Politicians, leaders of would-be rival veterans' organisations and even governors-general have urged the League to confine its activities to matters of direct concern to its members. Such admonitions show little understanding of the cult of the Australian soldier and the role of the League in sustaining that central theme of national identity. "Beginning with the ANZACs themselves on Gallipoli, the soldiers forced something of their own homely presence into the legend of nation-creators and empire-sustainers", wrote Donald Horne in "In Search of Billy Hughes".
The tall lean bushman of "The Man From Snowy River" and "Shearing the Rams" was replaced by the tall lean ANZAC as the quintessential Australian following the Dardanelles Campaign. The digger is still the most appealing Australian hero figure judging from the popularity of contemporary books, films, and television programs on our history.
The League assumes the right to speak out on any issue. Naturally men who bear arms to preserve a way of life in war believe they earn a special right to have their say in peace, but the League's outspokenness served other purposes. The return to civilian life after years away fighting in mud, sand, or jungle is a jarring experience. The League has been an important element in the transition from war to peace. Socially, sub-branches provided a link with the extraordinary bonds of war. Politically, the League provided a peaceful avenue for the anger and tension which could easily have turned to violence.
In 1919 returned soldiers were involved in rioting and lesser disturbances in many cities and towns. Sometimes, as in Brisbane, the soldiers were responding to pro-Bolshevik demonstrations, and rough justice was meted out to the red flag wavers (the origins of the League's anti-communism are deep-rooted). The ugly situation in Brisbane was turned into peaceful, if rowdy, demonstrations after the League intervened. In Melbourne a procession of marchers, many in uniform, commemorating the war dead became an unruly mob. The wilder elements of the crowd bailed up State politicians and injured the Premier. Thanks to the League, the national day of commemoration, ANZAC Day, is a day of peace.
Australian military experience has been one of uprooting a civilian population, sending the men away to fight and, sometimes literally, drafting the women in support.
No-one should be surprised therefore that Australians are fascinated by their own military history. The original citizen soldiers, the ANZACs, fought and died and created a legend, and the sons of the ANZACs lived up to their fathers' expectations. The men sent to fight in the post-World War II conflicts shared similar backgrounds, as the regular soldiers of Malaya and Korea were mostly World War II veterans. The conscripts of Vietnam were as random a cross-section of the population as that surveyed by any opinion pollster.
A military caste is anathema to Australians. Conventional wisdom dictates that we should have a professional army, navy and air force capable of defending us from aggressors and maintaining treaty commitments, but the professional serviceman should also know his place. The citizen soldier who answered his country's call to arms, voluntarily or involuntarily, is not so constrained. To the contrary, the citizen soldier, by virtue of his service, has a right to speak out and be heard on any issue of concern, particularly those affecting the security of the nation at peace which he fought to protect in war.
The citizen soldier only has one vote and that vote has one value. He understands that because he fought for democracy. The democratic system also allows him to organise those who think like he does to form a political party, or a group to influence political parties. Returned men established such a pressure group whose membership and structure is the envy of all political parties, but that does not fully explain why the League's achievements have been the envy of most other pressure groups.
Good politicians can assess public opinion - their survival depends on being able to sniff the breeze of electoral change. Each Federal electorate contains an average of a dozen League sub-branches. The League is pervasive. Even a politician who remains aloof from the veteran community cannot escape. The badge is clearly visible on buildings, even though they may be clubs that no longer have a direct link with the organisation that spawned them. The familiar badge is also seen regularly in the death columns as members pay their last respects.
Research conducted specifically for this book shows that for most of its history, League attitudes have been remarkably in accord with the views held by the rest of the community. The League's long-standing policies on ANZAC Day commemoration, compulsory military training, Defence spending, communism, and ties with Britain are those of a clear majority of all Australians as measured by public opinion surveys.
Generally, and predictably, League attitudes find greater favor among the older and less well-educated groups, but that was not so in a recent poll done on ANZAC Day. League policy states that ANZAC Day should be commemorated as Australia's national day of remembrance, and public opinion surveys reflect that view as shown below. The age breakdown of the 1980 poll showed the strongest approval - 81.3% - among the youngest age group, the eighteen to twenty-four year olds.