The breathless Irish voice on the end of the phone had been singing for four minutes straight on the majestic scale of the Anzac centenary. “It will be the biggest thing you’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s going to start with a gorgeous re­-creation of the Gallipoli convoy departure in Albany, Western Australia, on 1 November 1914, to bookend the whole centenary of celebrations. Everybody’s involved,” she gushed from her call centre. “Legacy, the City of Albany, the West Australian Government, the RSL, the Australian Light Horse Association — it’s going to be magnificent. You don’t want to miss out.”

Untroubled by the silence from my end of the phone, she homed in with her sales pitch: “So we’re producing the commemorative publication for the whole centenary, Gallipoli 100, distributed to 84,000 people and with introductory letters from the likes of the Prime Minister. Would you like to book a message of support and show the Defence forces what you do?” She outlined the options: the best spots up front had already been taken by the National Australia Bank and a “gorgeous” advertisement from the Australian Submarine Corporation, but $14,950 would buy me a full page. For a 50% premium she could reserve a special spot right after the Ode of Remembrance.

I hesitated and asked her to email me through a pamphlet, which she did. A thoroughly unsentimental advertising rate card was placed alongside a sweet photo of a World War II veteran being helped along to an Anzac march. “Gallipoli 100 aims both to commemorate the sacrifice of Australians who fought at Gallipoli, and by extension in other wars, and to educate the reader about what actually happened during the Gallipoli campaign,” it read. “Many other scholarly and popular books are likely to appear for the Gallipoli centenary. This unique publication will stand out as the most comprehensive, accessible and attractive of them all.” With the promise of 50 “lavishly photographed” and “thought­-provoking and satisfying articles” written by world experts, it was hard to say no. I told my new friend Nicky I needed time to think about it. She promised to follow up with me in a few days, adding, without the slightest trace of irony: “Lest you forget.”

A century after the war to end all wars, Anzac Day is being bottled, stamped and sold. Nicky is not the only one spruiking the Anzac spirit. The Anzac industry has gone into hyperdrive. The year 2015 will be a bumper one for battlefield tour operators as thousands of Australians wing their way to Gallipoli for what is being marketed as a once-­in-­a-­lifetime opportunity. One company, with a flash of brilliance and a tenuous link, is arranging a surf boat race across the Dardanelles. Another is organising marathon swimmers to make their way from Europe to Asia Minor. Off the shores of Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove, cruise ships will anchor so that thousands might nestle alongside the Anzac legacy. By morn on April 25, pilgrims will embark in small boats as Anzacs once did, to join the throngs on the sand. By night they’ll rock away to Daryl Braithwaite and Kate Ceberano. Bert Newton will narrate the war.

It’s an all­-Australiana jamboree. Just issuing tickets for the Gallipoli event will cost more than half a million dollars, and an events management company in Melbourne is pocketing a cool $27 million for a multi­-year contract to keep everything well organised on the day. What started as a simple ceremony is now an enormous commercial enterprise. Cartoonist Michael Leunig has captured it best: “They’ve put a big thumping hoon outboard motor on the back of a tragedy.”

Anzac Day is also a time to honour and remember. That might best be done with a purchase from Australia Post’s limited-edition “Sands of Gallipoli” range of key rings and medallions, which promises to “keep the spirit alive” while earning millions for its savvy creator. In the view of the historian Ken Inglis, these little vials of sand are “relics from the holy land”. For just five instalments of $39.99 plus $19.99 in postage and handling, the Bradford Exchange offers the chance to “honour a loved one who served our country courageously” by purchasing a “Lest We Forget Remembrance Watch” with “iconic rising sun and slouch hat reproduced in shimmering golden­tone”. The Australian War Memorial, too, is devising an official “Anzac Centenary Merchandising Plan” to capitalise on “the spirit”.

Selling Anzac is not a new phenomenon: one of Australia’s official World War I historians wrote of the scandal when a real estate venture was advertised as “Anzac on Sea”. Had the sacred word not been protected, he wrote, “the name was likely to become vulgarised” and “Anzac companies would soon have sprung up like mushrooms”. For that reason, since the early 1920s the federal government has legislated to protect the word Anzac from commercial misuse. But just as restrictions on Anzac Day sporting events and trading hours have wearied over the years, so too have restrictions on the commercialisation of the spirit.

