The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - VIVI­ENNE KELLY

THERE’S al­ways been, from the time of Gal­lipoli, a kind of lar­rikin ir­rev­er­ence in our sol­diers,’’ Defence Min­is­ter Bren­dan Nelson said in Au­gust.

It’s that word again. Our lov­able lar­rikin streak, this time dressed up in its Gal­lipoli glad rags. Why is a lar­rikin ex­empt from crit­i­cism?

Nelson is right: the lar­rikin Dig­ger emerged from the hor­ror of Gal­lipoli. He was la­conic, coura­geous, un­der­stated, loyal, witty and never sub­servient. But there’s a prob­lem. This com­pos­ite per­son­al­ity as­serts his mav­er­ick in­di­vid­u­al­ity, but he’s the same as all the other mav­er­icks.

Un­til Gal­lipoli, Aus­tralians hardly recog­nised this lar­rikin propen­sity as part of their na­tional char­ac­ter. How did it be­come so?

The lar­rikin Dig­ger first ma­te­ri­alised through the re­port­ing of that great his­to­rian Charles Bean. Most early ac­counts of Gal­lipoli were fil­tered through Bean ( the of­fi­cial Aus­tralian correspondent) to Aus­tralians back home who were anx­iously read­ing news­pa­pers try­ing to fol­low the dis­tant ac­tion. Bean was a pas­sion­ate ad­mirer of what he per­ceived as the Dig­ger’s char­ac­ter­is­tic qual­i­ties: re­source­ful­ness, in­de­pen­dence, courage, loy­alty, wit and what he de­scribed as ‘‘ the devil of the Aus­tralians’’, a qual­ity he at­trib­uted to the ‘‘ wild pas­toral in­de­pen­dent life of Aus­tralia’’. Many Aus­tralians at Gal­lipoli were coun­try boys and Bean firmly be­lieved they made the best sol­diers.

So the Anzac Bean brought to life was la­conic, wry, dry, a min­i­mal­ist hero. Bean did not in­vent this fig­ure, he drew it from in­de­pen­dent ob­ser­va­tion. But by ar­tic­u­lat­ing it — in a shrewd yet ro­man­tic spirit — he helped to im­print it on the Aus­tralian con­scious­ness. The per­son­al­ity is on show in The Anzac Book , edited by Bean and made up prin­ci­pally of con­tri­bu­tions by the sol­diers. Wry and sen­ti­men­tal, comic and nos­tal­gic, the an­thol­ogy makes light of hard­ship and crys­tallises an in­vented world in which fight­ing for one’s coun­try on Turk­ish beaches trans­mutes seam­lessly into mi­nor in­con­ve­nience. The first verse of a poem called The Happy War­rior reads: In my sandy dug- out by the sea Of Saros near Gal­lipoli I’m as happy as happy can be, And I’m bent upon wash­ing my face Be­fore I go into my tea; But the wa­ter’s so scarce in this land That we all do our wash­ing with sand — And we al­ways have sand in our tea. The book con­tains some wry il­lus­tra­tions as well as sar­donic verses such as The Happy War­rior , and many de­ter­minedly jaunty jokes.

But the Anzac Dig­ger ap­pears also in many sto­ries for whose cir­cu­la­tion Bean is not re­spon­si­ble. The cen­tral fig­ure in many comic yarns, he ap­peared early in the news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and his­to­ries writ­ten about Gal­lipoli. By 1917, in one of the first such his­to­ries, he was quoted say­ing, in his off­hand way, ‘‘ Why, if it weren’t for the shrap­nel and the long dis­tance shells and oc­ca­sional snipers you wouldn’t know there was a war on.’’

How wear­ing and tyran­ni­cal it must have be­come, this ob­ses­sive in­sis­tence on sprightly un­der­state­ment, this per­pet­ual in­vest­ment in the throw­away line.

