foreigners and refugees; and, the military adventurism of the Howard government.

All the techniques used in the US to promote war — farewells for troops; the concept that criticising the wars was wrong because it was disloyal to “our troops”; symbolic visits to the troops in combat zones — were also used by the Howard government. The Australian military now even employs brand managers just like fast-food companies.

However, the US efforts are far more comprehensive simply because the US military employs more PR people than any other organisation in the world.

As long as wars go on, politicians continue to think of new ways to commemorate them, new PR gestures, and new ways to “honour” those who served. People I served with in Vietnam are still fighting to get better health and pension entitlements, but we have now been awarded more medals in the past 10 years than we were awarded for serving in the first place.

With every one of these additional postwar decorations we were all given the opportunity of having presented them by our local MP or getting them through the post. Most chose Australia Post.

Ritual declaration of interest: My former firm provided a contractor (at cost) to Australia Remembers, I worked on the campaign as a volunteer, I am a returned serviceman but, as a good republican, am more likely to celebrate Oliver Cromwell’s birthday on April 25 than Anzac Day.

Peter Fray

This crisis will cut hard and deep but one day it will be over.

What will be left? What do you want to be left?

I know what I want to see: I want to see a thriving, independent and robust Australian-owned news media. I want to see governments, authorities and those with power held to account. I want to see the media held to account too.

Demand for what we do is running high. Thank you. You can help us even more by encouraging others to subscribe — or by subscribing yourself if you haven’t already done so.

This week, we’re discounting our annual gift memberships by $50 — usually $199, now $149 — because now more than ever we need your support. Just use the promocode SUPPORT when you purchase a gift membership.

If you like what we do, please subscribe.

Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

Support us today