Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

By Zoe Alderton, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 9 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Media and Violence (7 May 2012).

Jolyon Mitchell is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh. In this latest podcast he discusses the relationship between religions and media, focusing on issues of violence and peace. This material touches on his upcoming book, Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The Role of Religion and Media (Routledge: 2012). In this text, Mitchell problematises overly-simplistic readings of the media’s role in discussions of religion, conflicts, and resolutions.

In this response to his podcast, I wish to summarise some of the fascinating points raised by Mitchell. In doing so, I aim to foreground those that may illuminate Australia and its approach to sacralised violence. Living in a country where the national culture is largely secular, it is interesting to consider what the implications for Mitchell’s research are on Australian media and its presentation/proliferation of violence. Mitchell mentions a variety of nations who have undergone relatively recent conflicts and conflict resolutions, which have somehow engaged with religious groups or belief systems. At first it may seem that Australia is totally outside of this paradigm. Since the genocide of our Indigenous population, we have not seen the same kind of civil war as Mozambique. Nor have we defended our borders in a manner comparable to the Iran-Iraq conflict. Religiously motivated terrorism is more of a fear than a reality. In terms of faith, Australia is nominally Christian but has no official state religion. While the importance of this religion in Australian culture should not be underplayed, it is not a tradition that is generally considered to be an agent of national bonding.

Nevertheless, Mitchell’s framing of the media and his comments on violence as a kind of public spectacle provide an effective lens through which to consider Australia’s complicated public engagement with Anzac Day and the Anzac legend. This national holiday, intrinsically connected to violence via its origin in a First World War conflict, has an arguably religious relationship with Australian nationhood. Through various media (including television broadcasts, paintings, movies, and sculptures) the very complex and ambivalent meaning of Anzac Day is negotiated and perpetuated. Mitchell’s arguments in regards to the sensationalism and spectacle of violence will be used to account for the extreme emphasis on sacred martyrdom that permeates our national legend via a pragmatic reading of its dissemination through popular media.

The Anzac legend as civic religion

Anzac Day is ritualistic, deeply reverential, and a significant meaning-making structure within Australian society. From its parades to its pilgrimages, Anzac Day predominates the popular media (and subsequently the popular imagination) via a system of symbolic shorthand and pre-ordained, mythological emotive structures. This national holiday of Australia and New Zealand traces its origins back to a disastrous military campaign that began on the shores of Turkey on April 25, 1915. The Battle of Gallipoli was the first major offensive involving the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), and was ostensibly a failed campaign. Nevertheless, despite the substantial loss of life and lack of territorial gain, this violent battle is generally viewed as the point at which the colonial outpost of Australia became a ‘real’ nation. This pervasive mythology describes both Australia and New Zealand as countries that were matured and proven by their actions in war.

The Battle of Gallipoli has gone beyond a wartime narrative and has become instead a rallying point, a meaning-making structure, and a symbolic language of nationhood. This has congruence with several definitions of the ambiguous category ‘religion’, including (to name but one example) that of Clifford Geertz. The Anzac mythology puts forward “a system of symbols” that can be demonstrated to “establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations” in the Australian populace, “formulating conceptions of a general order of existence” (Geertz 1966 p.4). Unsurprisingly, the secular origin of the Anzac legend makes it a contentious inclusion in to the category of ‘religion’. Less problematic is its employment as a ‘civil religion’. Although this term dates back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is elucidated with the seminal work of Robert N. Bellah (1967). In his foundational research on the concept, he specifies that the seperation of church and state does not deny “the political realm a religious dimension.” The state may possess its own beliefs, symbols, and rituals (Bellah 1967 pp.3-4). Based in part on this idea, N. J. Demerath III and Rhys H. Williams (1985 p.154) call civil religion “a religion of the nation, a nonsectarian faith that has as its sacred symbols those of the polity and national history.” It is clear that the Anzac legend finds within this paradigm, if not also in the paradigm of religion in its more traditional sense.

In saying this, it is important to make a few qualifying statements. Firstly, the Anzac legend is not constructed to be a maximalist devotional system or a singular worldview. In updating Bellah for the Australian situation, Richard Crouter (1990 p.158) states “religion, like national identity, is a myth by which people live.” There is little reason why the Australian national identity myth should necessarily exclude belief in another mythological structure. Indeed, Demerath and Williams (1985 p.159) argue that civil religion does not act as a replacement for ‘sectarian religion’, and that many people with traditional religions affiliations also show substantial engagement and affiliation with its civil version. In 2012, Cardinal George Pell told the press that the redemptive sacrifice of the Anzac legend interacted well with the Catholic Church. He explained, “I don’t think a country without deep Christian roots can make a national day out of a defeat.” These remarks are a perfect emblem of the potential interaction between the Anzac myth and the Christian myth in the Australian religious landscape.