Such dry re­straint co- ex­isted with the brash and cocky per­sona of the Anzac: ir­rev­er­ence in the face of hard­ship be­to­kens gal­lantry. Most com­men­ta­tors have noted this de­ter­mi­na­tion to be­lit­tle dan­ger. Man­ning Clark wrote of the An­zacs’ ‘‘ ex­tra­or­di­nary cheer­ful­ness’’, cit­ing the case of a mor­tally wounded man who asked for a pen­cil, scrib­bled ‘‘ are we down­hearted?’’ and died. Well, maybe. To say this be­hav­iour re­quired a tal­ent for per­for­mance is not to di­min­ish the courage of the An­zacs. But it is im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve that all Aus­tralians, once en­listed and em­barked, acted with naive di­rect­ness out of their own in­nate con­glom­er­ate per­son­al­ity. More likely they in­tu­ited a new, use­ful iden­tity that they ap­pro­pri­ated, shared and en­cour­aged in each other. They de­cided to act in ways that con­formed to the ex­pec­ta­tions held of them. Many were boys with per­son­al­i­ties still de­vel­op­ing, away from home for the first time, thrust into a pro­foundly threat­en­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Bean con­cluded that they brought their bush per­sonas with them. Per­haps they did ( those who came from the bush, any­way). But they also picked up clues: from each other, from the let­ters their fam­i­lies wrote to them, from the dis­patches quoted to them, from their own sharp­ened sense of what would help them sur­vive. Th­ese clues en­cour­aged them to cre­ate and per­form the part of the Anzac, the sol­dier who ( Bean said) stood for ‘‘ reck­less val­our in a good cause, for en­ter­prise, re­source­ful­ness, fi­delity, com­rade­ship, and en­durance that will never own de­feat’’. Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gal­lipoli helped per­pet­u­ate the stereo­type. Prac­ti­cally ev­ery movie or television show about An­zacs has fol­lowed suit.

But brav­ery isn’t a given. Peo­ple need to cul­ti­vate it, find strate­gies to en­gen­der and main­tain it. The An­zacs’ per­for­mance was one such strat­egy: it helped es­tab­lish a cor­po­rate iden­tity that con­ferred a new and sig­nif­i­cant sta­tus. An­zacs used this iden­tity not to in­flate their own achieve­ments — big- not­ing them­selves — but to al­low them to re­in­force among them­selves the myth’s buoy­ancy and tough­ness, its ca­pac­ity to help them sur­vive, while they ac­cus­tomed them­selves to the be­hav­iour it de­manded of them.

Para­dox­i­cally, the be­hav­iour en­joined by the myth did not as­sist in sur­vival: swim­ming dur­ing en­emy shelling is a poor mode of self­p­reser­va­tion. The ten­sions im­posed by a code of be­hav­iour re­quir­ing con­spic­u­ous hero­ism are not hard to imag­ine. The con­stant obli­ga­tion to keep prov­ing one­self must have been ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult to meet. Fur­ther­more, ‘‘ reck­less val­our’’ im­posed ter­ri­ble re­stric­tions on the ways in which one was per­mit­ted to feel. In the ex­traor­di­nar­ily pres­sured lives of Anzac sol­diers, fear and cow­ardice might be­come en­tan­gled and equally taboo. The gal­lantry myths would then be as sav­agely re­stric­tive as they were con­sol­ing, Be­ing a lar­rikin was not all it was cracked up to be.

For whom were the young men of Gal­lipoli per­form­ing this lar­rikin myth? For each other, to main­tain the mea­gre fiction that ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be OK? For their cor­re­spon­dents? For Bean and for Aus­tralian news­pa­per read­ers, among whom were their fam­i­lies? The des­per­ate per­for­mance be­came their bridge to sur­vival, or death.

To­day’s lar­rikins are per­haps in­flu­enced by mis­guided nos­tal­gia for the good old days, when men were men and mis­be­haviour need ex­pect no reper­cus­sion. If so, it is time to ex­tin­guish the myth of the lar­rikin, which has be­come merely ex­cul­pa­tory and there­fore no longer valu­able.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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