Reflections on Gallipoli

[Sent this to several places, but no-one wants to publish it apparently.  Might try an edited version closer to Anzac Day.  For overseas readers, the disastrous, failed 1915 assault on Turkey in WWI is supposed to mark the time Australia’s colonies, federated in 1901,  “became a nation”.  Working on a book on Australian politics, hence rather quiet on this site.  Perhaps I’ll put up an extract or two.]

My many misgivings around the Gallipoli Centenary were crystallised by the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Canberra performance of Reflections on Gallipoli, now playing around the country.  Though many annually grieve with a full heart the loss of so many young men, and do so simply “lest we forget”, the Gallipoli legend has also been twisted and misused.

Gallipoli was not the start of our nation. Simply revisiting the horror does not heal the wound. We seem to have learnt nothing about futile wars. We neglect constructive attempts, then and now, to avoid war.

The ACO’s performance induced cognitive dissonance for me, as mostly-beautiful music was juxtaposed with the unrelenting horror of accompanying visuals and spoken words. There is a place for both, but they did not belong together.

Many of the images and stories were of mangled living people, and of bodies piled, rotting and bloated. Other images were of vital young men, pre-conflict, and of gaunt and traumatised men in the trenches.

The words of Mustafa Kemal, Atatürk, “your sons are now lying in our bosom and … have become our sons as well” are a reassurance to grieving families, but they are not a reason for mothers to dry their tears. The young men are not sleeping, they are dead, their lives wasted, squandered.

Those and so many other young lives were squandered for a war of commercial rivalry. The nations at war were fighting for advantage in trade, resources, empire and wealth. Then, as now, nations’ governments were dominated by wealthy commercial interests. So it has been through most of the history of so-called civilisation, from the Pharaohs to the invasion of Iraq.

The young men who ran into hailstorms of death were extremely brave, but there can be no heroes in such a tragically sordid business. They were victims far more than they were heroes. Their valour can be honoured, and their futile deaths must not be forgotten, but we must turn our backs on those who try to bathe in the reflection of a false glory attributed to the Gallipoli campaign.

We ought sometimes to be reminded of the horror, but the more relevant emotion is not sadness but anger: anger at the folly, greed and waste of the war. Only the music of Bartok, harsh and agitated, seemed appropriate.

To move beyond such horror and loss, the only way is through. We must fully feel the emotional pain and fear until we learn we are still here, still alive, still able, if we choose, to open ourselves, to reconnect and to love again, though the sadness will always be within us. As a society we need a version of this process, just as much as those directly affected.

Grieving is a complex process with complex emotions.  If we hold back from it we remain stuck in the trauma, closed, unable properly to love. Many of the traumatised survivors did not know how to grieve, and so they festered in silence, many traumatising their families in turn.  Some of that trauma still echoes down the generations, reinforced by other wars, darkening the makeup of our nation.

Australia in 1913 was a vigorous, optimistic, confident and very progressive society.  Gallipoli did not make us, it deeply wounded us. It divided us and deflected us from our path.  Only fitfully have we sought to regain that path, being content instead to cringe before the supposed superiority and power of foreigners and to be satisfied with second best.  In some ways we have outgrown the cringe, but in our political heart we remain a colony.

As a society we have not properly admitted the wound we suffered, because the story was appropriated by those seeking to gain from it, and they perverted it into a tale of military glory.  They are among us still, and they will be out in full force this next 25th of April, still peddling their toxic tale, still sending our young people off to futile foreign wars.

There is another centenary next month. From 28 April to 1 May 1915 there was an International Congress of Women at The Hague, in which 1300 women from twelve warring and neutral nations met to draft visionary resolutions aimed at ending World War I and establishing permanent peace.

Their resolutions informed the formation of the League of Nations in 1919 and foreshadowed much subsequent international human rights law. To commemorate that Congress, Canberra’s A Chorus of Women will perform in the Albert Hall a community oratorio, A Passion for Peace, by local composer Glenda Cloughley.

Many speak of the horror and folly of war, but each of us needs to face the painful truth of how we allow ourselves to be drawn into war. Only when we know how to resist the drumbeat of war will we open the possibility of moving beyond it.

When we are willing to place that historic International Congress of Women on an equal footing with the real Gallipoli story, then we will have begun to heal.  Then beautiful, mournful music, and music of deep sadness will be appropriate.

Only when we are willing, as a society, to go through the complex and difficult process of properly grieving Gallipoli will we be able to resume our maturing, and to fully regain our self-confidence.

Then we may also, together, fly free in the sweet ecstasy of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.

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