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.