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Australian National Identity and Images of War Essay


Australia is a multinational state, and the issues related to the national identity are quite disputable here. The nation is seen as quite young as its formation started mainly in the early 19th century (Crotty 2001). White (1981) notes that there are several symbols of Australian identity which have been incorporated into Australian culture. Researchers identify several milestones which affected the development of the Australian nation as well as its symbols. It is necessary to note that wars (especially the First World War) occupy a special place in the process. This paper will dwell upon the reason why the war is incorporated in Australian identity development.

What is an identity?

In the first place, it is necessary to point out what is understood by national identity. Generally speaking, identity is the way a person sees him/herself. It is also noteworthy that people often try to pertain to certain groups. Thus, it is possible to identify at least two dimensions: individual and national. At the individual level, ethnicity, and social status, as well as other features, can be employed. Thus, a man can see himself as Irish and a middle-class man. A young woman can see herself as English and a feminist. The first two dimensions are quite easy to identify and understand. They are focused on a place an individual occupies in the world or rather thinks he/she occupies.

However, the second dimension, national, can be difficult to describe. National identity is the way the entire nation sees itself. This involves symbols and images as well as beliefs and stereotypes incorporated in people’s minds. These symbols and images are aimed at best describing these people usually living in one country. At this point, it is necessary to add that people may live in another country due to different reasons (study, work, temporary visit or even immigration) but they still share the national identity of their homeland. It is also important to differentiate between national identity and stereotypes ascribed to this or that nation by other people. It is important to remember that the way, for instance, the Australians see themselves as a nation is often different from the way they are regarded by the French or any other nation. National identity comprises a variety of legends, images, and values shared by the nation.

Australian identity

As has been mentioned above, Australian identity is a complex concept that involves several elements. Hage (1998) notes that ethnic identity has been important for Australians throughout their history. Colonialism played a significant role in this process as European settlers who came to the continent were Protestants who believed they could help local savages to be civilised.

Furthermore, having “Angloness” was regarded as something important in the nineteenth century as people coming from other parts of the world (or simply non-British people) tended to pertain to lower classes (Hage 1998, p. 211). Thus, apart from ethnicity, ‘Angloness’ was closely connected with the social status of a person. More so, Maynard (2007) stresses that ethnicity has played a key role in movements for the rights of Black and Aboriginal people who wanted to gain equal rights with more privileged ethnic groups. Elder (2007) also stresses that the tension between white and non-white Australians persists even today. Ethnic identity in such a diverse society cannot be the only constituent of the national identity as it tends to bring discord within the state rather than unite people.

Social class identity is also an element of the Australian national identity. Hage (1998) stresses that ethnicity in Australia is closely connected with social status as those having ‘Angloness’ had more opportunities than people coming from other cultural backgrounds. There was (and sometimes the trend persists) certain prejudice, and white people had an advantage compared to other nations. For instance, Hage (1998, p. 211) refers to a man who stresses that even though he “maybe not much better off than” any other person, he has “an essence/identity” that gives him “the possibility of accumulating more capital.” Admittedly, social inequality contributes to the tension within Australian society, making it torn into different subgroups.

Religion is another element of the Australians’ national identity. White (1981) notes that Protestants who came to the continent set major dogmas which still prevail in the society. Notably, this religion was prevailing in all spheres of people’s lives and started from schools. People were taught to act rightfully. However, soon, the secular world alienated itself from religion and values shared (promulgated or imposed) did not unite the nation anymore. It is also noteworthy that people practicing different religions have come to Australia, and the rule of Protestants ceased to exist. At the same time, the religion brought to the continent still affected the Australian culture and their values though it also added certain distrust to other people (for instance, practicing other religions). Nonetheless, this diverse and multicultural society managed to develop and become a nation united by values shared by everyone.

War and the Australian national identity

The war and the national identity

Before focusing on the way the war is connected with the Australian national identity, it is necessary to consider the way war is related to the identity of other nations. Thus, lots of states had a revolution (or several revolutions) which shaped or/and created their national identity. Thus, the French became a truly united nation with a particular national identity after the French Revolution. The American national identity developed after the Civil War, and Americans developed their values and ideas which could be shared by all. There were a variety of examples when the war had a profound effect on the creation of nations.

When it comes to Australia, there were no revolutions which could help people develop their national identity and find the values which could unite existing groups under an idea. Hage (1998, p. 147) compares Australians to teenagers who did not have their “symbolic violent rebirth.” There were no images and symbols which could make all Australians proud of about this nation. There were no revolutions or any significant riots in Australia. People were seeking for the national identity, and the war oversees the way they gained their identity.

