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Apr 16, 2015

Woolworths' Anzac campaign perfectly appropriate to what Gallipoli has become

The reality of Gallipoli is secondary to its function as a powerful but empty signifier. If we are going to hate Woolworths' co-option of the Diggers, why do we allow everyone else to do it?

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If the Australian internet loves anything more than porn and comparison shopping, it is the chance to identify our most deeply held values by finding someone who may have dishonoured them. For a young, deluded nation that defines itself less by what it is than what it is not, this hashtag practice of “calling out” is a late expression of the charge “unAustralian”. We are, a bit like insecure teens, keen to build our identity by a process of exclusion. We are not a people who tolerate the tyranny of halal labelling. We are not a people who tolerate the strange grief of Glenn McGrath. We are not a people who tolerate “sexy” children.

Yesterday, many internet users identified the “unAustralian” in a campaign by supermarket chain Woolworths. That the retailer happened to violate Anzac Day, that rare institution we think of as inviolably Australian, gave birth to the hashtag #Brandzac and a thousand unified ragegasms.

That the Woolworths marketing department showed a gloriously poor taste is not in doubt. A company that makes prominent use of the term “fresh” used it again in this centenary month of Gallipoli. The Diggers were refigured as “Fresh in our Memories”, and that anyone adult human could think that the obvious conflation of a soldier who had laid down his life for empire could be meaningfully compared to a ready-made gourmet pasta meal for two is almost beyond belief.

But as others have pointed out, a good deal of the marketing that surrounds Anzac Day is naff. The “raise a glass” campaign by VB may have been refigured as an “appeal” through its donation to military welfare programs, but it’s still gauche and greedy to pin your beer to slaughter. However well-intentioned Camp Gallipoli might be, this horror holiday under-the-stars does not honour the memory of the war dead so much as it inspires a theme park. With and without the endorsement of the RSL, companies turn a profit from memory and, in so doing, challenge the ethics of remembrance itself.

Not that there can ever be a pure or authentic way to remember any act. Our national view of historical events changes with time, and there is an argument to be made that the act of passing legislation to protect the Anzac brand can produce only the opposite of its noble intention. The artificial imposition of glass on an event makes it less of an event than a dead museum piece. If we don’t allow Anzac Day to breathe and permit its ongoing suffocation by the sometimes perverse historiography of the RSL, it dies in the national memory. If you take this critical view of history as simulacra, and I tend to, then the Woolworths campaign is, even if ridiculous and crass, also entirely appropriate.

The RSL endorses a single version of remembrance of this terrible battle. When remembrance of anything is strictly contained and controlled, we inevitably start to forget. It was in 1983 that Alan Bond described his America’s Cup win as comparable to the “victory” at Gallipoli, and Geoffrey Blainey put a scholarly if positive spin on the slaughter. Certainly, we everyday Australians have begun to think of this event less as a tragedy or as a caution against fighting unwinnable or unethical battles in the Middle East than as an optimistic way of defining ourselves.

The reality of Gallipoli is secondary to its function as a powerful but empty signifier. And again, it seems to me, we are defining ourselves by what we are not.

We believe that we can see in a clear line to the sacrifice and slaughter a century ago, but what we see instead is an idealised and ideological version perfectly, if crassly, expressed by Woolworths. It’s not just Woolworths mishandling the memory of the Anzacs but the RSL and a range of institutions.

Blainey was largely responsible for popularising the term “black armband view of history”, intended to describe an unnecessarily emotional and purportedly fictional or naive view of the slaughter of Australian Aboriginal peoples. Perhaps this term is better applied to Gallipoli.

This is not at all to claim that this was not a bloody defeat. This is not to suggest that we are best to forget the war dead. It is, however, to propose that Gallipoli, thanks to the best efforts of some of our worst institutions, has become as hollow as the theme parks that will commemorate it.

Disneyland functions to make the things that surround it seem more real and, now, Gallipoli does too. We empty this terrible battle of meaning and fill it with easy glory and we are again defining ourselves by what we are not.

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22 thoughts on “Woolworths’ Anzac campaign perfectly appropriate to what Gallipoli has become

  1. furry barry

    This isn’t new. The Mad Monk was pulled up last year for slotting trade liberalisation amongst “the allies” into his back slapping, flag waving photo opportunity to Europe on the D-Day anniversary.
    https://youtu.be/ZD5Icg4AgOk?t=1m42s

  2. Helen Razer

    Indeed, @furry barry. The use of a military event for political and financial profit ain’t new. Mine was more a suggestion that it was in fact so old that the meaning of this historical event just has currency but, sadly, no longer points to a real thing.

  3. ken svay

    As an amateur war historian I particularly like books about war correspondents, many of whom were Australians. The story of Keith Murdoch always resonates with me but is never mentioned even at this time of year.
    Murdoch visited Gallipoli and he was horrified both by the awful conditions under which the soldiers suffered and the very comfy conditions endured by the generals. Whilst the diggers lived in trenches filthy with lice and fleas and surrounded by old body parts the generals lived in luxury on ships offshore sipping gin and tonics. The soldiers barely had enough water while the generals had ice!
    He wrote a report that he sent to the Australian and British prime ministers and this helped to establish that Gallipoli was in fact a disaster.
    He went on to London determined to get the boys evacuated. It was an uphill battle especially as the army estimated that evacuation could cost thousands of lives. Eventually much to the displeasure of Churchill and the top brass there was an evacuation.And the death toll- nil!
    Why is Murdoch never mentioned in the Gallipoli story, an inconvenient truth?

  4. morry dutton

    Yes it is a strange quirk of history that we as a nation pride ourselves on our glorious slaughter of our youth in their prime & yet use the same historical instances to recruit by way of honouring albeit through fruit & veg department to perpetuate every year what was & is one of many instances of the waste afforded to our nationhood as it matured into what we now call the ANZAC spirit.

  5. morry dutton

    P.S great writing Helen. Good Topic. Keep up the good work

  6. Helen Razer

    @Ken you may be pleased to learn that the correspondent’s works have been referenced several times in recent days. I’ve seen his account mentioned in both the Oz and the Graun.

  7. Helen Razer

    Thanks @morry

  8. helen johnson

    The Hun today is a case in point, with its ‘buy this Anzac coin (1 of 14) for $3 when you purchase the Hun’ banner. It should also not be forgotten that the RSL itself turns a tidy profit with its pokie machines.

  9. helen johnson

    Something else that doesn’t seem to get mentioned in the press is the fact that none of the five ANZAC divisions nominated Gallipoli as their chosen site for a commemorative memorial, they chose sites where they felt they achieved significant victories.

  10. William Marshall

    Soon we’ll be hearing the term ANZAC porn to describe this shit!

  11. ken svay

    There was an example of Anzac porn on TV last night. A black T shirt emblazoned with an extremely busty young woman in the camo Lycra catsuit armed with a 303 and bayonet.I am sure that the diggers would have dug that more than the fruit and veg or the coins.

  12. Waste of Time

    Thanks Helen. Lest we forget indeed.

  13. Alan

    Did anyone notice the current storyline in a very prominent night time Soap opera?

  14. GideonPolya

    The Elephant in the Room issue re Anzac Day is not grubby commercialization but Mainstream media CENSORSHIP about (1) war criminal politician and corporate warmongers and (2) horrendous civilian deaths in modern wars.

    Thus on 15 April 2015 The Age published an article about Woolies and Anzac Day: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/why-limit-anzac-marketing-outrage-to-woolworths-20150415-1mldj5.html . I made the following carefully researched comment on the article but it was CENSORED by The Age that has an appalling record of censoring reader comments (see “Censorship by The Age”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by-the-age ):

    “Much greater disrespect to our war heroes than tacky commercialization of Anzac Day is shown by the resolute Mainstream ignoring of (1) the war-makers who continue send our young men off to kill and be killed, and (2) the attendant war crimes, in particular horrendous deaths of civilians in war zones. History ignored yields history repeated and thus in relation to comparing 1915 and 2015 one notes the following:

    (1) the WW1 Australian invasion of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine) at the behest of the British Empire is matched today by the US lackey Lib-Lab (Coalition and Labor Right) backing of Australia’s Seventh Iraq War in a century, Australia’s continued involvement in the Afghan War, and Australia’s key role via Pine Gap in targeting the war criminal US drone bombing of Libya, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan;

    (2) the December 1918 Anzac Surafend Massacre of circa 100 Palestinian villagers and precipitation of the Turkish Armenian Genocide (1.5 million Armenians killed) by the Anglo-French Dardanelles Campaign, is more than matched by Lib-Lab-backed Australian participation in subsequent atrocities (deaths from violence or from violently-imposed deprivation in parentheses, half being children and one quarter women) e.g. the 1942-1945 Bengali Holocaust (6-7 million), the post-1950 US Asian Wars (40 million; Labor at least opposed the Vietnam War), the ongoing post-1990 Muslim Holocaust and Muslim Genocide (12 million), the ongoing, post-2014 Iraqi Genocide (9 million), the ongoing, post-1917 Palestinian Genocide (2 million), and the post-2001 Afghan Genocide (6 million) (for details Google “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since1950”). Lest we forget.”

    Decent people are obliged to speak out on war and mass murder, we cannot walk by on the other side (see “Gideon Polya”: https://sites.google.com/site/drgideonpolya/home ).

  15. Norman Hanscombe

    I wish Crikey’s ‘usual suspect’ posters on issues such as Anzac Day had been at an RSL Club Service I attended in Sydney yesterday to bravely express their views rather than safely sniping from Crikey Bunkers.

  16. ken svay

    I don’t get your point Norman, I bravely express my views to anyone anywhere about the futility of war and the hypocrisy of politicians and the media. I watched the last episode of Blackadder on commercial TV last night and that sums up my viewpoint exactly. Brave Generals leading from the rear and brave politicians even further behind the boys.
    Blackadder succinctly sums up the thinking of the two great powerblocks in Europe pre WW1 and says there was just one tiny flaw in the plan- it was bollocks.
    Norman you should read Keith Murdochs biography about his reaction to seeing the mess on the peninsula and how he managed to help push the idea of evacuation despite the rabid opposition to the idea from the top brass and Churchill. Of course the boys were then sent somewhere worse under the command of more idiots who didn’t understand the destructive power of automatic weapons.
    My uncle was a general and went to war on a horse, there was more tons of horse feed shipped across the channel than munitions! Being against the commercialization of Anzac Day and pointing out the hypocrisy of politicians in no way denigrates any one who served. Australian soldiers in particular were anti establishment and loved to drink and frequent the brothels as young men do.
    I just read a book about a young Sapper in Vietnam and did he tell some stories about the dark side. Most of these people were not saints Norman, they loved a good time in between getting shot at and shooting others.

  17. Helen Razer

    @Ken I think @Norman is having a JJ Rousseau moment where he sees text as the poor second cousin of speech, maybe. It’s only brave and legitimate if you say it. If you write it, you are a coward. Or something. I don’t know. Perhaps he just disagrees with the proposition that Gallipoli is not so much remembered as it is ossified and can’t be bothered arguing with that so instead argued the idea that writing is cowardly whereas he is brave.
    Whatever the case, I trust that he knows that I am in no way dismissing the sacrifices made by young men. I just mourn the sacrifice of the memory itself in favour of empty celebration.

  18. Bob the builder

    I think there’s a difference between pushing/protecting a certain view of history and using the (flawed) memory of it to sell duopolised fruit and veg.

    Personally, I’d like to see commemoration of all the dead from the 1919 flu epidemic, or all the people who fought against conscription or, heaven forfend, peace activists. ‘Lest we forget’ the message of Gallipoli is war is hell, a stupid, pointless hell, which is why the Great War was called The War to end all Wars – but we have forgotten and turned it into a mawkish, unthinking ‘celebration’ of our supposed unique national identity of ‘mateship’.

  19. burninglog

    “When remembrance of anything is strictly contained and controlled, we inevitably start to forget.”

    fucken A.

  20. burninglog

    Great read Helen

  21. Itsarort

    Absolutely agreed on this one.

    In the last 20 years, we have rightly managed to augment the politics and guilt of the Vietnam War away from the Vietnam Vet’s. All the derision and venom directed at the actual soldiers was simply unfair and unwarranted.

    Somehow in the 90’s, the political and media supporters of the Blainey and Windshuttle spin on Australian history, managed to superimpose this well meaning philosophy over everything military, both past and present.

    Oh, and I wouldn’t suggest trying to get the clientele at your local RSL to get on board – as an ex-digger, I’ve tried and failed many a time. And it was not a very good career move either…

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