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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    1. 15 Responses to “On our unhealthy fixation with Gallipoli”

    2. By Stuart Munro on Apr 22, 2010 | Reply

      It’s a bit like the canonisation of Scott – the man was second to the pole, & led his men to their deaths. Shackleton was a suitable role model – Scott was not.

      But in 1914, England really was ‘home’ to many New Zealanders. It was appropriate to support them, just not to the extent of following egregiously stupid leaders in their suicidal folly – a tradition NZ continues in the economic sphere to this day.

    3. By Tiger Mountain on Apr 22, 2010 | Reply

      The old pacifist saying “a bayonet is a weapon with a worker on each end”, really encapsulates the view internationalists should take on this ANZAC matter, or any imperialist war really. Internationalists are rather thin on the ground unfortunately among the young pissheads that seemed to have recently added Gallipoli as a travel destinations. “Bogus patriotism” indeed.

      You are right to be wary Gordon of saying too much about ANZAC day, the Vietnam protestors of the 70s that would wind up the old soldiers outside RSAs were brave indeed. My family had a member blown to bits at Casino in WWII and always encouraged me to use what freedom of expression I have in this country. Most of the old guys are gone now and who knows what any of us would have done in their shoes, I like to think I would have gone to WWII. My beef with the RSA guys was where were they when democracy needed to be defended in our own country, in say the Muldoon era?

    4. By Roy on Apr 22, 2010 | Reply

      Thank you Gordon, from the grandchild of two veterans of the Somme.

    5. By mike on Apr 22, 2010 | Reply

      From The Trenches, Kurt Tucholsky (WWI era):

      Don’t be so proud of your scars and medals,
      Don’t be proud about glory days gone by.
      You were sent to the trenches by the ogres,
      The envy of industry, the madness of the state.
      You were good enough as carrion for the crows,
      For the trenches, comrades, for the trenches.

      Think of the moans and the rattle of the guns,
      Yonder are fathers’, mothers’ sons.
      Making ends meet with the daily grind,
      Don’t you want to shake hands with your own kind?
      Reach out your hands and greet your fellow men,
      Across the trenches, people, across the trenches.

    6. By Cam on Apr 22, 2010 | Reply

      I agree totally with this article – when I was at school (Wellington College year of 07) it always creeped me out how much attention was placed on worshiping the dead soilders of WWII. There was a school production about Gallipoli, an anual field trip to Gallipoli, a great number of rememberance services about the failed campaign, and hours and hours of class time devoted to the subject. What’s more, it celebrated as if it was a good thing that happened, as if our fellow old boys died on the other side of the world for our liberty… what a load of crap.

    7. By Stefan on Apr 22, 2010 | Reply

      Great post again Gordon, you have a knack for putting into words what I think a lot of people feel on some very important issues.

      I agree completely with you ‘pushing back’ against what sometimes seems blind almost propaganda by the media about the ghastly events in Turkey. But I also believe that young NZ’ers should be encouraged to look into and celebrate their history, even if the celebration is at times misguided and uninformed.

      Hopefully the experience will encourage them to look into our shared history further and come to a deeper understanding of how our past shapes who we are.

    8. By millsy on Apr 23, 2010 | Reply

      It has been 95 years years and it seems un-PC to dicuss the real reason why the operation on Gallipoli took place: to divert Turkey’s (or, rather, the Ottoman Empire’s) resources away from Russia, which was dealing with revolution at home and a long fight with Germany in Europe.

    9. By Leslie Bravery on Apr 23, 2010 | Reply

      Gordon Campbell is quite right. Politicians start wars, sacrificing young lives for perceived political and geopolitical advantages which simply lead to fresh conflict. Since the Second World War the West has taken great care to engage in wars which are vastly asymmetrical. Countries that possess the military capability of giving as good as they get are left alone, which is why, in modern warfare the majority of casualties are suffered by innocent civilians. A mark of our maturity might be to raise memorials to the unknown civilian.

    10. By Adam on Apr 23, 2010 | Reply

      What a sheltered life we lead… The men and women of that era were not the spineless creatures that are being bred now. Now we accept everything and stand for nothing. We would do well to have the moral fibre of those brave people. We have lived in peace here in NZ so long that we have very few who could even contemplate what horrors giving their life to protect others could bring.
      We should not glorify what history has to tell us but we should also never let it be forgotten.

    11. By Peter on Apr 24, 2010 | Reply

      I agree with almost every word of Gordon Campbell’s piece, except when he resurrects the old canard that the poor colonised kiwis who fought at Anzac Cove were the victims of British leaders. The implication is always that the colonials were the cannon fodder, and that the British somehow manoevered it that way. The truth is that many times more British soldiers than kiwis, or Aussies, or both, died in this campaign. The incompetence was was felt more in Britain homes than anywhere else.

