ANZAC Day – The spin-doctors’ story

Anzac-DayThis transformation of the botched Dardanelles campaign into a symbol of emergent nationhood was a stunning example of the most malign and cynical statecraft. By representing the Anzac defeat as New Zealand’s bloody ‘‘ coming of age’’ , the Reform Party prime minister, Bill Massey, made certain that the disaster of Gallipoli would never be seriously questioned or criticised. Because to do so would be tantamount to questioning and criticising ‘‘ the glorious dead’ ’ — and that soon became unthinkable. — Article by Chris Trotter –  25 April 2014 issue of The Otago Daily Times. Below is the entire text.

THE deep solemnity with which Anzac Day is commemorated in New Zealand is entirely appropriate. Never before had the people of this country been required to cope with the violent death of so many of their fellow citizens. For New Zealand’s political and military leadership, the public’s response to the unprecedented length of the casualty lists was a matter of critical significance.

A military disaster on the scale of the Gallipoli campaign can be responded to in one of two ways. Either the nation recoils in anger and disgust at the unforgivable failure of both the armed forces and the government to protect its sons; or it transforms the sordid waste of young lives into an occasion for patriotic and ultimately spiritual exultation.

For the deeply conservative government of the day it therefore became a matter of some urgency that the Gallipoli defeat, and its horrific losses, be reconfigured into a bloodsanctified rite of national passage. Having laid upon the altar of the ‘‘ dearest and the best’ ’ they had to offer, New Zealanders still at home were told that they had all, by some mysterious patriotic alchemy, been ennobled. Those hundreds of dead Kiwi boys had ‘‘ stood the test’’ , and now it was the duty of all those for whom they had made ‘‘ the final sacrifice’ ’ to do the same.

This transformation of the botched Dardanelles campaign into a symbol of emergent nationhood was thus a stunning example of the most malign and cynical statecraft. By representing the Anzac defeat as New Zealand’s bloody ‘‘ coming of age’’ , the Reform Party prime minister, Bill Massey, made certain that the disaster of Gallipoli would never be seriously questioned or criticised. Because to do so would be tantamount to questioning and criticising ‘‘ the glorious dead’ ’ — and that soon became unthinkable.

And so it has continued, down through the 10 decades since those Anzac soldiers first planted their boots on Turkish soil. And in every one of those decades the political and military leadership of New Zealand has reiterated the solemn falsehoods upon which the commemoration of Anzac Day is founded.

That the soldiers died for freedom and democracy.

That the battle marked the true birth of the New Zealand nation.

That had it been left to the Kiwis and the Aussies, the Gallipoli peninsula could have been secured.

The men who died on the unforgiving slopes of Gallipoli were volunteers, brimful of imperial pride and ready to give their all for their kingemperor and his empire. Freedom and democracy didn’t come into it. In 1914, Great Britain itself was only barely a democratic state. Most of the 800,000 British dead gave their lives for a state which allowed them no vote. New Zealand was a truly democratic state, but the progressive forces which had made it so harboured serious reservations about the war. Conscription was required to keep the blood tribute flowing and the government which oversaw it was brutally authoritarian.

Far from marking the birth of the New Zealand nation, the Gallipoli campaign and the subsequent battles in Flanders retarded the development of an independent New Zealand identity. Only in World War 2 could it be truthfully said that New Zealand’s citizen soldiers were consciously fighting for freedom and democracy — along with the job­rich , unionprotected , welfare state their votes had brought into being.

That the losses in World War 2 were so much fewer than those in World War 1 owed a great deal to the lessons drawn from that earlier conflict. Sending farm boys to take the Gallipoli peninsula was always a fool’s errand. The Turks knew it and so did their German advisers. Yes, we took Chunuk Bair, but we couldn’t hold it. Nobody could.

Next year we’ll solemnly mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. I hold little hope that we will do so honestly. Age may not weary those dear, best boys, but while we continue to tell ourselves lies about why they died — they will never rest.

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