Secondly, the specifically secular dimensions of the Anzac legend should be considered. Some parts of the myth are specifically presented as non-religious. For example, Graham Seal (2007 p.143) describes the ‘digger’ (Anzac soldier) as the “essential hero” of the Gallipoli narrative, specifying that he is an “a-religious” character who as such “could only be represented in secular terms.” Seal’s research goes into further detail concerning the negotiation of sacred and secular. He summarises,

The nation state is a secular entity, while the need to commemorate the fallen demands the discourses of the sacred. In the context of the strong, popular Australian reluctance for public displays and strong avowals of religious adherence, the religious aspects are minimised and marginalised. But commemoration requires sacralisation and, if it is not available through the usual discourses of formal religion, it can still be achieved through other cultural processes that elevate the secular ‘Anzac’ to an almost holy term. (Seal 2007 p.139)

It is important to remember the particular social character of Australia in which punctilious and didactic religious expression sits uncomfortably with a preference for the colloquial and anti-authoritarian. When the Gallipoli legend is elevated to the holy, it is done so in a manner that sometimes seems conflictingly demotic.

Lastly, the subjective lived experience of individuals can never be properly accounted for in broad discussions of a cultural mythology. Demerath and Williams (1985 p.154) appropriately critique the idea of civil religion as a fully “cohesive force, a common canopy of values that helps foster social and cultural integration,” citing the necessary concession to the “complex reality” in which a civil religion may reside. This response contains idealised and essentialised statements on the impact of Anzac mythology and ritual. It is important to specify that the polity can never be truly cohered. For example, Lee Sackett (1985 p.18) argues that a model of Anzac Day as fully unificatory and cohesive is misleading when one considers factors such anti-war sentiment and alternative leisure activities made available on this public holiday.

Does Anzac Day need the media?

Now that the Anzac legend has been established as a civil religion, it is important to consider its relationship with the media and the way in which this structures approaches to the presentation of sacred violence. Peter Slade (2003 p.790) reasonably remarks that the quantities of media concerning Gallipoli “defy summarizing.” The end of April brings with it an onslaught of Anzac communications on the radio, television, websites, and print media. Australians consume seemingly endless images of soldiers, sacrifice, battles, and military processions. The media even allows us to literally consume sacred symbols via shared recipes.

The media is the main way in which a distinctive Anzac language is canonised and distributed amongst the populace. Verbal media puts forward important linguistic devices, which act as mediation between a dated military defeat and a national mythology associated with great pride and ongoing relevance. The broadcast of ceremonies such as the dawn service at Gallipoli are revealing of the national spirit. Bellah (1967 p.2) makes the apt claim that “[w]hat people say on solemn occasions … is often indicative of deep-seated values and commitments that are often not made explicit in the course of everyday life.” Anzac Day and its ceremonies are an opportunity to profess the sacred and reverential attitude that is commonly felt towards our war dead, and to foreground favourable characteristics that form the distinct Australian identity.

In terms of the former, Seal (2007 p.137) provides a detail analysis of the Anzac rhetoric that connotes sacred status. He notes the use of ‘spirit’ and ‘legend’, coupled with activities such as ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘ritual’. Seal also notes the use of the pejorative ‘sacrilege’ when an aspect of the Anzac myth is “misused or abused.” Religious language abounds in the news media of 2012. Even Sally Neighbour’s critique of the way Anzac Day and current military involvements are handled speaks of “awed and sentimental reverence” for the troops. There are also quintessential Australian characteristics implied by the normative presentation of the Anzac troops. For example, Slade (2003 p.784) draws attention to a popular perception of Australia’s catastrophic death rate per capita as compared to the losses of larger nations. To the nation, “[t]he casualties indicate that Australia and New Zealand took on more than their fair share of the work.” This feeds in to the foregrounding of selflessness as observed by Seal (2007 p.144) who argues that Australians prefer to demonstrate their moral beliefs through charitable acts or volunteerism rather than through conventional expressions of piety. These attitudes of holy sacrifice and labour are supported by the popular media descriptions of the Anzac character.

