ANZAC COVE 1915
Most of this entry appears in my book ‘Movies Based on True Stories’, which will be released shortly, but with April 25 fast approaching, I thought it might be the right time to publish something here on the subject of acknowledging ANZAC Day in Australia. Actually, the word ‘acknowledging’ is quite an understatement, given all the media hype this year. Gallipoli has formed the focal point for Australia’s annual ANZAC Day holiday since 1916. Every year the nation ‘celebrates’ April 25, the day when Australian and New Zealand troops stormed ashore at ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915. Why we choose to celebrate the day we invaded another nation, instead of celebrating the day the war ended, still mystifies a few thinking Australians. Not many, I might add. But a few. Everyone else seems to be mesmerised by all the hype, even the young.
Of course, Armistice Day is politely acknowledged, but on nowhere near the scale of ANZAC Day. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month we observe a minute’s silence. However, compared with ANZAC Day, few remember it or observe the silence. But ANZAC Day is a whole different ball game. No one-minute acknowledgement on April 25; it is 24 hours full on, a ‘celebration’ of (as the media and the government put it) the day we became a nation. For some inexplicable reason, nothing binds a nation (any nation) together more, than when its young men dash off to kill young men from someone else’s nation. Slaughtering one another has always been regarded as something noble and glorious. And it probably always will be, especially if we keep making a habit of celebrating it every year.
Since Federation in 1901, Australia has been involved in ten conflicts – The Boer War, World War 1, World War 2, The Malayan Emergencies, The Korean War, The Indonesian Confrontation, The Vietnam War, The Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. Only one of these conflicts posed a threat to our nation. The possibility of Japanese invasion was very real indeed in 1942, but in every other instance our troops risked their lives (and died) for other, less understandable reasons. We have fought because England or America did, and because we needed to curry favour with one or the other. We have gone to war (usually at America’s behest) because we disagreed with another nation’s politics. Only once in our short history have we gone to war for a bona fide reason, and that was in World War Two. Hitler was intent on world subjugation and Japan was equally determined to enslave our part of the globe. Both had to be stopped.
Today Australia is a multicultural nation. We embrace people from around the world, many of them from nations that were once our enemies. Few Australians stop to think about how these new citizens react to the annual ‘celebration’ that relives the days when we were killing (or being killed by) their forefathers. For 24 hours every April 25, we are bombarded with films and documentaries on television, live crosses to marches and war memorials, and speeches from politicians about ‘sacrifice’. As if a politician would know anything about sacrifice. Nevertheless, they regale us with tales of ordinary, diggers at Gallipoli, sacrificing their lives, ‘so that we might live free today’. The only people at Gallipoli giving their lives to keep their loved ones free were the Turks! It was their country that was being invaded, not ours.
World War One was a giant ‘mistake’. Nobody was out to rule the world. It just ‘happened’, mostly through the inadequacy of politicians in several European countries. It was a European conflict, far from Australia, yet our equally inadequate politicians could scarcely wait to get us into it. Even so, they were not responsible for the unbridled enthusiasm shown by almost every man in Australia of military age. They could not wait to get into it either. In fact, the greatest fear was that it would all be over before they would get their chance to ‘kill themselves a Hun’. Young men volunteered in their thousands from every state, not from any noble, self-sacrificing desire to ‘keep Australia free’, but ‘for the adventure’, for the ‘fun’, and to give good old England a helping hand. Yet every ANZAC Day they are portrayed as, ‘martyrs paying the ultimate price so that the rest of us might live free’. They paid the ultimate price alright, nobody will dispute that, but for over-exuberance and naivety, nothing nobler than that.
World War Two was vastly different, although England was again in trouble, so the Empire, including Australia, rushed to her assistance. Unlike the Kaiser in the First World War, however, Hitler posed a different kind of threat to the world and had to be stopped. Later, when Japan entered the conflict, Australians suddenly found themselves in a fight for survival for the first (and so far the only) time in their history. If we must remember courage and sacrifice (and it is imperative that we do), then surely this conflict is the one we should focus upon, yet our fascination for World War One has pushed it far into the background. What young Australians went through, fighting the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea, is truly the stuff of legend. They did sacrifice their lives to keep Australia safe. Why isn’t the focus of our ‘celebration’ of war on Kokoda instead of Gallipoli?
THE KOKODA TRAIL NEW GUINEA 1942
All the other conflicts in which Australians have fought and died since WW2 have been conducted for reasons that were dubious at best. There are two distinctions that need to be made, however. First, the National Servicemen who fought in Vietnam deserve a niche of their own. Any service personnel who volunteer to go into a combat zone, or who voluntarily choose the armed forces as a career, must be prepared to possibly pay the ultimate price when they suddenly find themselves in harm’s way. They know this and they courageously accept it. National Service personnel, on the other hand, had no say in the matter. They were not even old enough to vote on the issue of conscription. Vietnam was a dirty war, fought for highly questionable reasons, but that does not detract from the courage and sacrifice exhibited by these very young Australians. By the time hostilities ended, it was no longer a ‘popular’ war in Australia. Returning national servicemen were actually spat upon in the street, quite possibly by the same voters responsible for electing the abominable political party that had conscripted them in the first place. A low point in our history if there ever was one.
The other contentious issue was the Afghanistan situation. Again, volunteers were in abundance for active service there, but for many of these personnel, the belief that fighting terrorism was an essential and worthwhile cause should be respected and admired. The soldiers who lost their lives there died for far more noble reasons than the adventure seekers of Gallipoli and the Western Front. This April, just like every other year, we will wax lyrical about the sacrifice, the terrible waste and futility of war. And then we shall spend the day glorying in the ‘heroic’ feats of our men at arms, lionizing war’s protagonists, past and present. War is the ultimate evil. Celebrating it is the ultimate obscenity. The last thing it needs is to be perpetually promoted, yet each year we do just that. ANZAC Day gets bigger each year. Thousands of tourists flock to Gallipoli these days. Being the 100th anniversary of the landings, tickets to the dawn service there are at a premium this year. The Turks, like us, know a marketable commodity when they see one. Sad. Very sad.