A fellow member of the Australian Facilitator’s Network [AFN] posed some challenging questions online recently, about the preparations for the 100-year anniversary of the Gallipoli landing in 2015, and I felt compelled to respond.
He referred to the impending celebrations, citing comments already surfacing, that are critical of the nature of the events, the cost, the focus on heroism and the Australian ‘legend’ and the undue focus on one distant event that could detract from the work and sacrifices of current soldiers, and he sought reflections from others. He raised questions in me that I didn’t know existed and as Anzac Day is upon us, I thought I would post my response here as well.
I’ve been to Gallipoli, twice: the first time in 1980 when, as one of only four Aussi’s on one of those ubiquitous overland treks, I agreed to assume the role of tour leader and persuade the other 24 international ‘kids’ to travel out of their way to visit Anzac Cove. It was quite undeveloped at the time and we climbed straight up from the beach, scrambling over the detritus of that war, falling into gorse bushes, confronting the gun emplacements; and we came across a tiny graveyard of Australian Diggers, all incredibly young, far from the Lone Pine official cemetery. It was very moving, despite my reservations about war and heroism and military stupidity even then.
We went back there last New Year’s Eve and I must admit I expected crass commercialism. There wasn’t: tours are organised by Crowded House in the village of Eceabat some distance from Anzac Cove and the guide facilitated one of the most balanced and sensitive presentations I’ve ever experienced; there are a few places for people to gather, but in limited numbers; narrow roads carry buses past remains of trenches, the occasional memorial and tiny graveyards. The essential stark remoteness of the place remains, allowing you to feel the pointlessness of the exercise, despair at the unnecessary sacrifice of such young people and wonder at the courage it must have taken to face the daily onslaught so far from home. So many were from little country towns, probably just excited by the prospect of travel; so many young women left without partners for the rest of their lives.
I think the occasion can and should be remembered, without celebrating heroism, but with respect for what they sacrificed in all good faith and ignorance. Whether the tradition, the legend, is founded on myth or not, I don’t think it matters. There are plenty of legends that probably wouldn’t stand scrutiny. I can’t see that honouring this occasion, these soldiers, diminishes in any way the sacrifices of current day soldiers. And my attitude to war has not changed. If we let this occasion pass, leaving it to individual quiet contemplation, I wonder how many of us, in the busyness of life, would overlook or just forget the anniversary.
We have grown up with this legend and, rightly or wrongly, and I suspect this belief about what it means to be Australian is already a part of our psyche; perhaps the evidence for that lies in the increasing numbers who turn up for the Dawn Service. I’m sure most of us don’t quite measure up to the image in our minds; well, I don’t, but nor do I want the image shattered at this time either.
There were so many questions raised for me: what does it mean to be Australian? Does remembering this event mean that deep down I applaud war? How will I respond when people talk at social events near to the day? I’m clearer about it now: I don’t want anyone going off to war; especially I don’t want them dying in far away places, in battles that have little or nothing to do with them. In any case they deserve respect for what they sacrificed.