A nation of “shirkers, quitters and losers”?

Peter Maywald

A reflection written on Anzac Day, 2014

This week in 2014, many Australians have joined in Anzac Day events, the purpose of which is said to have been to remember the sacrifice of our soldiers killed in war. Some of those who attended the dawn services, marches, barbecues, footy matches and two-up games might even have believed this to be true. But the conscious and sinister purpose behind Anzac Day has been unwittingly revealed in the recent plethora of publicity from government, media and corporate sources.

For the past few weeks, the inappropriately named government body which celebrates war, the Australian War Memorial (AWM), has been running television and YouTube advertisements featuring a handsome young soldier and Victoria Cross recipient telling us that our “national values” were forged on the battlefields of the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. If a pharmaceutical manufacturer or fast food company was to spread such misinformation, it would rightly be prosecuted for misleading the public. Instead, taxpayers are bearing the cost of expensive advertising to allow powerful vested interests to put false words into the mouth of a young man who fought with distinction in the nation’s armed forces.

If we were to accept that our national values were actually forged in the military disaster of Gallipoli, we would indeed be a sick and sorry country described by Guy Rundle as comprising “shirkers, quitters and losers” (Rundle, 2014). Nothing of any substance or positive value to Australia was achieved through the pointless deaths of 8,000 of our soldiers in the defeat which we suffered in the doomed invasion of Turkey – a nation with which we as a country really had no quarrel. Even if the bizarre campaign had by some miracle succeeded in its objectives, the only possible benefit to our nation could have been to show that it was a loyal ally of a huge and greedy colonial power which was fighting to maintain the ability of its capitalists to exploit the resources of a vast subservient empire.

Of course, the official AWM version sees this very differently:

“When war broke out in 1914, Australia had been a federal commonwealth for only 13 years. The new national government was eager to establish its reputation among the nations of the world. In 1915 Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of the allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in order to open the Dardanelles to the allied navies. The ultimate objective was to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany.

What had been planned as a bold stroke to knock Turkey out of the war quickly became a stalemate, and the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915 the allied forces were evacuated, after both sides had suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. Over 8,000 Australian soldiers had been killed. News of the landing on Gallipoli had made a profound impact on Australians at home, and 25 April soon became the day on which Australians remembered the sacrifice of those who had died in the war.

Although the Gallipoli campaign failed in its military objectives, the Australian and New Zealand actions during the campaign left us all a powerful legacy. The creation of what became known as the “Anzac legend” became an important part of the identity of both nations, shaping the ways they viewed both their past and their future.” (Australian War Memorial, n.d.)

Much of this is nonsense. The Great War didn’t just “break out” – it was a deliberate declaration of hostilities between competing colonial empires, to which Gallipoli was largely irrelevant. Journalist Guy Rundle summarised it as follows: “The idea that World War I was some sort of crusade against German militarism has gained great currency lately. The more reasonable argument would be that Germany was trying to dominate Europe, while the British Empire was trying to encircle them and choke them off, in alliance with France and Russia. But even if you gave some credence to the anti-German argument, the decision to attack the Ottoman Empire has not a jot of moral character.” (Rundle, 2014)

According to the AWM, the ANZAC forces were “evacuated” from Gallipoli, when in fact they retreated in defeat. We remain one of the few nations in the world to celebrate a humiliating military defeat as our national day, marching, praying and drinking to excess, purportedly in memory of those said to have “given their lives for our country.”

While we owe the legend of the heroic bronzed ANZACs largely to a historian (Charles Bean) – who created the myth that these men established the essential values of our national character – more recent historians from Bill Gammage to Joan Beaumont have undertaken painstaking research which shows this to be totally untrue. As well, numerous other scholars have shown that there was a coherent set of national values which long predated 1915. Australian literature, journalism and art from the 1880s onwards reveals the widespread acceptance of values such mateship, solidarity, egalitarianism, support for the underprivileged, independence, suspicion of authority and pure larrikinism which predated the establishment of the Commonwealth.

Some of these values might have been displayed by the troops at Gallipoli, but they certainly did not originate there. In fact, some much less desirable qualities became evident among the hapless Aussie soldiers trapped on a narrow stretch of barren land between the Turkish guns and the sea. Our brave heroic boys were despised by many other allied troops for their high rates of desertion and refusal to obey orders (although perhaps these might have been understandable and even laudable qualities given the senseless nature of the conflict).

By the time of their shambolic retreat, few in the front line believed that the conflict with Turkey had anything to do with the defence of their motherland – unless of course they were convinced by the propaganda that they were fighting for “king and country” – that is, someone else’s king and someone else’s country.

“Our brave boys” also earned some dubious reputations for their behaviour away from the front lines. Australian troops had the highest rates of syphilis of any of the allies – said to be contracted by enlisted men in brothels but transmitted to officers from contact with toilet seats! They were also noted for cruel and demeaning treatment of local ethnic communities (Rundle, 2014).

Rundle provides a telling summary of the senseless nature of the ‘Great War” and the cruel falsity of the ANZAC legend:

“As World War I has receded in the visceral memory, so too has the mammoth slaughter at the centre of it. The phalanx of right-wing pundits who want to argue for a kernel of moral sense at the heart of the war have to simply remove the idea that the event, at its bloody core, was not simply a giant crime against humanity, whose participants could have made different, less lethal decisions along the way.

Central to that conception is the idea that men, our men, were noble and died stoically, laconically -- that they saw a sense in their own deaths. We can be pretty sure that the former was not true -- much of the Australian forces’ reputation for "larrikinism" was really gained from their appalling treatment of local Arab populations, unquestionably a transfer of anti-Aboriginal racism. And we can be reasonably sure, from every record of violent combat, that they died as men often die, shitting their pants and crying for their mothers.” (Rundle, 2014)

For centuries, despotic rulers, titled monarchs and arms manufacturers have manipulated ordinary citizens into marching off to slaughter citizens of other states in the name of patriotism and heroism. They have built up national myths to protect their positions of power, wealth and influence, sacrificing whole generations of young people in brutal conflicts portrayed as glorious and heroic.

Few of the rich and powerful have been killed in the frontlines compared with the millions of ordinary soldiers, persuaded that they are fighting for their families and the survival of their motherlands. The true values of nations are not shaped in such vicious and senseless conflicts, any more than Australia can trace its national character to the Gallipoli disaster – unless we are prepared to accept ourselves as a nation of “quitters, shirkers and losers.”