Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On our unhealthy fixation with Gallipoli

April 22nd, 2010

Selwyn Manning: ANZAC Day 2008 Dawns in NZ
Image: Selwyn Manning: ANZAC Day 2008 Dawns in NZ

At the post-Cabinet press conference last Monday, Prime Minister John Key had to field a range of official and personal questions from the press gallery about Anzac Day. Had he ever been to Gallipoli? As a young man on his OE, had he wanted to? Would the Icelandic volcano prevent him getting to Gallipoli this year? Would he be going to the Australian service? Would they be coming to ours? Would we be inviting them to ours? Etc etc.

What the line of questioning signaled – beyond the attempt to crank up a diplomatic incident out of whether our Anzac mates are slighting us, on this most sacred of days – is that Anzac Day is becoming increasingly synonymous with Gallipoli. Is that really such a good thing? In recent years, we have been told that the young are turning out in increasing numbers for Dawn Service commemorations. What message – if any – are they taking away from what happened at Gallipoli?

The reason the questions seem worth asking is that the fixation on Gallipoli – which, we are told, has immense birth-of-national-identity significance for this country – may be obscuring all the other military efforts made by New Zealanders down the decades. Some of those involvements (such as Vietnam, and the Falklands campaign) were highly dubious. Lest we forget, the Gallipoli campaign was a military failure – both initially, and in the aftermath of Chunuk Bair a few months later. It was a campaign marked by the usual WW1 combination of blunders by commanders, needless sacrifice and bravery on both sides.

The carnage at Gallipoli pales into insignificance only by comparison with the death toll in the WW1 trenches of France and Belgium. The Anzac spirit may have been forged at Gallipoli and a sense of nationhood thereby created out in the colonies. Both these things would have evolved anyway, without the body count. Even so, the reason why New Zealanders and Australians were fighting the Turks at Gallipoli in the first place – and thereby experiencing this alleged blood awakening to nationhood – was because they had answered the call of Empire.

Therefore on Anzac Day, shouldn’t we be celebrating the sacrifices made at Gallipoli with a reasonable helping of historical anger at the mentality of the colonized – a mentality that delivered so many young New Zealanders up as cannon fodder to a series of inept British commanders? Drive around this country and you can see the toll written on all the war memorials in our provincial towns and hamlets. No doubt, many New Zealand soldiers marched bravely into the slaughterhouse during WW1. Yet the lasting message of Gallipoli should surely be that such sacrifices must not be made out of blind obedience to our political and military leaders – here or elsewhere, then or now.

Bravery is to be admired in whatever circumstances. Yet if we are to celebrate those who made such sacrifices in the defence of this country, I’m not sure WW1 is the best war to remember, ahead of all others – because it was so clearly the product of Great Power designs and machinations. WW2 on the other hand, was a far more justifiable conflict, in that it was largely a response to an attack by forces that were demonstrably evil, and intent on our destruction.

More to the point, WW2 was also a conflict that offers New Zealand a very good example – the two battles at El Alamein in 1942 – where our forces played a major role in first stopping the Nazi war machine in North Africa in its tracks, and then sending it in headlong retreat. “It may almost be said,” Churchill later wrote, “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.” North Africa was also one of the few military theatres in WW2 where the German commander (Erwin Rommel) enjoyed the personal respect of his opponents.

So… enough of the Gallipoli fetish. Surely, we can commemorate those who served, without being required by a bogus patriotism to suspend critical judgment altogether. It really would be a disaster if New Zealanders came to treat Anzac Day as an occasion to honour unquestioning obedience to authority, and to extol personal sacrifice, per se. Lets leave that kind of ceremony to the Aztecs.

In El Alamein we have a useful example – a victory even – worth commemorating. Namely, that it is sometimes necessary to take up arms in defence against evil, but that an enemy such as Rommel need not be de-humanised in the process. I know, that is the same message that New Zealanders and Turks have come to embrace at Gallipoli commemorations as well. The trouble is, the Anzac Day fixation on Gallipoli has inadvertedly put every other theatre of war in which New Zealanders have been involved in the shade. War risks being sentimentalized and glorified, in the rush to sanctify Anzac Cove.

These comments are not meant to disrespect. Those who died or who were wounded (in various ways) while at war with the Nazis in particular, deserve our gratitude. But we also owe it to them to be clear about when such sacrifices were needless in the past, and when they would be unnecessary in future.

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