I have somewhat mixed feelings about ANZAC day. Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with a day commemorating the lives, and indeed the deaths, of thousands of my fellow countrymen. I just wonder about that day in particular.
The landings at what is now ANZAC cove were a complete and utter unmitigated disaster from start to finish. The poorly thought out campaign, which was at least in part the idea of then Lord of the Admiralty - a certain Winston Churchill - left literally thousands of Australians, and an even larger number of Brits dead. And it ended in defeat.
In the first world war Australia lost some 61,700 dead out of a population of only 4.5 million. This must have been a huge hole in society at the time. The French, between the wars, had a saying: "Where is France's Picasso? Still in trenches...." You could have said a similar thing about Australia: "...still in Gallipoli".
So here we are, remembering what was virtually a massacre, a very very low point in our history, and choosing this as the day we honour our dead... I wonder that there couldn't be a different date, a different event we could have chosen...
I've read a lot of military history, which I'll admit is odd thing for a confirmed pacifist, who marched against both Gulf Wars. One thing I've learned from all this history - the lessons of Gallipoli and the other extraordinary slaughter of the first world war were not learned
. When it came to WWII, once again incompetent leaders made stupid decisions which wasted literally thousands of lives. Witness, for example, the Dieppe Raid
, the battle for Monte Cassino
, and the constant refusal of the leaders of UK Bomber Command to bomb such crucial targets as oil refineries, which would have significantly shortened the war, instead insisting on area bombing of cities, leading to the complete destruction of Dresden
at a time when the war was almost won.
My point is, war is a complete and utter waste of human life, and even those who survive come back permanently damaged. No one is unaffected.
There are no veterans in my family. The closest would be a great aunt who served as a nurse in Europe in the first world war. And my mother's father who was in the Netherlands army for a short period during WWII - which ended soon after the Germans took over the country, which they did only as a short cut so they could attack France. My other grandfather was a conscientious objector for religious reasons. My father and uncles were all lucky enough to miss the draft for the Vietnam war.
Deb's grandfather, on the other hand, fought in Papua New Guinea in WWII. With distinction, he was mentioned in dispatches which is about one step below getting a medal for bravery. He got back from the war, and never talked about it... instead spending the next few decades slowly drinking himself to death. Not an unusual story.
And yet we keep starting and fighting wars. So many of them completely unjustifiable, think of the conflicts in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq. How many damaged veterans are we going to have come back from that war and from Afghanistan? There hasn't been a war since WWII that has had any justification in my opinion. At least in WWII it was clear from the outset that it was a war for the survival of a certain kind of civilisation, even before it was obvious what vile things the Nazis were up to.
And so much of the Gallipoli story has turned out to be a myth. None more so than the story of Simpson and his donkey
. Here was an Englishman who had deserted from the merchant marine, enlisted under a false name in the Australian army as a way to get back to England, and who did no more and no less than many other stretcher bearers in rescuing soldiers from the battle. And who was killed after only a few weeks at the front. And yet, I have heard it seriously suggested by Amanda Vanstone that one can learn everything one needs to know about being Australian
from the story of Simpson and his Donkey.
It's that kind of weird hyper-patriotism that worries me most of all. And the way the day is celebrated has changed a great deal in my lifetime. It was a fairly modest event back when I was a child. There were never crowds of Australian backpackers at Gallipoli on the morning of ANZAC day. I don't know what has changed in the last two decades, it speaks of a certain kind of patriotism that is far less relaxed and modest than it used to be.
Another thing I have learned from all my reading of history books: Australian and New Zealand soldiers, and indeed airmen and sailors, were very highly regarded. No less a person than the German Field Marshall Rommel
described New Zealand soldiers as the best in the world, better even than his Germans. Similarly Field Marshall Montgomery
was heard to remark before the D-Day landings in Normandy that he wished he had the Australian first army there with him. And the man most directly responsible for winning the Battle of Britain was New Zealander Keith Park
Now surely out of all the battles fought by these brave men - the war in the pacific, the amazing battles in the deserts of North Africa, the Australians who flew and fought over Europe, surely somewhere in there we could find a day worth commemorating? A day we could chose that wouldn't be when the "blood stained the sand and the water"?