Anzac Day should be quarantined from politicians – a solemn moment to reflect on the agony of war
Politicians use the Gallipoli landings to justify wars, past and present. They also use them to conveniently define our national history. But this isn’t what the centenary should be about.
Time eventually heals old battlefields. A gentle, grassy furrow might indicate where men once hacked a trench and the verdant expanse beyond where they eviscerated each other with bayonets.
But what happened a long time ago is rarely evident on the surface of old war grounds.
The earth, enriched with flesh, blood and bone, regenerates. Saplings sprout into trees, poppies bloom. Houses, churches, monuments – again all too often to men and to war – are built and rebuilt.
Tourists have comprehensively raked over the European battlefields where Australians fought and died a century ago. Nowhere more so than on the Gallipoli peninsula, for decades now the favoured destination for Australians captivated by a military disaster that raised the curtain on a later catastrophe on the European western front.
Still, the more fortunate fossicker among them might forage a piece of a porcelain whiskey jar from the beach at Anzac Cove, an old saddlery buckle, perhaps, or (most prized) a bullet head or casing.
The first British and Australians to visit the battlefields after the war were horrified at the human bones – sun bleached and stripped bare by carrion birds – that still lay scattered about and barely concealed with earth. And still the dirt there – and even more so on the western front – gives up its bones.
At Gallipoli, where the original trenches have been preserved, you can – provided you’re not fighting the crowds around Anzac Day – get some small sense of how it might have been for the 8,700 or so Australians killed and the 17,900 wounded in what was, ultimately, a strategically pointless operation.
Yes, you look at the pictures and you wander the fields – deceptively beautiful and serene, especially in the milder months. And at the end of your visit maybe you can sympathise with the boy from Victoria who died parched and from blood loss in no-man’s-land while crying for his mother.
But most of us can never really empathise.
The rows upon rows of perfect, blond stone tablets, from the beach to the heights of the Nek, bring home that which our politicians and military leaders like to call – with the euphemistic understatement that has attached itself to our rhetoric of war – “the loss”.
But really to understand what was forsaken, the extent of the cruel human vandalism that war imparts, you need to find out who the dead were when they lived and who the physically, psychiatrically and emotionally incomplete men that returned became.
War has its certainties. One is that politicians will always send young men to fight it. Another, that politicians will always lead the commemoration for those killed (“sacrificed”) in it.
And this week the politicians, not least the Australian ones, will be at the forefront of official remembrance for the 80,000 Turkish, 8,700 Australian, 2,700 New Zealand, 34,000 British, 9,800 French and 1,350 Indian troops who began dying in hordes on an obscure finger of the former Ottoman empire a century ago this Saturday.
The last Anzac is dead. The children and grandchildren of the Anzacs are ageing. In a generation’s time the Anzacs will have slipped from living memory entirely. None of the stories of their pain – or the pain they caused to others – will be within experience.
But official commemoration is, arguably, at its most ideal when the pain is all gone.
Unchecked, only then, are the evocations from politicians, military leaders and diplomats as they wring new meanings from it all – about mateship, national character, resilience, sacrifice the “fallen”, lost and “spirit”. The rhetoric is imbued with ecclesiastic-ism (nothing less for an Anzac myth that has become our secular religion) when the essence of war, without public relations, is always horrible death over access to land.
Politicians use commemoration to justify wars, past and future. This month the joint deployment of Australian and New Zealand troops to Iraq purportedly for training purposes was inevitably seen through the prism “Anzac100” – Australia’s commemoration for the global maelstrom that was the first world war (beginning August 1914) but which we, parochially, hinge to our force’s operations at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.
Politicians also use past wars to conveniently define their national histories. And so it is the deaths of the Anzacs, rather than tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians, to which they look, Gallipoli rather than peaceful federation.
“The Gallipoli landing was in an important sense the birth of our nation. Certainly it was the coming of age,” Tony Abbott said this month at a Queensland air force base.
Instructively, the Australian prime minister evoked Anzac in this instance to justify spending $1bn on new military surveillance aircraft.