The ocular media of film and visual arts have also done much to propagate the Anzac legend and establish the meaning of its violent core. The iconography of Simpson and his Donkey is a fundamental part of the Anzac narrative, especially in terms of its communication to Australian children. The sacrifice of the Australian Field Ambulance stretcher-bearer John Simpson Kirkpatrick has been interwoven into constructions of the ideal Australian character. Seal (2007 p.142) explains that Simpson was “barely acknowledged” by the military themselves, but was subsequently immortalised after his “selfless actions were glorified by the media of the day.” This is an interesting situation in which the popular media, for generations, has selected and disseminated Simpson as a motif of peace. The official Anzac website encourages classroom teacher to use Simpson as a hero who indoctrinates the children into Australian values.

Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1984) is another major text in this sacral canon of nationhood. Seal (2007 p.142) describes the protagonists of this film as representations of the “everybloke” who become martyrs as a result of British ineptitude. In addition to the obvious emblem of manhood espoused, Seal notes the anti-authoritarian spirit that is celebrated via this popular trope of mild criticism towards the now redundant ‘homeland’ of the colonial. Slade (2003 p.793) speaks of Gallipoli as a fetish. “The story telling has led to its becoming greater than the original participants, the story tellers, and the modern visualizers themselves. Consequently, the object, the fetish, has come to dominate them.” Weir is only one part of the seemingly endless retelling of this story, which has power that transcends the author.

The emblematic martyrs of the Gallipoli battle are part of Australia’s ritual veneration, which is larger and greater than any specific text. Yet these venerable emblems of the Anzac spirit must be maintained through some kind of storytelling system in order to endure through changing national culture. Seal (2007 p.136) argues that the sacralisation of the Anzac legend requires “a number of rhetorical, iconographic, ritual and textual elements interacting with the motivating imperatives of national identity.” The media is clearly a way in which these elements can be constructed, homogenised, and shared. The Battle of Gallipoli is not enough to form a system of sacred violence. These sacral elements need to be homogenized into a recognisable system of signs, symbol, and meaning before they can be utilised as a cohesive worldview, ethical system, and site of national piety.

The spectacle of violence

In Mitchell’s podcast, he describes occasions in which media become the site, source, and inspiration for different forms of violence. The broadcast of religious motifs is a clear part of this process. Mitchell uses the example of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In this conflict, posters and mural celebrating martyrdom were produced. These images did not just concern themselves with contemporary sacrifice in the immediate conflict. Rather they wove in foundational martyrdoms such as that of Imam Hussain Ibn Ali, often conveying both narratives at once. This relationship between the media and symbolic culture is a vitally important one. In modern Australia, the troops involved in current or more recent battles are constantly conflated with the original Anzacs, making their modern-day sacrifice part of an ongoing narrative of martyrdom that feels real and compelling in its immediacy.

On a related note, Mitchell claims that news media is drawn to spectacle, and that violence is spectacular. His suggestion that media attention is often unproductive in the peace-making process tends to imply that its utility is often in the realm of proliferating conflict. Thus, it is reasonable to view the news media as a channel that prioritises that which is exciting, colourful, or engaging. Spectacle connects an audience with their television or other news medium. Spectacle helps to proliferate the aforementioned immediacy of the Anzac martyrdom that is useful and desirable if Australia wishes to draw upon its citizens’ essentially positive attitude towards sacrifice in war. The televised aspects of Anzac Day and its associated rituals tend to focus on that which is engagingly monumental and celebratory. The solemn Dawn Service at Gallipoli, including the stirring ‘last post’ by a lone bugler, is necessary viewing for a substantial portion of the nation. It is part of their ritual, and is conveniently televised.

So too is the annual commemorative parade in which veterans of all Australian wars march (or are represented posthumously by their heirs). The televisation of the Anzac Day Parade helps the nation to participate in the imaginative renewal of its mythology. Slade (2003 p.792) calls the Gallipoli story part of the sustenance of Australia. Through television, all can participate in this ceremony of cultural renewal and recitation. Of course, violence need not be advocated by any of these moving, engaging, and spectacular ceremonies or their media portrayal. Indeed, there is little about them that is openly pugnacious. Instead, the media tends to valorise holy martyrdom, implying on occasion that such a sacrifice is still necessary in order to maintain the social order of Australia as we know it today.

Is Anzac Day an example of the ambivalent sacred?

