“I had been on Gallipoli only six days short of four months and I want to say now that they were the worst four months of my whole life. I had seen many men die horribly, and had killed many myself, and lived in fear most of the time. And it is terrible to think that it was all for nothing.
…People do terrible things in wars, in the name of their country and beliefs. It is something that I find very sad and frightening.”
A.B. Facey, A Fortunate Life
ANZAC day, which commemorates the 1915 battle of Gallipoli in Turkey, has become a quasi-religious sacrament for Australians. As a recent immigrant to Australia, I have not been brought up in this particular religion, although it echoes the “military worship” that is so prevalent in the US.
If I was a religious person, I might consider the whole thing to be a form of blasphemy. People gather around a statue or secular altar such as a town hall, listen to secular sermons, and bow their heads in contemplation – while praising martyrs who died for our salvation.
And to top it all off, they take communion in the form of ANZAC biscuits and tea.
Now, the above critique is superficial at best, and I’m not quite that cynical. That’s not what this post is about.
I don’t make the mistake of conflating the soldiers who fight with the politicians who send them off to kill and be killed. Each soldier has his own reason for joining the military, and while I may disagree with and argue against some of these reasons, it is ultimately each man’s own choice. And each action he takes within the military is his own responsibility.
The ANZACs, or “diggers,” are said to have “sacrificed for their country” at Gallipoli. Nobody can deny that they sacrificed.
But I question what it was that they sacrificed for.
You Call That “Remembrance?”
The media focus on the tragedy of Gallipoli blurs the broader tragedy of the war, and of all the wars that have followed “the war to end all wars.”
While remembering the minutiae of each digger’s personal struggle, as reported in a seemingly endless stream of documentaries and newspaper tribute stories, Australians may be forgetting the more important lessons of Gallipoli.
We hear about “patriotism,” “fought for his country,” “fought for what was right,” and so on. But these meaningless slogans don’t pay respect to the diggers’ sacrifice; they cheapen it.
“They fought for our freedoms” is the lamest one out there. It isn’t even historically accurate in most instances where it is used. The US was never in danger until it chose sides by enacting an oil embargo against Japan during WWII. This was arguably an act of undeclared war in itself. Australia was never in danger until they let the US troops set up shop in Darwin.
No matter which side wins, war results in the restriction of your freedoms by your own government. From Woodrow Wilson’s fascism and suppression of dissenters during WW1 to modern invasions of privacy in the name of “catching terrorists,” these “emergency measures” often become permanent fixtures.
Maybe you’ve heard the objection, “But if the US and Australia didn’t enter the wars, we would all be driving German and Japanese cars!”
“He sacrificed for his country” isn’t a tribute. It’s a bumper sticker. Put it on your Toyota.
These platitudes demand that the speaker and listener each momentarily turn off his capacity for critical thought, and bow his head in a state of pure emotion. This emotion – grief, anger, admiration, camaraderie, respect – is sincere, and appropriate in certain contexts. Maybe not while driving, unless you have a self-driving BMW.
But this emotion is often the final act of what is considered “remembrance,” when it should be merely the launching point and inspiration for a careful analysis of the lessons learned from Gallipoli.
The only positive outcome of any tragedy is the knowledge gained to prevent a similar one.
If you feel strongly about something, you should be willing to dig deeper and really understand it. This doesn’t mean watching a few more stories about the dog who saved a digger and eating another cookie.
It means seeking to make the ANZAC legacy mean something more than a bumper sticker.
Do You Remember?
- Why was WWI fought?
- What was expected to be gained?
- Who were the good guys?
- Why did Australia get involved?
- What were the lasting effects?
If your answer to any or all of the above questions was, “to beat the Nazis,” or “to protect against the Japanese invasion,” then you have already forgotten. Wrong war. Eat another cookie. And keep reading.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on the history here, but I am interested in it. Here’s my take:
World War I was the most significant event of the past 200 years.
- The end of monarchism and longstanding empires throughout Europe and the middle east
- The relinquishing of dominance from the British empire to the American empire
- The world’s first real taste of the horrors of mechanized warfare.
Its aftermath, and the Treaty of Versailles, led to:
- The rise of socialism, communism, fascism, and nazism
- Centralization of power in federated nations such as Australia and America.
- Formation of the League of Nations, a predecessor to the UN
- Conditions that contributed to and worsened the great depression
- Conditions that made WWII almost inevitable
- Arbitrary redrawing of boundaries in eastern Europe and the middle east, resulting in many unresolved modern day conflicts in these areas
- The start of the US-Britain-Saudi alliance that has sustained the Wahhabi strain of Islam, the core ideology underlying terror groups like al Qaeda, ISIS, and the House of Saud
The causes of WWI are complex. Just ask Wikipedia. I won’t get into that here, other than to express my own partiality towards the revisionist view that all of the powers were in some way responsible for instigating the war, or at least failing to prevent it. This view implies that there was no “Right” or “Wrong” side in the war. There was only “Us” versus “Them.”
Nobody’s Business But the Turks
The Turkish theater was a side show to the main battles along the Eastern and Western Fronts, but it had strategic value as one of Russia’s few shipping routes to the west.
The Ottomans had recently been defeated by Serbia and other nearby “Allied” states in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. During the 1914 crisis between Serbia and Austria-Hungary that kicked off WWI, Turkey was understandably concerned about further aggression from Serbia, this time backed up by Russia and the rest of the “Allied” powers.
There were two main factions among the Ottoman politicians – Pro-Britain, and Pro-Germany. The Germans offered protection and promised reclamation of some lands lost during the Balkan Wars. The British ambassador was on holidays.
Another influential faction wanted to remain neutral. His name was Mehmed V, the Caliph of Islam and Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He refused to sign the treaty with Germany, but eventually capitulated.