“Instead, Australians are embarking on a discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four-­year festival for the dead.”

Preparation for the four years of the Anzac centenary is, in every sense, monumental. Governments — rarely able to lift their gaze beyond daily, even hourly, media cycles — have meticulously prepared for this anniversary for nearly half a decade. A federal Minister for the Anzac Centenary has been appointed under successive governments. In a small country already home to thousands of war memorials, debt-­struck governments are quarantining funds for more commemoration. The numbers are staggering. Australia will outspend the United Kingdom on the commemoration of the Great War by more than 200%. All told, the centenary will cost Australian state and federal taxpayers nearly $325 million. With an additional $300 million expected in private donations, commemorating the Anzac centenary might cost as much as two­-thirds of a billion dollars.

While there is bipartisan consensus that the actual Defence Force is underfunded by 25%, Australians are racing to outdo one another with bigger, better, grander and more intricate forms of remembrance. In Canberra a $27 million renovation of the Australian War Memorial’s World War I galleries will give the gore of interminable trench warfare new zest. In Albany, Western Australia, a $9 ­million Anzac Interpretive Centre will rise on the shores of the Indian Ocean alongside a further $8 million of Anzac infrastructure providing a peace park, an Avenue of Honour, an improved lookout and a refurbished war memorial. In Europe, years of diplomatic effort with the governments of France and Belgium will underpin a $10 ­million Australian Remembrance Trail to link the Western Front’s most significant Australian battlefields and another interpretive centre. In Sydney, the state government is considering funding a multimillion­-dollar “NSW Commemorative/Educational Centre of Excellence”. In Victoria, $45 million will go towards new World War I “Galleries of Remembrance” at Melbourne’s already magnificent Shrine of Remembrance. The Queensland government has pledged more than $60 million towards the centenary, including a major capital project to upgrade Brisbane’s Anzac Square.

A cacophony of ceremonies will be needed to maintain the spirit for the full four years. The federal government is providing $125,000 to every electorate for community activities focused on World War I. The NSW and Tasmanian state governments will provide similar grants as well as funding the refurbishment of local war memorials. In anticipation, bronzing and stone masonry companies are advertising to veterans groups, helpfully advising them on how to best capitalise. The official start of the centenary will be a $3­ million re­staging of the departure of the first Anzac troop convoys from Albany to Egypt. Current soldiers from the Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy will be ordered to reprise the roles of their doomed forebears setting sail for defeat and bloodshed at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. This festival will be broadcast live nationally.

Government’s role in all this will be hyperactive, leaping over veterans’ groups to become the “choreographer of commemoration and guardian of public memory”. The NSW Anzac Commission has recommended the government “negotiate with media agencies for a palette of stories in daily newspapers, television, web, social networks and mixed media to provide a historical narrative throughout the Centenary period”. The NSW Ambulance Service has offered to sport commemorative banners on the side of all ambulances for the duration of the centenary. The NSW Roads and Maritime Service wants an Anzac logo to be placed on all departmental documentation. Sporting authorities have suggested convening international commemorative test matches. In New South Wales and Victoria, governments are leading the wholesale renaming of roads, avenues, rest areas and bridges in accordance with Anzac themes.

It is entirely fitting and proper to commemorate World War I and Australia’s military campaigns. Yet all of this ingenuity and industry is for an anniversary that is ultimately arbitrary. The only reason the centenary of Anzac is considered a special, once­-in-­a-­lifetime experience is because we have imbued it with that meaning. To be sure, we often mark centuries as significant. But the struggle and sacrifice of our forebears at Gallipoli will not be any greater in 2015 than it is in 2014, or was in 1915. The centenary marks an epoch that we have chosen for ourselves. And we have chosen not to commemorate it with a respectful silence and quiet reflection. At the War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park, inscribed words decree: “Let silent contemplation be your offering.” Instead, Australians are embarking on a discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four-­year festival for the dead.

*This is an extract from Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession by James Brown, published by Redback and available in bookstores now

Peter Fray

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