A major part of Mitchell’s podcast is the complex interrelationship of war, peace, and religion. As connected as religions may be to violence, he maintains that they also have a role to play in pacificism. His podcast speaks comprehensively of “the ambivalence of the sacred,” a term coined by R. Scott Appleby. Mitchell employs this phrase to imply “the scared can both incite violence and promote peace.” He feels that religious agents are, and can be, part of the conflict resolution process. Interestingly, Mitchell argues that this role is less publicised as it tends to happen away from cameras. The arduous process of negotiating peace does not lend itself to short broadcasts. Perhaps the potentially peaceful or anti-violent aspects of the Anzac mythology have been ignored in the popular press due to a lack of interest or broadcastability. This does not mean that they are absent, or that the reverence inspired by the Gallipoli campaign and its commemorative sites could not inspire an entirely pacifistic agenda.

Indeed, it is not clear if the Anzac legend is a discourse of war or peace. It appears to be both simultaneously, but also has potential to represent only one side of the dichotomy depending on the cause that employs it. In his discussion of Anzac as sacred and secular simultaneously, Seal (2007 p.143) calls this myth the most powerful “manifestation of an ambivalence that lies at the heart of our sense of national identity.” He compares this tonal equivocality with the confusion over Ned Kelly as hero or villain, or the simultaneous perception of British citizens as our kin and rivals. So too can Australia be seen to negotiate the sombre spaces and ceremonies of Anzac veneration with the iconic larrikin soldier and his playful disrespect for pomposity. The Anzac mythology, in negotiating equivocal and contradictory meanings, opens itself up to possibilities for violence or peacemaking. It can be used as a call to arms for present-day conflicts or a means of expressing the horrors and suffering of war.

In the case of Anzac Day 2012, the news media has shown examples of ambivalence in terms celebrating or denying violence in the name of this mythology. This is exemplified in Charles Waterstreet’s Sydney Morning Herald article ‘Civil War Defies the Anzac Spirit’. Here Waterstreet rallies for suburban peace in the wake of violence in the Sydney region. He denounces the current climate in which criminals are fighting petty wars of bluff and false bravado, betraying those who died and tried to keep such conduct from our shores. Turf wars over drug-trafficking rights and injured pride are an embarrassment to this city, to the soldiers who fought in countless wars … Taking up arms in peacetime is to spit in the face of every soldier, sailor and airman who fought.

Ambivalence is certainly present in this division of ‘good violence’ and ‘bad violence’, framed within a discourse of respect for the Anzac tradition and the sacred sacrifice.

Celebrity and violence

Another applicable component of Mitchell’s podcast is the blurring of celebrity and religious leadership. This too may be read in to the impact of spectacle in regards to what is and is not broadcast. Mitchell argues that the popular media (for example, news broadcasters) thrive on the celebrity factor. Celebrities build audiences through a process of viewer identification. Media consumers feel as though they ‘know’ a celebrity or can identify with them. As this relationship is pre-existent, a news snippet need not feel obliged establish empathy or interest in such a figure. Considering the time poverty of televised news broadcasts, the employment of a familiar religious figure with a pre-established narrative and context makes pragmatic sense. Mitchell uses religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama as an example of a familiar face with a familiar agenda. In the case of Anzac ritual and mythology, political figures are the celebrities consulted by the media in this manner.

Of course, the political celebrities themselves are transient. Demerath and Williams (1985 p.160) specify that civil religions do not connect too closely with any specific government lest they become an “idolatrous cloak of transcendental rhetoric tossed over the pursuit of momentary ends.” The proposed ultimacy of the Anzac legend has remained supra-partisan despite its intimacy with the leadership of the day. Unsurprisingly, the figure of the Prime Minister seems to be the main focal point of this engagement. In 2012, Julia Gillard has upheld this mantle, not only in terms of her actual addresses to the nation, but also in regards to the sound bites of her speeches that were disseminated through the television and printed news. For example, in a particularly popular news article, Gillard referred to Anzac Day as all that Australia embodies, more significant in terms of emotions and values than Australia Day, and a meaningful event for migrants (like herself) “who freely embrace the whole of the Australian story as their own.” Putting aside disturbing political undertones, these convenient sound bites are easily broadcast around the nation, presented by a political celebrity who needs no introduction.

