They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow oldAge shall not weary them, or the years condemnAt the going down of the sun, and in the morning We will remember them
Will we? Do we truly remember them?
The concept of patriotism, and by extension nationalism, has ever eluded me. To exalt in the nation of one’s birth, to be proud of the fact that you were launched out of your mother’s womb in the imaginary lines of a particular patch of dirt seems profoundly pointless to me. Are you proud of the city you were born in? The suburb? The street? I was born in number 21, number 21 is the best house on the street!Comedian and misanthrope Doug Stanhope, as ever, puts it better than I ever could:
“I’m no more American than I am an Aries or an uncle. It’s a fluke of birth”
And today, April 25th, is a day about nations. It is a day about patriotism and nationalism and virtually every other “ism” that divides us and keeps us from being strong.
In commemoration of April 25th, 1915. When ANZAC forces, alongside the British and French, made an amphibious assault on Gallipoli peninsula.
The day that Australia, according to popular mythology, became a nation. Where, according to the folklore, Australia stepped out of the shadow of Great Britain and became a nation in it’s own right, forging an identity in blood and fire.
This concept is somewhat important to Australians. Unlike most countries, Australia was not born of war or rebellion. It came about because of a vote. The people of Australia just decided to be Australian (not blacks or women though, that would be silly). This would become an important sticking point later, as there is a common perception that nations can only be legitimised by mass sacrifice, like an Aztec ritual. That they must be baptised in blood in order to sit at the big boy’s table.
This was endemic of the times. The whole damn war was fought by nations and nationals searching for legitimacy.
On June 28th, 1914 a young Bosnian-Serb by the name of Gavrilo Princip was working towards the legitimacy of his people. He wanted to create a nation for the Serbs, a Serbia or a Yugoslavia. And on that day, when he assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and lit the powder keg that would become the Great War, he set into motion the course of events that would eventually realise his dream - though he would never live to see it. He or millions of others.
Germany saw this as a chance to become a colonial power to rival Britain (a charismatic Austrian soldier from this time who won the Iron Cross defending Fromelles from an Australian advance would later use the issue of patriotism and nationalism and legitimacy to bring about his own empire, but we all know this tale). Britain saw this as a chance to bolster her waning status as the world’s true superpower. The mighty empire of Austria-Hungary, one of the most powerful in the world, was rent in twain. Russia became embroiled in a revolution. Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and others all became nations in their own rights.
Australia was hardly alone.
The fledgling Australia, barely into it’s teens as a nation. Young and full of vigour, desperate to prove itself to it’s absent father figure. Dressed up in daddy’s suit, ill fitting and comically inept, searching for respect. Pleading to fight a foe they’d never met in a war that was not theirs.
Perhaps this lack of respect is what led to Britain sending the ANZACs into the meat grinder at Gallipoli.
I find it bizarre that we, as Australians, celebrate the Gallipoli campaign. As if the concepts of courage and camaraderie and stoicism against impossible odds, the hallmarks of the “Aussie Digger” were invented on April 25th 1915.(It should be noted that the term “Digger” did not originate at Gallipoli or even in World War I. It came about during the Australian gold rush and the Eureka rebellion, it was just thought that the ideals and values espoused during that insurrection best represented the idea of what the Australian Soldier should be.) Throughout the course of the Great War Australian troops were contributing in a significant way. They fought bravely and stoically throughout the Western Front and acquitted themselves extremely well in some of the most intense fighting of the war, such as at Amiens and Fromelles (to the extent that the French still have somewhat of a reverence for Australians in that part of the world).
Gallipoli was a disaster from start to finish. It was one of the most ill-conceived and ill-executed operations not just in that war but any other. It is one of the most comprehensive and disastrous defeats of military history. I have a sense that Australians feel the need to legitimise the campaign in some way, to make the sacrifice and the futility of this loss seem worthwhile. Subjective optimisation and cognitive dissonance. Because Gallipoli was a loss. An epic one. We do not want our debut on the world stage to be such failure. So we try and spin it into a positive. It wasn’t a defeat, it was a baptism of fire. A crucible. We weren’t beaten, we were forged. The team learned a lot of hard lessons and we’ll be better for it next week.
But what have we learned? What can we possibly learn if the real message of ANZAC Day is drowned out in this patriotic drivel and revisionist tripe?
The fact that ANZAC Day is our major remembrance of war tells me that we have learned nothing. Armistice Day, the day that was originally planned to be a recognition of the futility of war and a promise that it should never happen again, should be this nation’s public holiday. Where we acknowledge that fighting for any patch of dirt is a fool’s errand and not to be entertained. The day that celebrates the end of war, not the start of one.
Instead we are offered ANZAC Day. Where we fought and died for some craggy cliffs that no one really wanted in the first place. Where we take it as some sign of the legitimacy of the Australian way. That no matter what the cost, no matter what the odds or no matter who or why we’re fighting, we’ll go down swinging.
A day where we start drinking in the morning, only stopping when we pass out. Where we have some friends around for a barbeque and watch a game of football. Where we gamble on the toss of a coin. Where we wrap ourselves in Australian flags and shout “I am Australian” without a moments pause to consider what that even means.
The day has been subsumed by the politicians and the media and the liars into a bread circus of distraction. To reinforce the “us versus them” mentality that inhibits not just our society but all societies from banding together and truly accomplishing anything in this world. For we are all citizens of the world, we are all one nation - Earth. Holy Terra. Today is a celebration of that which makes us different when it should be a message of how we are all the same.
Today should be a day of remembering just how pointless and stupid war is. It should be a sombre recognition of how much we could accomplish, not just as Australians or New Zealanders or British or Germans or Turks or whoever, but we as humans could accomplish if we stopped with all this bullshit and put our minds to the one purpose. What might be possible if we abandoned the concepts of nationality and just accepted that we are all people.
It should be a reminder of what we’ve lost and how we’ve failed. And how, moving forward, we can ensure we never repeat that.
Lest we forget? We forgot years ago. Let’s start remembering.
An interesting aside to this post that you might find…well…interesting. The idea of the Gallipoli campaign being the crucible where the ideals of a people condensed and forged into a triumphant new nation is actually very true. Just not for us. The Gallipoli campaign was a risky endeavour at it’s peak and devolved rapidly but it was never doomed from the outset. It was the skill, devotion and sheer tenacity of the Turkish forces that won the day. In particular the command of a charismatic and daring young lieutenant-colonel named Mustafa Kemal whose bold and sometimes insubordinate martial maneuvers prevents the Allies from taking any sort of hold on the Gallipoli peninsula. He would later successfully defend the key port of Canakkale from an overwhelming British naval invasion. His exceptional command and dauntlessness in the face of overwhelming odds inspired his people to rally behind him with a burning fervour. Essentially Kemal, and the troops under him, were truly the living myth that Australia is claiming to be. Mustafa Kemal would eight years later lead his people, the Turks, to establish their own nation free of the Ottoman Empire. In fact Turkey would invent an honorific solely for Mustafa Kemal, Father of the Turks, reserved for him alone and the name which the world better knows him as: