In 2016, the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott penned a passionate column on the relevance of Anzac Day to modern Australia. For Abbott, the Anzacs serve as the moral role models that Australians should seek to emulate. He wrote, “We hope that in striving to emulate their values, we might rise to the challenges of our time as they did to theirs”.

The notion that Anzacs embody a quintessentially Australian spirit is a century old. The official World War I journalist C.E.W. Bean wrote Gallipoli was the crucible in which the rugged resilience and camaraderie of (white) Australian masculinity, forged in the bush, was decisively tested and proven on the world stage.

At the time, this was a potent way of making sense out of the staggering loss of 8000 Australian lives in a single military campaign. Since then, it has been common for politicians and journalists to claim that Australia was ‘baptised’ in the ‘blood and fire’ of Gallipoli.

The dark side to the Anzac myth is a view of violence as powerful and creative.

However, public interest in Anzac Day has fluctuated over the course of the 20th century. Ambivalence over Australia’s role in the Vietnam War had a major role in dampening enthusiasm from the 1970s.

The election of John Howard in 1996 signalled a new era for the Anzac myth. The ‘digger’ was, for Prime Minister Howard, the embodiment of Australian mateship, loyalty and toughness. Since then, government funding has flowed to Anzac-related school curricula as well as related books, films and research projects. Old war memorials have been refurbished and new ones built. Attendance at Anzac events in Australia and overseas has swelled.

On Anzac Day, we are reminded how crucial it is for individuals to be willing to forgo self-interest in exchange for the common national good. Theoretically, Anzac Day teaches us not to be selfish and reminds us of our duties to others. But it does so at a cost. Because military role models bring with them militarism – which sees the horror and tragedy of war as a not only justifiable but desirable way to solve problems.

The dark side to the Anzac myth is a view of violence as powerful and creative. Violence is glorified as the forge of masculinity, nationhood and history. In this process, the acceptance and normalisation of violence culminates in celebration.

The renewed focus on the Anzac legend in Australian consciousness has brought with it a pronounced militarisation of Australian history, in which our collective past is reframed around idealised incidents of conflict and sacrifice. This effectively takes the politics out of war, justifying ongoing military deployment in conflict overseas, and stultifying debate about the violence of invasion and colonisation at home.

In the drama of militarism, the white, male and presumptively heterosexual soldier is the hero. The Anzac myth makes him the archetypical Australian, consigning the alternative histories of women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and sexual and ethnic minorities to the margins. I’d argue that for right-wing nationalist groups, the Anzacs have come to represent their nostalgia for a racially purer past. They have aggressively protested against attempts to critically analyse Anzac history.

Turning away from militarism does not mean devaluing the military or forgetting about Australia’s military history.

Militarism took on a new visibility during Abbott’s time as Prime Minister. Current and former military personnel have been appointed to major civilian policy and governance roles. Police, immigration, customs, and border security staff have adopted military-style uniforms and arms. The number of former military personnel entering state and federal politics has risen significantly in the last 15 years.

The notion that war and conflict is the ultimate test of Australian masculinity and nationhood has become the dominant understanding not only of Anzac day but, arguably, of Australian identity. Any wonder that a study compiled by McCrindle Research reveals that 34% of males, and 42% of Gen Y males, would enlist in a war that mirrored that of WWI if it occurred today.

This exaltation of violence sits uncomfortably alongside efforts to reduce and ultimately eradicate the use of violence in civil and intimate life. Across the country we are grappling with epidemic of violence against women and between men. But when war is positioned as the fulcrum of Australian history, when our leaders privilege force in policy making, and when military service is seen as the penultimate form of public service, is it any wonder that boys and men turn to violence to solve problems and create a sense of identity?

The glorification of violence in our past is at odds with our aspirations for a violence-free future.

In his writings on the dangers of militarism, psychologist and philosopher William James called for a “moral equivalent of war” – a form of moral education less predisposed to militarism and its shortcomings.

Turning away from militarism does not mean devaluing the military or forgetting about Australia’s military history. It means turning away from conflict as the dominant lens through which we understand our heritage and shared community. It means abjuring force as a means of solving problems and seeking respect. However, it also requires us to articulate an alternative ethos weighty enough to act as a substitute for militarism.

At a recent domestic violence conference in Sydney, Professor Bob Pease called for the rejection of the “militarisation of masculinity”, arguing that men’s violence in war was linked to men’s violence against women. At the same time, however, he called on us to foster “a critical ethic of care in men”, recognising that men who value others and care for them are less prone to violence.

For as long as militarism and masculinity are fused in the Australian imagination, it’s hard to see how this ethos of care can take root. It seems that the glorification of violence in our past is at odds with our aspirations for a violence-free future. The question is whether we value this potential future more than an idealised past.

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Is the ANZAC legend misused?