He was also echoing the sentiments of a plucky battalion of those I’ll call the “Anzac birthers” – historians, writers, military leaders and politicians, beginning with Billy Hughes – who’ve insisted the Australian nation was somehow forged on the shores and cliffs of Gallipoli.
Brevity in grief
The next of kin of Australia’s first war dead were allotted 66 characters and spaces for the epitaphs inscribed upon the tombstones. That’s less than a Twitter message to sum up an endless emptiness.
“HOW MUCH OF LOVE AND LIGHT AND JOY IS BURIED WITH OUR DARLING BOY,” asked those of Private 586 Robert Edward McIntyre, a 22-year-old butcher from Horsham, Victoria.
“I’VE NO DARLING NOW, I’M WEEPING BABY AND YOU LEFT ME ALONE,” is written on the stone of 22-year-old labourer, Private 1710 John Edward Barclay, who was listed as single and with no next of kin, but who lived in a house with an older woman – who probably chose the words on his grave – in outer Melbourne.
“MATE O MINE,” reads Captain John Edwin Sergeant’s gravestone.
“ANSWERED THE CALL A CABLE TELLS A SON WAS KILLED AT THE DARDANELLES,” reads that of Driver Archibald John Mychael, also 22, of Moonan Flat, New South Wales.
As historian Ken Inglis, author of Sacred Places, the seminal Australian book about Australia’s war commemoration, writes: “There were limits to the kind of eloquence tolerated [by the British war graves authorities]. An English visitor to the graves at Gallipoli finds the Australian messages ‘the most moving of all in their unaffected eloquence’.”
And, you’d have to say, their candour, which often cuts through the empirical bravado that left its mark – “AN ANZAC BRAVE IN AN ANZAC GRAVE” – on others.
A gravestone that places more definitional demands on war than any I’ve seen is not at Gallipoli but in Villers-Bretonneux in France.
“ANOTHER LIFE LOST HEARTS BROKEN FOR WHAT,” it reads.
How might these men and their grieving survivors have interpreted today’s political invocation of Anzac to fight more wars, buy more killing machines and espouse what might be called a “creationist” view – that the Australian nation was born a century ago this Saturday at Gallipoli?
Abbott is not the first Australian PM to espouse Anzac as national foundation. Bob Hawke, too, talked up Gallipoli, his prime ministership coinciding with a heightened general interest in the Dardanelles, thanks largely to Peter Weir’s seminal 1981 movie, Gallipoli.
Billy Hughes, who became prime minister six months after Gallipoli, had banged the nationalist drum on the importance of the event to the nation – a country bitterly divided on many lines, included sectarian, as to whether it should conscript more men for the imperial war machine. One of his acolytes, Patrick Lynch, even went so far as to tell the Senate that the newly named capital of the federation, Canberra, should have its name changed to Anzac.
The modern manifestation of this, perhaps, comes in the crass commercialisation of Anzac by supermarkets, beer manufacturers, the federal and state governments – which are spending at least a combined $400m on commemoration.
Then again, the name Anzac has always appealed. According to research from the National Library of Australia, in 1916 Australian parents named 153 children “Anzac”. Robert Henry Anzac Day was born in Victoria in 1919 and Queensland’s Anzac Day Gardner in 1916.
The birth of a nation?
I asked the director of the Australian War Memorial, the former Liberal leader and defence minister Brendan Nelson, if he believed the Australian nation was born at Gallipoli. He clearly differs with Abbott.
He prefaces his answer with a long monologue recounting his belief that Gallipoli was important because it was the first time men from the newly federated states had effectively gathered to fight under the same banner, that of the 1st Australian Imperial Force (until then it was mate versus mate/state versus state, much as it remains with state of origin football and Council of Australian Government meetings).
“It is certainly not correct to say that Australia was born at Gallipoli,” Nelson says. “I mean, we’ve got … centuries of Indigenous history, we’ve got the stories of the making of the nation in every sense of the word and in the federation and the things that were happening in the first decade of the 20th century.”
