As the streaky glow of dawn lit Monument Hill in Fremantle this morning, I looked around at the sea of faces gathered to commemorate the centenary of Gallipoli. They were Australians of all descriptions: young men in high viz jackets straight from iron ore mines, fathers with children hoisted upon their shoulders, old women who had lost husbands to war decades ago, motorcycling Vietnam veterans in leather vests seeking fraternity in paramilitary dress, brawny sailors from ships in the port, girlfriends, wives and families of military men serving in Iraq.
They had all come to pray at the altar of nationalism. Gallipoli was the moment the newly federated colonies of Australia became one people, it’s generally understood. The young men who came ashore at Gallipoli on April 25 1915 all bore the curved text on their battle tunics “AUSTRALIA”, said one speaker today. So the ANZAC legend has been drawn since Banjo Paterson wrote his ode to Gallipoli “We’re All Australians Now.”
The mettle that a race can show
Is proved with shot and steel,
And now we know what nations know
And feel what nations feel.
Paterson’s words ring down the years. Only in war can a nation be born, only when the blood of young men stains foreign shores can we be taken seriously as a nation, he wrote.
Our six-starred flag that used to fly
Half-shyly to the breeze,
Unknown where older nations ply
Their trade on foreign seas.
Flies out to meet the morning blue
With Vict’ry at the prow;
For that’s the flag the Sydney flew,
The wide seas know it now!
I’ve been a lifelong fan of Paterson but I find these lines disturbingly anachronistic. They have not stood the test of time. With a century of hindsight, it’s clear that it was the curse of nationalism that sent 8000 ANZACs to their deaths in the Dardanelles. Yet, still, we justify their sacrifice through a prism of nationalism.
Above all, Gallipoli should be remembered for the horror and futility of war. Instead, this centenary celebration has sought to elevate pointless slaughter to a moment where national character was defined. Our troops went to war with pride for King and country but as the body count grew at Anzac Cove, they fought not for some abstract notion of national glory, but for the men alongside them in the trenches.
I hope that one day we can move beyond this narrow jingoistic view of ANZAC Day. This day should underscore the senselessness of war, it should recognise and commemorate the losses of all nations in battle.
I was disappointed that this morning on Monument Hill there was no mention of the Turkish and Arab soldiers who died at Gallipoli, defending the fading and despotic Ottoman empire. The Ottoman losses of 250 000 killed or wounded were nearly ten times that of Australia, but who remembers that? The enemy remains fixed in time as simply “Johnny Turk.”
The tragedy of war is young men sent to fight and die for unjust and spurious causes. I do not seek to diminish in any way the sacrifice of those who served at Gallipoli. What greater courage is there than to march into battle with nothing more solid than a sense of duty? What should be remembered is the cowardice of leaders, whose poorly defined notions of courage prevented them from stepping back from the precipice of war, who instead sent millions to their deaths. Lest we forget this, or we are bound to repeat the bloody folly over and over.