    12. By Mark on Apr 24, 2010 | Reply

      I sincerely love all those who took part in life threatening activities that we demanded they do. Those who LOST their lives in such service I admire even more. I am deliberately avoiding a direct reference to soldiers, because I believe we should also dwell on police, ambulance & fire officers plus the myriad of private citizens who have made the ultimate sacrifice for somebody else too.
      I take great delight in the “Anzac spirit” but I believe if it is to be enduring & relevant Anzac Day must take into account all the others (besides soldiers) who have also died.
      Consequently I believe Anzac Day should be renamed “Memorial Day” and should be a FULL day public holiday. Bloody hell, if we can’t take off one day per year to remember those who died for us then we are a pretty sick lot.

    13. By Melisande on Apr 26, 2010 | Reply

      Thank you, Gordon.
      It is seldom remembered in the sentimental frenzy of Anzac Day just how devastating an effect WW1 had on future generations of New Zealanders, including those alive now: domestic violence and substance abuse resulting from post traumatic stress and the physical and psychological damage of families affected by the plague that arrived back with the soldiers.
      Rarely mentioned are the conscientious objectors who were treated cruelly in both world wars. Read Archibald Baxter’s chilling “We Will Not Cease” for an account of just how much courage it took to say no. Little attention is given to the fact that our national hero, Ed Hillary was a pacificist, and his brother Rex spent time in a prison camp for conscientious objectors during WW2.
      I suspect that we’ve learned nothing. Our soldiers are at present engaged in a senseless war and if there was conscription, I suspect that those who decided to follow the ten commandments (or their conscience) and refuse to kill, would still be treated as traitors.

    14. By Mike on Apr 26, 2010 | Reply

      Wow, where to start. Well, just as in the Second World War, New Zealand in 1914 went to war with Britain to defend liberal democracies from German militarism. Communities in Belgium and France still honour New Zealand sacrifices for their freedom.

      The ‘mentality of the colonized’ confused me. Um, most New Zealanders in 1914 were colonists, happy to retain their close identity with Britain. This had not changed much by the time of the ‘far more justifiable conflict’ 25 years later – remember “where she goes, we go”. Just as an aside, wasn’t that line still used by Muldoon many years later when supporting Britain’s response to the Argentine agression in the Falklands – another campaign Gordon seems confused about.

      As for New Zealanders as ‘cannon fodder to a series of inept British commanders’, I thought that old myth had died by now. The First World War represented a unique period in the application of modern techology to war. All armies suffered horribly in their attempts to develop solutions. We shouldn’t forget that it was the British Army, with a New Zealand Division to the fore, that best adapted to the conditions to producing an astounding series of victories in 1918 to smash the German Army and end the war.

      Anzac Day though, fundamentally remains a time to respect all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. I think it only cheapens their memory to pretend that some sacrifices were nobler than others.

    15. By Kerry on Apr 26, 2010 | Reply

      Well said, Gordon.

      Thanks to a very happy family wedding, I managed to avoid the TV coverage of the ANZAC events, but as I always do, I thought of my maternal great-uncles who died (underage, having lied to join up) in France during WW1, and my very anti-RSA paternal grandfather who was captured in Egypt in WW2, and spent most of the war in Germany as a POW.

      Neither side of my family ‘celebrates’ ANZAC day; and some of my family were very pacifist and anti-war, after the needless and premature deaths of my great-uncles.

      I feel concerned that all the media promo and the increasingly more elaborate events at official commemorations are obscuring the fact that we are currently engaged in an illegitimate and unwinnable ‘phoney-war’ in Iraq, and some very dubious engagements in Afghanistan, not really the legacy of compassion and peace that is referred to in the formal discourse on ANZAC day.

      We focus on those who served and died, without being concerned about what the Americans so quaintly call ‘the collateral damage’ – civilian deaths, of which we see increasing numbers in modern engagements, without the politicians and Generals acknowledging that for every soldier killed, tens of private citizens are also murdered. I choose not to wear a uniform, carry a gun, engage in war – but that does not make me any less of a target in the mind of those who run the armies of the world, a situation which has only developed in the wars of the twentieth century.

      So, as well as my great-uncles and my grandfather, I remember also all the men, women and children who died without ever offering aggression to their killers.

      I hope that we can learn to manage conflict better than to merely send in the Army, let them use up some of the percentage of GDP we allocate to arms spending, and let them police the politics of another country, where we have no business controlling civil disputes. (as we have done or are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Timor, Gaza, and so on…)

    16. By Jeff on Apr 29, 2010 | Reply

      Sorry Gordon,
      NZ had no involvement in the Falklands campaign and rightly so.
      But was it dubious for Britain to defend its citizens from agression froma right wing facist country.

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