Hence, wars gave the nation the Australian national idea. Being Australians (for Australians) now means being “natural fighters” (Elder 2007, p. 5). At present, Australians believe that “Australian-ness” helps soldiers to perform their duty (Elder 2007, p. 5). Thus, Australians are believed to be brave and respect and strive for freedom. It has been acknowledged that the First World War was the major reason for the development of this kind of national identity.

The First World War for Australians

As has been mentioned above, Australian society has always been diverse. It was also multicultural at the beginning of the twentieth century. More so, there was significant prejudice that Australians’ were ancestors of former convicts. This idea could not unite the nation and create symbols which could be proud of. However, the Great War started, and Australians were sent to that war to defend the world against the evil aggressors. This was the beginning of the Anzac legend (Crotty 2001). Crotty (2001) stresses that the war took away the lives of 60 000 men and resulted in 150 000 men wounded. The legend had a very tragic beginning. The battles in Europe also changed the way people saw war. Initially, the war was something intangible, but it became very real. Soldiers changed their view on war and peace, life, and death. They became different people after the hell of the war.

Nonetheless, stories of such correspondents as Bean as well as many other writers, filmmakers and so on told the story of Australians’ bravery and courage. People who came to fight for the British started developing their own national identity. After the war, Australians became the nation with certain values, heroes, and images. Notably, the events in the twentieth century were extensively highlighted, and loads of images with brave soldiers appeared. It is necessary to note that the war had a profound effect on the future of the nation. A large number of people sent to fight oversees found it difficult to return to their former peaceful life in the world that had changed (Crotty 2001). Men focused on the glorious time and contributed greatly to creating the legend of brave Australians, which is still very strong. As has been mentioned above, the stories were accompanied by thousands of images which added life and form, so-to-speak, to the idea of the Australian national identity. The idea of noble lifesavers prevailed in the urban population which was growing rapidly in the twentieth century. Notably, soldiers (when they came back from the war) settled in the cities even though the majority of them used to live in rural areas.

It is also necessary to note that Anzac heroes were as multicultural as the entire Australian society. It was not important whether the soldier was white or pertained to the middle class when he saved or was saved by his comrades. As has been mentioned above, the ugliness of the war changed people’s views, including their distrust to or alienation from others. Hence, soldiers contributed greatly to the creation of the nation as it was much more important than a person is Australian without any focuses on ethnicity or social status. Soldiers who returned to the peaceful cities of Australia promulgated ideas of brotherhood, which soon covered the entire nation.

The Second World War, as well as the Vietnam War, had a similar impact on the development of the Australian national identity. Soldiers did not fight for British anymore as they knew they were Australians, and they entered the wars as the nation, which could help other states to cope with a global war. Huntsman (2001) stresses that the legend of Anzacs created a value of lifesaving and rescuing, which was transmitted from the domain of the military to civil life. Thus, surfers often refer to the brave soldier and compare themselves to their ancestors when helping each other or completing dangerous tricks. This is only one of many examples of the way the ideas spread in Australian society. Boys wanted to be soldiers, and they were taught and told about the bravery of their fathers. This pride united the nation.

Why is the war incorporated into the Australian national identity?

In conclusion, it is possible to state that the war is incorporated into the Australian national identity as it united the nation and created values which were shared by all. First of all, the war united Australians in the face of a mutual enemy. Australian soldiers, who often had different backgrounds, understood that they were not a part of a great British nation, but they were representatives of another great nation, the Australians. The ideas of brotherhood and the role of lifesavers penetrated in Australian cities after the First World War. These ideas were promulgated during the following wars and military conflicts where Australians participated. The diverse Australian society did not have values which could unite the nation before the First World War.

The war has become incorporated into the Australian national identity, and Australians are eager to commemorate their heroes of the First World War (as well as other wars). The war provides the images which are valued and cherished. Images of war are associated with brotherhood, trust, freedom, and bravery. These all concepts are constituent elements of the national identity, which is shared irrespective of ethnicity, social or economic status.

Reference List

Crotty, M 2001, . Web.

Elder, C 2007, Being Australian: narratives of national identity, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Hage, G 1998, White nation: fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society, Psychology Press, Annandale, NSW.

Huntsman, L 2001, Sand in our souls: the beach in Australian history, Melbourne University Publish, Carlton, Victoria.

Maynard, J 2007, Fight for liberty and freedom: the origins of Australian aboriginal activism, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, ACT.

White, R 1981, Inventing Australia: images and identity, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

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