The truth about Anzac Day is that it is as much about denial as it is about remembrance. It is a denial that functions for both sides of the original conflict.
The two countries that have invested much energy into sustaining the Gallipoli industry — Australia and Turkey — also have a genocidal past. Not coincidentally, both countries have used the device of “Gallipoli, Inc” to blot out shameful historical memories that they would rather not address.
One of the central features of the Australian ANZAC myth is that the “national character” was born as the first landing boats came ashore in the pre-dawn darkness of April 25, 1915.
Traits that supposedly define the nation were forged and displayed in the five-day landing battle and the months of trench warfare that followed. These traits are often summed up with a cliched term that has been used to cringe-worthy excess in recent years — mateship.
It is true that some admirably stoic qualities were displayed by Australian troops, like all the troops who were sent by their respective governments to the Dardanelles. Yet this historical reality in itself would be no reason to establish a fully fledged civic religion like the one that grown up in Australia around Gallipoli.
The Anzac death-cult is about much more than due respect for the fallen. It serves a deeper need — to draw a line in Australian history and say this is the “glorious page” where it really began. Yet the military history of White Australia had its inception with the arrival of British colonisers in 1788. This is an obvious point, but one that is curiously overlooked in the rhetoric of Anzac Day.
As the 19th century went by, the national character developed hand-in-hand with the brutal and systematic dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. Australia’s wars began on the contested frontiers of this continent, a complex saga of multi-generational conflict between expansionist whites and resisting tribal groups.
Battles were fought, massacres carried out. There were casualties on both sides, though the toll was disproportionately borne by the invaded rather than the invaders. The end result was the establishment of British rule and the near-total extermination of Aboriginal Australia.
Although this war was as real as any other historical struggle between two peoples, it was never acknowledged as such in Australia. Denying the genocide that accompanied the establishment of European rule over this country became an unofficial policy and a popular delusion.
By the time of federation in 1901, White Australia openly thought of the Indigenous people from whom it had wrested the land as a race of “sundowners”. Herded into miserable reservations under the misnamed policy of “protection”, they were condemned to die off in obscurity.
This is one of the keys to understanding why Gallipoli was so hungrily designated the nation’s “baptism of fire” instead of the dirty war that began in 1788.
Gallipoli was like a far-away arena where a sacrificial contingent of Australians displayed enough skill and bravery to allow romantic nationalists like Charles Bean (the official historian and founder of the Australian War Memorial) to elevate the events of the bungled and tragic campaign into the realm of myth — where it has stayed ever since.
At Gallipoli, the Australians, New Zealanders and other Allied soldiers were the underdogs, the victims, the selfless volunteers who fought and died for the cause of “freedom”. This is the image we like to have of ourselves — an image diametrically opposed to the image that Aboriginal Australia has of White Australia. It is comfort amid the carnage, attempted absolution by blood.
Anzac Day allows contemporary white Australians, the direct beneficiaries of the genocidal crimes of our pioneering forebears, to disown these murderous acts and to ignore the Indigenous underdogs, the Indigenous victims, of Australian military history.
It is worth remembering that at the time of Gallipoli, massacres of Indigenous people were still occurring. They were still happening after WWI ended, such as the barely-remembered 1928 Coniston Massacre (which perhaps as many as 170 victims) in the Northern Territory.
On the Turkish side, a similar motive propels the rituals of remembrance. At Gallipoli, runs the official narrative, Turkish troops fought to defend their homes and families from Allied invasion. Doggedly resisting the combined might of the British and French Empires, they saved Turkey from total dismemberment.
Their prolific sacrifice under the inspired leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk laid the foundation of the modern Turkish state from the wreckage of the old Ottoman Empire.
This story contains elements of truth, like its counterpart, the Anzac Myth. Yet its ultimate propaganda function is to draw attention away from Turkey’s other 1915 campaign — the war of extermination against the Armenian civilian population.
The Armenian genocide was one of the worst crimes of the 20th century. Its horrors were so huge that it would be impossible to summarise them in a few lines. There were mass shooting, mass burnings, mass drownings, even reports of lethal injections and gassings. Organised death marches into the desert claimed hundreds of thousands of lives during 1915-16. Excited Turkish gendarmes, one survivor recalled witnessing, beheaded Armenian children for sport with their curved swords.
Casualty estimates vary, but many scholars agree that at least a million people died out of an Ottoman Armenian population of 2 million. It should not be overlooked that another religious minority living in the Ottoman Empire, the Assyrians, were also targeted in the same way, resulting in a similar demographic disaster.
Despite overwhelming evidence that these barbarities were centrally planned and administered by the ultra-nationalist Young Turk government (of which Gallipoli hero Ataturk was a leading figure), modern Turkey vehemently denies that there was any such thing as the Armenian genocide.
It is a considered treasonous — and punishable by law in some cases — to admit that the genocidal events of WWI occurred. Scholars and journalists who have spoken out, calling for truth and reconciliation, have been subjected to official harassment and even imprisoned.
In the context of this pathological denialism, the propaganda value of an event like Gallipoli to the Turkish establishment is immense. Serious human rights violations still occur against minorities in Turkey, whereas Gallipoli elevates the image of Turkey’s “good war”, supposedly a war of pure defence. This narrative was in large part designed by Ataturk to obliterate the memory of Turkey’s other, far dirtier war against Armenian civilians.
Every Anzac Day, it can be seen how this Turkish Gallipoli mythology dovetails with the Australian version of the Anzac myth. The two mythologies bear a symbiotic relationship. In official speeches, both governments laud each other’s character.
It could be argued that there is something attractive in the idea that the descendents of past enemies can pay mutual tribute, but the good will that exists between ordinary Turks and Australians should not be used by the nationalist right in both countries to re-cast and sanitise history.