Lest we forget why Anzac Day glorifies war

April 11, 2014
If 'lest we forget' is to have any meaning, we need to resist those glorifying war.

ANZAC Day, we’re told, is Australia's "most important national occasion”.

But beyond the glib cliches about how the ill-fated Anzac “campaign” at Gallipoli Cove in 1915 “shaped Australia's identity”, there is little political and historical reflection on what happened and why.

The Anzac landing was instigated by First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, at the request of the Russian Tsar. Its aim was to open a new front against Germany and its allies by invading Turkey and making a grab for control of Istanbul and the Bosphorus, a strategic neck of water connecting the Mediterranean and Black Sea.

Despite huge opposition to World War I at home, expressed through two successful anti-conscription campaigns, the real lessons of this disastrous war have been deliberately obscured in favour of an approved nationalist gospel, to which dissent is deemed treasonous.

Websites, school curriculums, and most media outlets are gearing up to reinforce the myth about the importance of war to the life of a nation: it doesn’t matter why you are sent to war, whether your government lied to you or not, the greatest thing an ordinary Australian can do is die in a war.

My great-uncle Lieutenant Arthur G Hinman was just 24 when, as part of the 15th Battalion, he was killed at Quinn’s Post in Gallipoli — said to be extremely dangerous because of the proximity of the opposing trenches.

Arthur, apparently a good Aussie rules footy player, signed up after completing an engineering degree at Melbourne University and starting work as a mining engineer in Tasmania, his birthplace.

Historian Charles Bean in the Story of Anzac describes how Arthur, having only just landed at Gallipoli on April 25, made clear his disagreement with the commanders’ plan to dig in against the Turks.

Arthur “urged a strong objection to the whole undertaking, pointing out that in the morning following the assault, the Australians certainly would be driven out of any captured trenches by the Turkish machine guns, which would enfilade them from both flanks”.

Nevertheless, the trench digging went ahead. Arthur followed orders and he, along with 473 others, was killed at Quinn’s Post just 15 days after he landed.

In a letter to Arthur’s mother Maude, fellow officer Captain JA Good described the bleakness he and Arthur faced in those final days.

“At this time he and I were the only officers of the original Tasmanian Companies in the 15th who remained, and often at night, as we sat in our dug-out, we wondered who would be the next to go, for it seemed impossible that we should remain long unwounded when so many had been hit.”

Arthur, like so many other young men, was senselessly killed in a war that was supposed to “end all wars”, but which — in reality — was just one of many wars to reshape colonial empires.

The remorseless nationalistic propaganda myth that Gallipoli was about “defending freedom and democracy” is aimed at winning, if not support, at least acquiescence, for new wars.

Just as the Turks resisted invasion in WWI, so too have the people of Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. But being no match to the world’s military superpower, these countries have paid a heavy price.

These more recent disasters have also been obscured by the Anzac myth-makers keen to remove any connection between the imperial failures of yesterday and today.

To this end, the Anzac story has been reduced to a depoliticised, sentimental story of courage and mateship, and the sacrifice of so many innocent young men.

Many of those who returned from serving — including the last surviving Gallipoli veteran, Alec Campbell, a unionist and anti-war activist — spoke out against war. But their voices have been muted in the official histories.

If “lest we forget” is to have any meaning, we need to resist those glorifying war, listen to those who dissented to wars being fought in our name — last century and today — and do what we can to prevent ordinary people from being sent to fight and die in wars for imperial gain.

This is a better way of honouring the dead.

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