There’s nothing so repugnant to me as the image of a young backpacker draped in the Australian flag, waiting to acquit the “dawn service at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli” action item on their gap-year itinerary before racing off in their designer sandals to summit Machu Pichu (selfie), swim with dolphins in Koh Kut (selfie), cuddle drugged tigers in Burma (“just like a big kitten, sooooo awesome!” selfie-selfie) or teaching Romanian orphans to read (while the kids practice their pick-pocketing skills on you).
For those who don’t know, the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) were part of a military invading force who, at the behest of our British masters, landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey on 25 April 1915 and for the next eight months were ground into mince-meat by the valiant Turks. We failed in our objective to capture Constantinople (Istanbul) and thereby hand control of the strategic Dardanelles to the Russians. Until 1981, the commemoration of this tragedy was a lacklustre affair, but then a guy called Peter Weir directed the movie ‘Gallipoli’ starring a young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, and a myth exploded onto our collective consciousnesses and consciences which has, until recently, barely been challenged.
Fact: to this day, if I want a guaranteed fight, all I have to do is walk into a Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL) club on 25 April, stride into the two-up ring and say “the ANZACs were cowards, rapists, deserters and fools” and I’ll be lucky to get out of there alive. Southern Cross tattooed patriots would be lining up to flog me, wearing their Australian flags like Superman-capes. If you ask, they all claim to have a relative who died at Gallipoli, which is at the very least a statistical curiosity if not an outright lie. But the ANZAC myth is so pervasive, that they will feel righteous even as they smash a schooner glass full of Victoria Bitter straight into your face at the faintest perceived ANZAC slur.
Curiously, except for one important qualifier, it’s a fact that no war has ever been fought Australian soil, yet we have enthusiastically participated in at least ten wars. Call us bloodthirsty, but for god’s sake never point out that ‘only’ 750 Australians died at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, whereas 1,279 men died at Broodseinde Ridge on 4 October 1917. Our official war propagandist, C.E.W. Bean, wrote of our troops at Passchendaele ” … and he knew that the end had come – must have thought to himself: “well at least they’ll remember me in Australia”. Ironic? We don’t commemorate Broodseinde Ridge at all — but why, if it was the single worst day of battle in Australian history? Maybe because Peter Weir didn’t make a movie about it in 1981. He made ‘Gallipoli’ instead, elevating the campaign it into the national hive-mind. As the official trailer cannily predicts, “From a place you never heard of comes a story you’ll never forget”.
While it’s not just all Weir’s doing, I do wonder how Australians would react if thousands of Japanese, draped in the nisshōki, invited themselves over every 19th February to commemorate their failed bombing of Darwin in 1942? People argue Gallipoli is special because it “marks the birth of the Australian identity”, but sadly that can’t stand up to any kind of analysis. We went to war for a lark, but also because we were servants of the British Empire, the Union Jack was our flag, we spoke the King’s English, and England was in our hearts and minds still the mother country. The jingoistic nationalism you witness every Anzac Day is a modern invention. At its highest, as Robert Hughes claimed, the real importance of Gallipoli may be not that it defined us, but that it erased for all time the convict stain.
If we want to chart the emergence of the Australian psyche, why not commemorate 10 June 1838 instead, when soldiers rounded up 30 unarmed aboriginal men, women and children and herded them at gunpoint off a cliff? Or 10 November 1894, when an aboriginal named Jandamarra commenced a desperate but short-lived guerrilla war against the colonial invaders? Where is our annual recognition of the fact that an undeclared war was waged by whites against blacks in our own country? Odd that we commemorate a battle we lost yet suppress a war we won. Maybe the Mallee farmer and the Kalgoorlie miner, the Bendigo bank clerk and the Sydney solicitor didn’t raise arms against the indigenous occupants of this country, but they sat by and let it happen.
Throughout his reign, Prime Minister John Howard stated and re-stated his view that no genocide had ever been practiced against our indigenous people. In 2008, addressing Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Business, he repeated this view with lengthy puerile qualifications. Oh, the irony, when I note it was JFK in 1961 who revived Edmund Burke’s famous saying (misquoted) that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. That this evil little man could refuse to apologise to indigenous Australians for the unofficial war waged against their people, yet trip over himself to say apologies to Vietnam vets for the way they were treated after our slavish and unnecessary involvement in an American war, was one of the more nauseating spectacles in recent political history. Coincidentally, it was during his watch that our fetishisation of the failed Gallipoli Campaign began.
So now we have Anzac Day, a public holiday that’s just as much about beer and barbecues, gambling and selfies as it is about commemorating the fallen. We’ve celebrated it 101 times so far, yet I wait with bated breath for National Sorry Day, launched by Howard’s successor PM Kevin Rudd, to receive similar hype. Perhaps it’s easier for an identity-starved young Australian to wrap themselves in a flag on a chilly morning and feel proud because their grandfather killed a dozen ‘dirty gyppos’ across the water in Turkey than it is for them to hang their head and own a connection with people who dressed up and travelled into town to watch them hang a pair of “dirty abos” in public.
Maybe for one morning, once a year, we can convince ourselves that this land we stole has been paid for in full, by white blood spilled on foreign shores.
Sound, sound the clarrion, fill the fife,
Throughout the sensual world proclaim
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name. –Thomas Osbert Mordaunt, 1756-1763.