Although people with anti-Anzac or anti-war sentiments may have commented on the celebrations in an equally eloquent manner, they cannot compete with one of the most easily recognised faces of Australia in a media landscape that requires abbreviation. The political celebrity Barack Obama also made news (in a story that seems entirely overblown) after sending “best wishes” to Australia and New Zealand on Anzac Day. Although the sensationalist headline would suggest otherwise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the message on Obama’s behalf. She also thanked Australia for their ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan, a meaningful conflation of past and present sacrifice of lives. Obama is another example of a celebrity who is suitable for a short news story on account of his national renown. His (albeit proxy) endorsement of the Anzac commemoration coupled with an endorsement of current conflicts requires little in the way of contextualisation.

Media and violence in its broadest sense

The Pool of Reflection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Mitchell’s broad take on the definition of ‘media’ is a useful one when considering the depth of a culture’s communicative devices. Although media is commonly shorthand for television and newspapers, Mitchell reminds us of the vast array of communicative devices that can fall under this umbrella term. Media need not be seen as the exclusive domain of the literary elect or wealthy broadcasters. Rather, Mitchell employs the term to describe a variety of devices from YouTube videos, to murals, to architecture. It is in the medium of architecture and effigy that Australia expresses some of its most reverential emotions towards the war dead.

The dome ceiling

The work of Ken Inglis, especially Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (1998), is vital reading on this complex topic. To briefly summarise, Inglis illuminates war memorials as sacred shrines of Australian civil religion, allowing for the preservation of memory. This sacred architecture helps to reconcile the distance between Australia and Turkey. It is difficult to negotiate sacred turf when your creation narrative takes place in a foreign nation. Slade (2003 p.787) speaks of various features of the Gallipoli battleground that make it a sacred or elevated region. This includes the lack of modern development on the peninsula (keeping it ‘authentic’ to the era of the battle), the burial of the dead where they fell, and the subsequent framing of the entire area as a cemetery. Obviously, Australia itself cannot provide this kind of sacred Anzac space. Instead, war memorials are a way of making a geographically unconnected site equally meaningful.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

In Canberra, Australia’s capital city, the Australian War Memorial contains the Hall of Memory, a cathedral-like structure that performs the typical duties of a religious shrine. Seal (2007 p.140) calls the Hall of Memory “spiritual but without religious symbolism.” Although it may not contain traditional religious indicators, it still evokes religious emotion. The Hall is designated as a place of eerie silence and hushed contemplation. It is clearly demarcated as a holy site that demands respect. It is also the tomb of the Unknown Solider, with his body housed like the relics of a saint. Above his remains, viewers may look upwards to a dome reminiscent of Byzantine cathedral architecture. The dome, created in brilliant gold hues, depicts souls migrating from distant battlefields. The Hall of Memory clearly connotes the existence of the extramundane

The museum component of the Australian War Memorial should also be seen as a communicative device in terms of Australia’s relationship to sacred violence. As Chris Healy (1997 pp.73-74) argues, the museum is a medium that trains citizens in their acquisition of social memory. A visitor to the Australian War Memorial is encouraged to have a spiritual, or at least reflective, experience in the Hall of Memory. They may then use the educational, historical museum in order to arrange their feelings of awe, or reverence, or respect into a cultural narrative. This narrative, conveyed through the museum medium, contextualises the violence and horrific loss of the nation into a rhetoric of sacrifice, sacred ‘mateship’, and a patriotism that transcends personal concerns.


Much more could be said on the Anzac legend, its various components, and the reverential lack of critique it receives in the present era. I believe it is valuable to consider what our state mythology and most revered holiday dictates in terms of the national character. Mitchell’s exploration of the sensationalism and spectacle of violence explains much in terms of the news media’s preferences as to which aspects of the legend they choose to show and propagate. So too does Mitchell help to illuminate the value of celebrity in moral debates. Pragmatically speaking, the Anzac narrative is a story that most Australians know and care about. It is a discourse that is easily associated with well-known political and public figures. It is also an exciting and visually stimulating event that transfers well to the broadcasting of its rituals, or the artistic enactment of its sacred narratives and archetypal heroes. At its core, the Anzac mythology may indeed contain the ambivalence that Mitchell sees in the relationship between religion, violence, and peace. Nevertheless, its present incarnation seems to be concerned with the public condoning of martyrdom and the celebration of militaristic duty in deeply spiritualised terms.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.


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Slade, P., 2003. ‘Gallipoli Thanatourism: The Meaning of ANZAC’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 30, no. 4, pp.779-794.

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