WWI centenary risks going over the top

A new book says the World War I centenary risks going over the top at a time when there's growing chasm between Australians and the defence force.

Australia's over-the-top four-year Anzac centenary risks causing "centenary fatigue" so that people stay away from commemorations.

That's the view of James Brown, a former army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Australia prepares to spend around double that of the UK on centenary events.

Between 2014 and 2018 Australia will commemorate the Anzac Centenary, marking 100 years since the nation was involved in World War I.

Brown, an analyst with the Lowy Institute, has examined issues around the centenary in a new book, Anzac's Long Shadow - The Cost of Our National Obsession.

In the book, Brown says Australia is embarking on a bipartisan commemorative program "so extravagant that it would make sultans swoon and pharaohs envious".

"Somehow along the way - I don't know whether it has been committee-ed to death or what's happened - it has just totally gone off the rails," he told AAP.

That involves a wide range of activities costing some $300 million of public money and the same again in private and corporate contributions.

That dwarfs spending on veteran mental health services at a time when the government is imposing tight restraints on all spending and when both sides of politics acknowledge defence is significantly under-funded.

Brown cites the government's local centenary program where every electorate gets $125,000 to spend wholly on World War I commemorative activities.

He attended the board meeting of his RSL sub-branch in eastern Sydney where this funding was considered, concluding there was simply nothing to spend this money on.

"There's already a memorial in every suburb. Every photo has been digitised. The best thing they came up with was replacing the gold lettering on one of the war memorials," he said.

"There are so many contemporary veterans in this electorate whose story hasn't been told and we are replacing the gold letters on a war memorial."

Brown also explores the broader issue of Australian society's remoteness from the modern-day military.

He sees a deep chasm of understanding between civil society and the defence force, which is emerging from the nation's longest conflict in Afghanistan.

A poll at the last election found fewer than five per cent of people considered national security or defence an issue which would decide their vote.

Possibly one reason is that the Australian mainland has never known war, other than briefly during World War II.

"It's just not at the front of our minds. It's not like health policy. You might go through your whole life never coming into contact with anything to do with the defence force," he said.

It's not a comfortable notion. But some, such as former army chief Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, say it's a debate worth having.

"Some people won't like this, but let's talk about it and let's make sure that Anzac is relevant to the Australian public and to this new generation of soldiers," he says.

"Because they've (the soldiers) got to learn ... that they are the new heroes."

Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson says it's a false debate.

"It (the World War I centenary) is about our history but even more important, it's about our future," he said at the launch of AWM's centenary program.

"To suggest that commemoration of these events in some way diminishes the importance that is ascribed to and support given to the veterans of our contemporary conflicts - it is not one or the other."

Could anyone but a former serviceman present such an argument? The answer is probably not.

The 2010 book, What's Wrong With Anzac, by left-leaning historian Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake attracted scathing criticism.

Brown notes that Reynolds and Lake raised valid questions about the utility and propriety of the Anzac spirit but there was scant evidence for their conclusion that more Anzac meant a more militaristic society.

He says he's glad Anzac Day itself has emerged from the wilt of the 1970s, but there's now a danger of "a bit of centenary fatigue" as the commemorations span four years.

"Stretching it out over four years is a pretty difficult thing to do. We run that risk that we put on all these ceremonies and concerts and events and people stop turning up," he said.

(Anzac's Long Shadow - The Cost of Our National Obsession, by James Brown, 184pp, Redback, RRP $19.95)

Source AAP

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