Sunday, May 1, 2011

Anzac Day

This past Monday, April 25th, was Anzac Day in Australia. Anzac Day is a public holiday, the anniversary of the 1915 landings in Gallipoli in Turkey during world war one. British, Australian, New Zealand, and other allied troops invaded Turkey in an attempt to knock Turkey out of the war. This date is often given as the day Australia, then only an independent country for 14 years “came of age”.

Whether entering a war is a true test of coming of age is something that can be debated. But what can’t be argued with is that the Gallipoli campaign was a bloody, futile campaign that resulted in a decisive Turkish victory. The victory came at a huge cost – 44,092 allied dead, 96,937 allied wounded. The Turks, defending their home, lost far more, an estimated 86,692 dead, and 164,617 wounded. Altogether this adds up to almost 400,000 people, mostly young men, dead or wounded.

The most successful part of the campaign was the withdrawal. By December 20th 1915 all the allied troops had been withdrawn, leaving behind a peninsula criss-crossed with trenches, covered in shell craters, and soaked in the blood of hundreds of thousands of shattered lives.

Anzac Day is a day to reflect on those lost in war. As far back as recorded history takes us we find records of war. From the mess that is Afghanistan today, the trenches of World War One, Napoleon’s troops marching on Moscow, the crusaders sacking Jerusalem, the Romans razing Carthage and salting the earth, to Alexander’s troops carving up the Persian empire, we see troops on the move, cities on fire, rape, destruction, murder and theft, century after century. I am not enough of a dreamer to think this will ever come to an end.

But I’m enough of a dreamer to hope that it will. That some day the swords, rifles, and laser-guided bombs will be put aside, and we will find a better way.

I can’t help but think of a quote, very famous in Australia, from the first president of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, who had fought at Gallipoli. Talking of the war, he said:

“Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

That sentiment is only talking about one war, one set of enemies who have ceased to kill each other. But it is a start. And I hope someday such eloquence will not be needed ever again.


  1. What a beautiful quote. I know so little about Australia's history so I thank you for sharing. I know this is off topic but I saw this movie once called Rabbit Proof Fence and it was really good. It is about the white people way back when of Australia trying to breed out the Aborigines. It is based on facts. I guess I am just bringing that up because Australia is full of great struggles and wars and we just do not hear much about it in the States. Anyhow great post!

  2. Whenever I hear about ANZAC day, I can't help but remember the 'ANZAC biscuits' my mum used to make when I was a kid - made out of long life ingredients, they were apparently sent to the ANZAC soldiers in Europe by their families back home. They are absolutely delicious - or at least, my mum's were!

    More seriously, I couldn't agree more with you about war in general. I absolutely hate it, and I hate even more we as a species have it seemingly programmed into us. It's an absolutely ridiculous situation that, although the vast majority of people on this planet would consider killing a neighbour morally wrong, we seem unable as a race to stop starting wars that always end in death on an epic scale. We're naturally born hypocrites - programmed by evolution to be just nice enough to form stable communities, but just hateful enough to fight for our place in the food pyramid and the gene pool. When it's just 'us', everything is fine, but when it turns to 'us' and 'them', well, 'they' are going to lose. This is why I bitterly oppose nationalism in all forms - it's such an easy way to make 'us' and 'them', and that is absolutely the last thing we need.

    I also absolutely hate how bloody complicated things are when it comes to war. We *always* want to make the right decision, and that applies to everyone. The problem is, there's almost never an obvious 'right' decision. Is war ever justified? Should we be aiming to 'minimise' human rights abuses? I am very much interested in Bertrand Russell, a famous British logician, philosopher and pacifist, who was staunchly against any war. And yet, even he was forced to change his position during WWII to a 'lesser of two evils' approach. The problem is that almost all modern conflicts are too complicated - too many causes, too many sides, too many arguments. Even in hindsight it's often hard to decide what is going on - the world is inherently a complex system, by definition one which is highly unpredictable on a long timescale. We, as a species, are just not smart enough to be able to deal with these situations with our usual tool - logic. So what can one do? Make an educated guess, and deal with the bloody consequences afterward, whatever they might be. It ain't easy, being human...

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I am an advocate of Anzac Day, and when friends ask why we celebrate war, I tell them we're celebrating the peace that now exists between Australia and Turkey, and the fact that Turkish soldiers also march in Australian parades on that day. And I tell them how carefully and respectfully the Turkish people and govt have taken care of the Gallipoli landing ground as it's important to us. You're right, peace is possible.

  4. The hope which you entertain seems so improbable that I can't even bring myself to hope for it.

  5. @ITP
    I'm glad you liked the quote. Australia is a country far from the rest of the world, so its stories are not widely told. Another Australian movie well worth seeing is Gallipoli, starring a young Mel Gibson back when he had an Australian accent, and before he went off the deep end.

    @Borderline Lil
    Yes, peace is possible. In certain places and at certain times, for sure. History contains peace as well as war. But the war always comes back.

    I know what you mean. Violence is in our nature, and it will always come back up.

    The killing of Osama Bin Laden highlights the point about us and them, doesn't it? The pictures of Americans celebrating like they just won the Superbowl, Facebook lighting up with people celebrating his death. At the risk of spilling into biblical hyperbole, the most fitting description I can see is that he reaped what he had sown. He got the martyrdom he apparently wanted.

    I can't say I'm sad to see that he is dead, but I'm not jumping for joy either. I'm not American. Nor did I lose anyone in the September 11 attacks. But even if I was, or if I did, I somehow doubt I would be jumping around waving a flag.

    Like you, I am always suspicious of flags, and nationalism. The nonsense that every country talks about how it is the best one in the world, its wonderful values and culture. The reality is that they were all build on a foundation of murder and theft, usually many times over. As is nature.

    If we step outside human society for a moment, we see the perpetual bloodbath that nature is. How cruel and vicious the struggle for survival can be. We think ourselves above it, but we're just primates in suits really. We are social creatures, but as you say, when it comes down to "us" and "them", it is not likely that "us" is going to lose out.

    We are all trying to do the best we can, the best we know how. And while pacifism is wonderful in practice, how well would it work out in nature? Even among we humans where it can have some effect, I have sometimes wondered what would have happened had Ghandi been trying his passive resistance against the Empire of Japan, instead of the British? I rather suspect the result would have been a quick decapitation.

    While I hope for peace, I don't expect it. I suspect the lesser of two evils approach is the only way to move forward, for those of us who try to see the world as it actually is, rather than trying to impose doctrinaire political or religious fantasies on it.

  6. I for one feel it was a bit grotesque how blood thirsty some USA citizens behaved at the death of OBL. I am from the USA and can assure you there are many who are human enough to respect his death and morn for the face his wife and children lost their father and husband. Death is never a beautiful thing when it is due to war. He may have put it upon himself but it is still sad.

  7. "mourn for the fact"

  8. Hi ITP,
    As always, the media reports the people jumping around in the streets, this being more interesting than the majority of people at home not doing that, and feeling significantly more conflicted than the "USA! USA!" crowd apparently did.