What a coward.
Mehmed V was the last Islamic Caliph to officially declare a jihad – against the Allied powers.
The date of this jihad declaration was the 11th of November, known as “Veterans Day” in the US, “Remembrance Day” in Australia, and “Armistice Day” elsewhere. By coincidence, this is the same date on which the armistice was signed four years later, ending the war on the Western front.
I hope that Yanks, Aussies, and Islamists can remember that the 11/11 holiday is supposed to be a celebration of peace. Since the festivities on that day usually involve big military parades, it seems that this has been forgotten.
Aussie Aussie Aussie, Why Why Why?
Australia was geographically as far as anyone could get from the conflict, in the days when troops could only be moved internationally via steamship. There was never a threat for an attack on Australian soil. The only possible motive for an attack would have been retaliation for Australia’s support for the British.
Japan was also on the British side in WWI. No threat there.
Official histories give several reasons for Australia’s entry into the war. Primary among these was the strong sense held by many Australians that they were still British subjects, and likely had many remaining familial, personal, and commercial ties to “the mother country.” The public was generally enthusiastic and saw joining the military as their patriotic duty.
Another, more strategic reason was the notion that Australia, a small island nation, relied on alliances with stronger foreign countries to ensure protection against any potential threats. In 1914, the most significant ally was, of course, Britain. In 1941, it was the US.
It was thought that if Australia provided troops to support these superpowers, the favor would be reciprocated if needed in the future. This sort of “balance of power” thinking was arguably a key cause of WWI since it provoked the worlds’ great powers to take sides on various local conflicts involving smaller nations.
What would have happened if Russia and/or Britain had taken a position of neutrality, in violation of their existing treaties? Could the conflict have been contained, or avoided altogether?
Modern alliances such as NATO carry the same dangers, as demonstrated recently in places like Libya and Ukraine. WWIII will probably start as a result of some minor NATO member doing something to piss off Russia, or vice versa.
Hopefully China will have the sense to remain neutral so that they can retain the means to grow and rebuild something resembling a civilized society. Hopefully, Australia will join them.
Has Australia Remembered?
For all of its complexity and significance, World War I was really just the final episode of centuries of European boundary conflicts and grudge matches.
These were the endless “foreign entanglements” that the USA’s founding fathers warned against getting involved with. That policy of military isolation was more or less adhered to throughout the 19th century, and it is probably one of the factors responsible for America’s rapid growth during that century. While Europeans were expending resources quibbling over which king rightly owned Alsace-Lorraine, Americans were building railroads and factories.
Australia likewise had little involvement in foreign wars. As a younger and less populous nation than America, Australia’s growth was measured in expanding farmlands, cities, mines, and developing innovative solutions for overcoming the natural challenges set forth by the “tyranny of distance.”
There is an implicit notion that the war, and Australia’s involvement in it, was inevitable. It was simply a fact of existence, like some natural disaster that could not have been prevented. It had to be fought to control the damage, at any cost.
WWI, and especially the Turkish theater, was preventable. The Allied powers simply could have given Turkey their support for neutrality. They also could have told Serbia to get stuffed, and avoided the whole thing in the first place.
Unfortunately, imperialistic jingoism, progressive evangelism, and jockeying for power on the global stage took precedence in the eyes of the political class. On both sides, maintenance of imperial claims was sold to the public as patriotism, virtue, and manliness. Not much has changed.
Gallipoli is noted for the Brits’ mismanagement and disregard for the ANZACs’ lives. They were treated as cannon fodder, just more warm bodies to hold the trenches. These facts, while confronting, have thankfully not been forgotten.
But it seems that very little has been learned. From Kokoda, to Vietnam, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, Australia’s foreign policy of “me too” belligerence has unfailingly put diggers into dangerous, poorly planned, poorly supported campaigns with unclear or nonexistent expected benefits for anyone.
A policy of military isolation but economic integration is the surest way towards lasting peace for any nation, especially for a small nation like Australia. Switzerland demonstrated this principle clearly through both World Wars, despite its geographic encirclement by belligerent forces.
In contrast, Australia’s foreign military interventions have led to retaliations like the bombing of Darwin and the more recent Bali bombings and Sydney’s Lindt Cafe siege.
Australia sending troops to fight ISIS is blind bravado, not courage. It’s a disgrace to the ANZAC legacy, to the troops who will become the next victims of this perennial failed policy, and to the Australian people who are now in the crosshairs of ISIS.
I imagine that Mehmed V’s jihad and the story of “British, American, and Australian oppressors” at Gallipoli is invoked by ISIS to justify these and future attacks to would-be supporters.
How’s that for a legacy.
The Courage to Remember
The ANZAC diggers acted heroically, but they shouldn’t have needed to. Their extraordinary actions were necessary in order to compensate for the failings of the politicians and military leaders who put them into an impossible situation.
Throughout the past century, these leaders have forgotten. That’s giving them the benefit of the doubt. Forgetfulness seems easier to forgive than incompetence or deliberate malice.
All wars are preventable, but to avoid war peacefully takes greater courage than most politicians are able to muster.
The ANZAC legacy deserves real remembrance, and real courage.
When the victors have written the history, questioning the long term failings of the Treaty of Versailles takes courage.
Allowing real self-determination, by supporting peaceful secession among the people still affected by that treaty, takes courage.
Removing tariffs, trade and immigration restrictions takes courage.
Telling the US military to get stuffed takes courage.
This is the kind of courage that leads to future peace and prosperity, rather than future shrines and poppies.
This is the kind of courage that the ANZAC legacy deserves.
The men who fought at Gallipoli should be remembered. But if the lessons learned on that blood soaked beach are forgotten yet again, then they fought for nothing.
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