Australian military history is a field of study under constant siege by Anzac mythology. Like most national myths, Anzac is based on inspiring narratives, concepts and images about a country’s past. It serves as an important unifying representation and affirms a set of self-perceived national values. It contains symbolic meaning and has often served social and political purposes. In some respects Anzac even fulfils a secular religious function. Importantly, it is based on, but does not necessarily reflect, historical fact. Anzac involves fictionalised exaggerations of actual incidents, commonly disregards inconvenient historical details, and in some ways subverts or re-invents the past to fit the legend.
The grand themes and narratives of Anzac are seldom the fruits of scholarly analysis or critical interpretation. As long as so much modern-day Australian nationalism, sense of self, and collective identity are sourced from the imagery of past conflicts then we will continue to draw what we need from the past without worrying too much about what actually occurred. This is not a harmless phenomenon. The persistent misunderstanding and misrepresentation that Anzac mythology often represents skews proper understandings and interpretations of this nation’s military heritage. At its worst it can warp and twist our perceptions of war and even shape our picture of ourselves in obscuring and inaccurate ways. Moreover, they tend to situate our attitudes to the past falsely, and therefore distort our reading of the present and expectations for the future.
In Zombie Myths of Australian Military History (2010) and its companion volume Anzac’s Dirty Dozen (2012) a range of Australia’s leading military historians tackle a selection of the most enduring historical misconceptions of this nation’s military past. The authors recognised from the very beginning that the subjects under discussion, and their conclusions, might set them on a collision course with the Anzac legend in the minds of many readers. At one level, we embrace this: the legend should not substitute for history. It is a myth, and however powerful and pervasive, it has obscured more about the past than it has revealed. But at another level this collision is entirely unnecessary. We are historians. We do not seek to undermine some of the foundation stones of Anzac for the ‘pleasure’ of appearing subversive. Nor do we reject the idea that some social good can flow from the Anzac legend – despite the exclusive nature of its white, Anglo-Saxon, male and ‘macho’ orientation. All we ask is that legend not be mistaken for history.