Unequalled numbers commemorated the centenary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli, made at the cost of 8,709 Australian lives and over 19,441 other casualties. Many Australian families suffered deeply from this and other battles in World War I.
It was extremely moving to be part of the commemorations, and to feel the depth of emotion as the crowds stood silently or watched the parades.
Prime Minster Tony Abbott rightly wrote that “we do not glorify war, but rather we honour the values the Anzacs embodied … extraordinary courage … selflessness”. He urged us to act as custodians of these values: “the commitment to freedom, the spirit of adventure and the bonds of mateship” (The Age 25 April).
Certainly we honour and respect these men and women, and their families, for the suffering and loss they endured. We stand in solidarity and prayer with them. But we do them a grievous disservice if we do not learn from their pain and grief to do our utmost to avoid wars unless they are forced upon us.
The voice of outrage
Where is our voice of outrage against the monumental incompetence of the politicians and planners who decided to attack the Dardenelles without adequate maps, intelligence, or support? Where is the protest against the criminal stupidity of some military commanders who needlessly threw away so many lives? (Peter Hart Wartime Issue 38 ‘War is Helles: the real fight for Gallipoli’.)
No, Mr Abbott. It was not a “magnificent failure”. Gallipoli was a wild gamble from the start, and it was very soon evident it was bound to fail.
The so-called ‘Anzac legend’ must not become a misleading caricature manufactured for political interests. Our Anzac commemoration must echo the howls of protest and anger our soldiers felt against the inhumanity and madness of war.
It must reinforce our determination to avoid such conflicts by contributing robustly to peacekeeping efforts and by astute diplomacy, supporting the international framework for peace through the United Nations and other organisations. Especially important are our efforts with development assistance to poorer countries, and yet, unconscionably, we have recently cut our overseas aid savagely.
Truly honouring Anzac means we need continually to challenge those who wrap themselves in the flag and expose our men and women to unnecessary danger, or commit us to unnecessary wars, especially on mistaken or contrived pretexts, such as in Iraq in 2003. Let us beware politicians who want to be war leaders.
Not a few Australians think that only Australian (including Indigenous) soldiers and New Zealand forces (including Maoris) were involved at Gallipoli, unaware that Britain (including Ireland) lost eight times as many killed as Australia (Amy McQuire, ‘Gallipoli could never define Australia like this war did’, New Matilda 22 April 2015). There were significant numbers from India, as well as from France and its colonies in Africa and the Pacific. France lost some thousands more troops than did Australia (Nic Maclellan, ‘Gallipoli and forgetting’, Inside Story 23 April 2015) Much worse was to come on the Western Front, as we know.
If the memory of Anzac is to have more meaningful significance, it needs also to embrace the yearnings of the millions of people who have settled in Australia from other lands and cultures, many fleeing persecution, war and poverty. I have no doubt that our old diggers would approve enthusiastically of our Anzac commemoration as a stirring protest against war and injustice, against militarism and oppression.
The Anzac legacy could be reborn as an expression of vibrant solidarity with all those who suffer from war and persecution, offering a fresh vision of an inclusive Australian identity, committed to helping consolidate peace and social equity in our world.