What does Gallipoli mean to us, and who says?

[First published in BWD magazine, autumn 2021, Braidwood NSW.]

The word Gallipoli evokes one of our most potent cultural stories, but in truth it is not one story but many. There are stories of sacrifice and national identity, but there are also stories of folly and destruction, and stories overlooked. We all, presumably, want to honour the fallen but there are those who, wittingly or otherwise, exploit the stories for other purposes. Can we have a conversation about these stories? Can we talk about which stories to keep, whether some might be corrected or discarded and others picked up?

On an obscure beach in Turkey many of our young men died in a battle that ended in disastrous defeat and withdrawal. More of our young men went on to fight and die in the trenches in Europe. They distinguished themselves as soldiers.

There were those in Australia who proclaimed those events to signify the birth of a nation, a uniting of the former colonies and perhaps a necessary ‘blooding’ to baptise us into the company of nations. That was the Anzac story I grew up with, but I never thought it rang true.

Behind that story was a fear of being seen as inferior colonials and of needing to erase the ‘convict stain’. There were also those who sought to advance themselves by serving British commercial interests.

In truth our young men were ‘good’ soldiers because of the country they grew up in, well fed and strong, with less class repression and free enough to develop initiative.

The story of that country is much richer and more enriching than one futile battle. It is a story of the inventiveness and perseverance of many people, and of the foresight, persistence and not a little wisdom of leaders in bringing several colonies together peacefully to create a vigorous and innovative nation. In 1913 Australia was already a distinctive presence among nations, leading (with the Kiwis) in giving the vote to all men, then women, in advocating a fair go for all and in providing a social safety net. Blacks, though, were not invited.

Many in the new nation still felt a strong loyalty to the mother country, but that was neither universal nor unqualified. Prime Minister Billie Hughes was a much more divisive figure than his predecessor, the steady Andrew Fisher. Twice he held referenda to authorise sending conscripts overseas and twice the proposal was rejected, amid bitter and divisive debate. Hughes was prominent in promoting the claim that Australia came of age on the beach at Gallipoli.

At the opening of the Australian War Memorial in 1941 the Governor General Lord Gowrie said the Memorial would be ‘… not only a record of the splendid achievements of the men who fought and fell … but also a reminder to future generations of the barbarity and futility of modern war’.

Australia suffered heavy casualties and incurred heavy debt in the Great War, both of which weighed heavily for decades. The shock and trauma smashed the optimistic and progressive pre-war mood. There followed the Great Depression then another great war. Since then have been various smaller wars and invasions of debatable merit.

Only in the second great war was Australia directly threatened. Prime Minister Curtin had to defy Churchill and Roosevelt to being our troops home to defend us. Churchill  and Roosevelt would have left us to our fate, perhaps to be liberated later from a potential invasion that would have been severely traumatic, as invasions are. We need to be careful about the faith we place in allies.

Since then our involvements in overseas wars have been questionable. The need to fight in Vietnam was vigorously debated, and anyway it was another disaster and defeat. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were based on a lie about weapons of mass destruction, with the functional goal being US military dominance and capture of oil fields. We were involved primarily to curry favour with the US, but the invasions were highly counter-productive and the reliability of the US as an ally is even more debatable.

We have lost soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, but more of them have died by their own hand after returning home. Now we have revelations of alleged atrocities committed by our own ‘special forces’. Such is the moral quagmire we and our soldiers can be placed in if the cause they fight for is not very clear, and clearly justified – if it ever can be.

The Government is now spending half a billion dollars to expand the War Memorial to include depictions of those dubious wars. They are accepting sponsorship from arms manufacturers, merchants of death. Can that be reconciled with the AWM’s role of reminding us of the ‘barbarity and futility of modern war’?

The Government spent around $400 million over four years ‘commemorating’ many centenaries of the Great War. How much of that was genuine honouring of the fallen? How much did the Government speak of barbarity? Of futility? They have spun a new fiction, that we fought alongside the US for democracy and freedom, when in fact we fought for empire and believed in White, especially British, superiority. How much of the Government’s message was thinly disguised glorification, or at least inuring us to yet more wars? Still following Uncle Sam, we now rattle our little sabres at Iran and China.

This Anzac Day, can we separate honouring the fallen from militarism? Do we need soldiers marching up the street and warplanes flying overhead?

What of those overlooked? Hundreds of women from across Europe and even from Australia courageously defied their governments and dominant public opinion to convene in The Hague in 1915 to devise strategies to stop the slaughter of their men. They formed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. They influenced the formation of the League of Nations and thence the United Nations. They continue today. Do we acknowledge them and support their efforts to stop the futile barbarism? Do we have a statue of them in the main street?

Then there are those who fought to defend Australia from actual invasion. Yes, the First Australians. They are here. We, the settlers, are here. Are we big enough, yet, to acknowledge what our forebears did to their forebears, to acknowledge their bravery and sacrifice?

We can travel freely to Turkey, Germany, Japan, North Vietnam (or could, pre-pandemic). The bitter animosities are gone, if not entirely forgotten. What was the point?

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