The Anzac biscuit: from hard tack to soft sell

In 1921, the Australian government legislated to prevent exploitation of the word ANZAC. As a result, the Anzac biscuit throve on charity stalls and in family kitchens. Then, in 1994, the Victorian RSL, in exchange for an on-going fee, convinced the Commonwealth to allow a food manufacturer to market a branded version. This transition of the Anzac biscuit from hard tack to soft sell is a metaphor for the implications that the post-1950 sprawl of the comfort zone has had for military planners. 

An essential element in the application of force is the willingness of people to risk their lives. Discipline and training aim to prolong morale under fire. The success of those efforts is proportional to the distance between life at war and life at home. The military options available to First World governments are shaped by the expectations for a Zegna, not a bodybag.

Seventy-five years ago, the deaths of 60,000 Australians did not topple the Hughes government. Indeed, the pro-war mood ensured its landslide victories in 1917 and again in 1919. Nowadays, politicians are as wary as NCOs about sustaining fatalities. Commentators agree how lucky the Howard government has been not to have had a fatality among the Australian troops in Iraq.

What caused this change? The explanation begins way outside military strategy or parliamentary tactics to be pursued through the illogic of capitalism. To escape the deflationary cycle of the 1930s, capital needed to expand production and hence consumption. In addition, public support for capitalism could not be restored without full employment at good wages. A permanent arms economy helped to absorb the surplus as did a welfare state. The success of these moves became the affluent society that J. K. Galbraith identified in 1958. Meanwhile, the pursuit of commodities had required a drift from an ethic of thrift to one of debt. Indulgence was now a moral good. Abstinence became un-American. By these devices, life got easier, softer. The result has become acute in the rates of childhood obesity. Physical fatness is the outward sign of the ME-mentality inculcated by mass marketing.

The fulfillment of capital’s need to survive by expanding consumption had subverted the morale of US troops in Vietnam long before they heard of the liberal media or anti-war protestors. Sixties Radicals often allege that the advertisers stole “Revolution” as a marketing logo. To the extent that that theft happened, Madison Avenue did no more than cash in on the mentality that its agencies had created in the 1950s. Those campaigns, for instance, installed Father’s Day as the opportunity to market electric shavers and get real men to try after shave. Advocates of universal military training now find it harder to win support by promising that the parade ground will “Make a man of him”. For a start, definitions of maleness are now more fluid. Even the hard men of Rugby League are on six-figure salaries, not to mention contracts to promote fashion goods.

Another example of the transformation is seen in that Australian troops were once categorized as “Six-bob-a-day tourists”. Right up until Korea, going overseas with the armed services was the only chance the vast majority of Australian men ever had to see the world. Now Gallipoli and the Western Front are stopovers on packaged tours.

[Anzac biscuits, according to the Women’s Weekly cookbook, are a mixture of rolled oats, golden syrup, baking soda, sugar, flour and coconut.]

Key Concepts and Issues

  • Before 1940, working conditions in the armed services were not all that different from civilian life.
  • Before both the world wars, civilian life was much harsher than it became by the mid-1960s.
  • Since then, the affluent society has altered expectations, as epitomised by the prevalence of talk about lifestyle.
  • Strategy cannot be understood without keeping one eye on commerce.

Key Questions

  • what if anything changed in the 1960s?
  • what was the substance of the Youth Revolution?
  • was the cultural rebellion of the Sixties a product of the commercial revolution of the 1950s?
  • anyway, do the consequent limits on the numbers available to combat forces matter in an era of high-tech conflict, and when Australia faces no prospect of mass invasion?
  • to what extent did the change in expectations propel the moves to high-tech weapons?

Primary Reading
Greg Whitwell, Making the Market, The Rise of Consumer Society, McPheeGribble, Melbourne, 1989, pp. 51-66.

Booklet on the economic and social history of the mass market in Australia.

List of Primary Reading items, with annotations
Albert Facey, A Fortunate Life, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981, pp. 155-160.

The popular recollections of a farm worker who fought through Gallipoli and France to come home a pacifist. The selected pages give an account of bush life before 1914.

Rhys Pollard, The Cream Machine, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1976, pp.1-3. A lightly fictionalized memoir of a working-class conscript to Vietnam. The title is ironic.

[The extracts from Facey and Pollard can be contrasted for their first-hand responses to life before the army.]

Humphrey McQueen, “Gallipoli’s Shadows”, The Age, 26 April 2003, p. 8.  
Introduces several of the issues raised in this lecture.

Humphrey McQueen, “Father’s Day”, Bulletin, 7 September 1999, pp. 48-49. 
Sketches one aspect of the commercialization of maleness in the 1950s.

A. P. Rowe, “Anzac Day”, Australian Quarterly, 29 (1), March 1957, pp. 67-73.

Thoughts on the drift in values by the vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide.

Richard White, Inventing Australia, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981, Chapter 10. Tracks attitudes during the growth of the Affluent Society.

Directed bibliography
Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capitalism, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1965. Chapter 5 on ‘The Sales Effort’ links mass production to mass marketing.

Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997.

Indentifies the US advertising and male fashion industries in the 1950s as the seedbeds for the social and cultural changes of the 1960s.

Leslie Kilmartin, “The militarization of adolescent males”, Don Edgar (ed.), Social Change in Australia, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1974, pp. 441-464.

A study by a psychologist attached to the Department of Air of 142 recruits to RAAF Technical Training School, outside Wagga Wagga.

Jenny Macleod, “The Fall and Rise of Anzac Day: 1965 and 1990 compared”, War & Society, 24 (1), May 2002, pp. 149-68.

Alan Seymour, The One Day of the Year, Three Australian Plays, Penguin, 1963. 
A once controversial 1960 play about the generational divide in a working-class family, set in the late 1950s. The drama is focused around the commemoration of Anzac Day as Australia’s One Day of the Year.