Monday, 27 April 2015

Is it time to forget Gallipoli and the Anzacs?

A google search for 'Gallipoli' returns the following as the first result (sponsored):

"Gallipoli Collectors Edtn -"

I recently got into trouble for arguing that it was time for Australian's to forget the ANZAC legend, and forget the disaster at Gallipoli, but I want to defend that here.

Why should we remember Gallipoli? The website "" has this to say:
Why does the Nation pause to commemorate what most historians choose to describe as a failure or a sad series of blunders? It is because every person and every nation must, sooner or later, come for the first time to a supreme test of quality; and the result of that test will hearten or dishearten those who come afterwards."
Um, what? We celebrate a failure because we all must come to a 'supreme test of quality'?

The phrase 'quality of our nation' and similar phrases rings empty to me. Not a single man who clambered out of those boats in 1915 is alive today, and to judge the
'quality' of our nation today by the deeds of men long dead is irrelevant. Whilst the men of 1915 may have been decent, honest, courageous men, I think the test of our nation's 'quality' (whatever that is) is more to be seen in the way we deal with refugees, the ill, the poor, and the needy.

The traditional arguments in favour of continuing to celebrate ANZAC day, and specifically the Gallipoli landing, are as follows:
  • We should learn from our history;
  • We shouldn't forget those who died in service to our country;
  • We should honour those who have sacrificed themselves.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it:
What can we learn from the Gallipoli landing? Well, I am no military genius, but it seems to me that Gallipoli is the best lesson in how NOT to fight a war. They landed at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and their method to deal with overpowering odds was to throw more men at the enemy. The most successful part of the whole campaign was the evacuation.

The standards of warfare have changed, too. The lessons learned from Gallipoli, and indeed from both World Wars, are no longer relevant. Trench warfare as a concept has been overtaken by technology, and massed armies have been superseded by highly trained, well-equipped professional armies.

Also, most combat is no longer between opposing armies from opposing nations, but instead between nations and groups, or between nations and ideas. We no longer see armies marching across grassy fields pointing bayonets at each other, with the winner being the bloke at the back with the most men still standing at the end. 

Instead, we see conflicts where there is no clear victory, and where the best that a nation can hope for is to defeat the 'idea' behind the opposition; Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Islamic State, etc. We simply cannot kill every member of Islamic State, and therefore we cannot win that war in the same way that a victory was possible during the last century.

So what can we learn from Gallipoli?

Instead, we should be looking more closely at conflicts like Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Vietnam, where for the first time, the Western world came up against an enemy which couldn't be constrained to a battlefield, and couldn't be defined by those in uniform versus those not in uniform. 

No nation should ever forget the lessons it has learned from its past. Philosopher George Santayana wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", but I don't think that holds true to the Anzac story. Technology and warfare has moved on so far that it is nearly inconceivable that we would ever see such a farcical debacle as the Gallipoli landing. 

Honours to your ancestors:
Well what about honouring our dead? Honouring those poor soldiers who died in service to our country? 

This is a touchy issue, and forgive me if I offend. 

I'll first start by saying that honouring the dead of over 100 years ago does nothing for them or their families. None of the original Anzacs still live, and almost none of their descendants do either. (I mean the descendants of those who died at Gallipoli, not those who returned). 

Wouldn't it be better to focus our celebrations on those who have served recently, such as those who served in Afghanistan or Iraq? Or those who served in Papua New Guinea? I believe that we glorify our most famous failure to the detriment of our more recent successes. 

I do not want to take away from those who have served, but isn't this obsession with the past dangerous? Gallipoli, and indeed the whole Anzac legend, glorifies those soldiers who went rushing to their deaths in a pointless battle. They were poorly lead, poorly informed, and poorly provisioned. Do we, as a nation, really want to be encouraging our children to 'sign up to fight for king and country?'

Should we forget the Anzac legend?
No. We should not. The Anzac legend has come to mean so much more than a catastrophe in Turkey. It has come to encapsulate that 'aussie spirit' that the politicians love to talk about so much. But I think that the Anzac legend needs to change even further.

No matter how stupid the war, how pointless the conflict, or how unjustified our involvement, the Australian Defence Force will follow its orders, and will land 'boots on the ground' wherever they are told.

And this is the risk.

The Gallipoli conflict was not a failure of the soldiers, it was a failure of the leaders who sent them there, and the commanders who prosecuted a battle they knew they couldn't win.

I think the Anzac legend needs to become a story of why we fight, not how well we died. Let's celebrate the politicians who choose NOT to get involved, or those who send the troops in to protect people, not oil. Let's send the army in to build bridges, railways, hospitals, towns, and THAT is a legend I would take my hat off to. 

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