Indeed the national foundation myth espoused by the Anzac creationists ignores all that had drawn international recognition and admiration for Australian achievement during that first decade to which Nelson refers. That includes: the establishment of a parliamentary democracy to serve a federation forged without the cold steel, piles of bodies and cordite that marked nationhood elsewhere; womens’ suffrage; legislated working conditions and minimum wages; flourishing cities; a rapidly growing economy, and a social security safety net.
And there is, of course, the true war of foundation on this continent – that between the British soldiers, settlers, police and militias, and the Indigenous nations, that resulted by some credible accounts in as many Australian deaths as the first world war. Not that Australia cares to contemplate that one too much.
Avoiding the ‘mind of romanticism’
Last year my friend the Perth writer David Whish-Wilson was commissioned to write a “wish for peace” for the new war memorial in Perth’s City of Canning. It was an onerous brief; a little over 100 words of his would be set in stone in artist Susanna Castleden’s design that also acknowledges Indigenous deaths in “settlement conflict” besides operations involving Australian service personnel.
Whish-Wilson sought counsel from four ex-servicemen – his father, a Vietnam veteran; his brother, Peter, now a Tasmanian Greens senator who once attended the Australian defence force academy; a Korea veteran; and an Indigenous ex-serviceman. Whish-Wilson’s recounts how his great grandfather was gassed while fighting on Europe’s western front, “and repatriated home where it took him several years to slowly die of suffocation”.
“The effect this had in my grandmother, who sacrificed her childhood to nurse him, was of course profound,” he says.
He says each man stressed the importance of avoiding “the mind of romanticism often associated with war commemoration, particularly in terms of the reason men fight, instead focusing on the damage done to the families”.
“I deliberately avoided using terms such as ‘sacrifice’ and ‘fallen’, which to me read as obvious euphemisms for a reality that is more complicated and harsh,” he says.
Whish-Wilson’s grandmother was part of a generation that endured their pain privately, behind closed doors. Early Anzac days were commemorated with solemn dignified reflection (until the afternoons when the grog took hold) by the ex-servicemen who could face them. But the women and children, who marched in smaller number, were equally the victims of war.
This Anzac Day those who publicly grieve the dead and the wounded they never knew might contemplate something else too: the traumatised, terrified children, the battered wives, the drug and alcohol addiction and the dinners gone cold behind tens of thousands of bolted-shut front doors on suburban streets lined with pain.
All this lay ahead of 25 April 1915. A further 50,000 or so Australian soldiers would die elsewhere, including in the Middle East, but mostly on the western front where 18,000 were never found or could not be identified upon death – they are truly the “lost”. Of the 272,000 who returned from war, 170,000 were wounded or ill. Twenty years after war’s end in 1938 about 77,000 were still incapacitated while 1,600 remained in homes for the permanently impaired.
Combat experience ruined, and continues to ruin, so many lives. Yet everything about the way our politicians convey its story from Anzac Cove to Karin Towt would render it character- as well as nation-defining.
Despite the tragedy of the western front and the profound hole it left in Australia, despite all that happened during the 60,000 years on this continent before that April day it is still, undeniably, to Gallipoli that Australia looks for its national moment.
It should be a day for solemn commemoration, quarantined from politicians, when we reflect on the pain of men, women and children most of us never knew. Public outpourings of emotion are not necessarily the same thing.
In that vein, it seems like the right time to recount the words that Whish-Wilson came up with for the City of Canning war memorial.
"For those of us spared the terrors of war, to be worthy of our dead, is to remember them. It is to remember that they died, the men and women of this community, in their thousands, in faraway lands, interred in the ground upon which they perished.
It is to remember those who loved them; their fathers and mothers, wives, children and friends. It is to remember that the pain in the hearts of those who loved them, who lived after them, never healed; the promise of their lives together, unfulfilled.
It is to remember that many who returned were also harmed, so that they and their families continued to suffer. When we wish for peace it is to remember that the lasting meaning of their suffering – their warning to those who follow – remains unheeded so long as there is war.
For while their service has ended – their battlefields covered over with meadow, field and forest, jungle and desert sand – let us make of their absence a powerful presence. May we forever hold them in our minds, and the loved ones they left behind.”
I will read these words again on Anzac Day.
Source: The Guardian