This piece contrasts patriotic and realistic views of the ANZAC story.
The heroism and self-sacrifice in war of young men can resonate over many decades and in the case of ANZAC, now for almost a century. The messages from these brave soldiers seem eternally relevant, even sacred. The problem lies in decoding the messages, for they are ambiguous.
One message stems from the admirable mateship of the soldiers who were bound by a love so intense that they sacrificed their lives for each other. This love stemmed from another love: of family, country, and way of life they had gone forth to protect. Their actions have forged us into a proud nation, equal to any other. Their sacrifice deserves our gratitude. Their example should inspire us today.
There is a contradictory message. The ANZAC history is bound to a war that demonstrated forever the futility of war. The specific campaign demonstrated some of this. What was the point of going over the top of the trenches in order to die? Why did we sail across the seas to kill Turks anyway, and to do so in an ill-conceived campaign devised by another nation whose leaders did not care about mass casualties of their own nationals, let alone of Australians? That war has been acknowledged as a supreme folly, a war with no goals such as freedom and democracy, a war motivated only by fears, ambitions, and paranoias of European leaders. This was the war that for the first time exposed the meaningless suffering of ordinary soldiers. It was a war whose only lesson was to make it the war to end all wars.
Myths help us to hold contradictory messages and apply them to current ambiguous problems. That Australia was born in Gallipoli is a myth. Australia existed before Gallipoli, and we seem to forget that New Zealand is not part of Australia. But the myth resonates with our specifically Australian anxieties that symbolically link Gallipoli to today.
Then as now, Australia has seen itself as a small vulnerable island, liable to invasion by sea by hordes of Asians who would do to us what we did to the aborigines.
To protect ourselves, we have believed that we needed powerful allies, first the mother country England, now the United States. Going to war on their behalf, no matter how distant, ill conceived, or irrelevant the war might be to Australia, was meant to demonstrate unswerving loyalty, which, according to a child-like belief, would be reciprocated in our time of need.
Thus we have countered our mythical fear with a mythical solution, ignoring the fact that other countries ally with us or exploit us according to their own needs, fears and myths.
Over the years some of our leaders have played into our fears and myths. Even as they proclaim our mateship and bravery, they point to leaking refugee boats as symbols of the invading hordes against whom we need “border protection”, they lead us to fight an unpopular war to support our powerful ally; and even as they claim that World War One has forged our nation, they are too timid to announce our independence.
But is it not true that we are small and vulnerable in a potentially hostile environment, in need of powerful allies?
Actually, we are probably as secure in our region now as we have ever been. We have achieved this more by being open to our neighbours, communicating with them, and inviting them in, rather than being suspicious of them and vigilant against them.
Further, being small need not be a disadvantage. Small countries are not threats and are involved in fewer wars than larger powers. Sucked into their wars, powerful allies can in fact be more dangerous than protective.
The ANZACS and other Australian soldiers have shown that we can be as brave, heroic, and self-sacrificing as anyone in the world. But our glory is not so much in our initiation into warrior status, as in our democracy, institutions, commerce, and values.
Let us remember the heroism, goodwill, and love of our soldiers, but let us remember too the follies that led them to their sacrifice. If we conceal the follies by myths, we are likely to repeat the follies.
Paul Valent is a Melbourne writer with a professional background in psychotraumatology.Publication Author: Paul Valent Publication Date: April 2010 Categories: War