by Michael Canning
Today, April 25th, is ANZAC day. It is a sad day in New Zealand and Australian history and I have wanted to write about it for a long time. For any readers who are unfamiliar with this acronym it means Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, which was a military grouping created during World War 1 in 1915 as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Anzac soldiers made up 12.5% of the Allied troops involved, with most soldiers coming from Great Britain, Ireland, France and India, with smaller numbers from Nepal and Canada.
Anzac Day was originally to commemorate the members of that force that fought at Gallipoli in Turkey. Since then it has been widened to include the sacrifices and contribution of all Australians and New Zealanders who have served and died in wars and conflicts since that time.
The date of the 25th of April comes from the day in 1915 when the disastrous battle of Gallipoli or battle of Çanakkale (Turkish: Çanakkale Savaşı) began. Last year I watched some of the televised BBC coverage of the centenary of Anzac Day held at Gallipoli. I was appalled to listen to the inane running commentary of the BBC reporters who were there and in the studio, as well as the crocodile tears of state leaders i.e. Prince Charles and the Australian and New Zealand prime ministers. For these are the people – symbolic and/or decision makers or uncritical communicators who allow the monstrous war machine to continue.
One of my relatives was a soldier at Gallipoli in 1915 and I think he would be turning in his grave to see how this tragedy for all involved has become exploited and debased over the years. My great uncle was in the British Artillery and one of the fortunate ones that survived being there but like many veterans of war found the experience so disturbing I don’t think he ever spoke about it.
New Zealand troops circa 1915. Photographer unknown.
When I was a child my family once visited my great uncle where he lived in the Waikato sometime in September or October of 1979. My question cum statement to him went something like “wow great uncle – you were at Gallipoli?” A little taken aback by this he first looked at his wife, then both of my parents, and then looked straight at me and through me with very serious and sad eyes and didn’t say a thing. It took me time to work out what his response meant but the message was transmitted clearly. The memory of his response lingers with me 37 years later and I find it now to be a turning point in my life as a kid who was then in a culture of war commodification i.e. replica plastic guns as toys a la German Luger pistols, and English Lee Enfield 303 rifles, war films, military model kits, toy soldiers in 1/72 and 1/35 scale, and battlefield sticker books.
Many years later I had a job that took me into numerous neighbourhoods and communities across Northeast England. I met a number of ex-serviceman through it and I will never forget an encounter I had with an ex-RAF man after I knocked on his door. He would have been in his 70’s then and when he heard my New Zealand accent I think it immediately took him back to WW2 when he had worked with some kiwi pilots.
The flashback to those terrible times seemed to be instantaneous and tears welled up in his eyes as he told me about the losses of his comrades, and the carnage and suffering of the war. Despite obviously feeling bad he was very nice to me and we discussed what we needed to talk about but he clearly needed someone to talk to in depth about that period.
I was in my late 20’s at the time and it was an unexpected and intense experience. As a male brought up in the über-macho culture of New Zealand it was almost unthinkable to have a grown adult man, especially an elder, cry in front of you. After the initial jarring effect on me of this encounter and once I had thought more about it more I felt privileged.
I felt privileged in that the elderly man had opened up like that to a young man, whom he had never met before, and had trusted part of his grieving process to him about his clearly terrible memories of WW2. The pain of them had obviously been bottled up in him for decades. It was another profound event in my life on different levels and another example of the misery and heartbreak that militarism had brought to people from elsewhere in the world.
Militarism is an abomination that has no place in human life and is something that simply needs to be ditched in the 21st Century. This is a critical time where human beings face the ecological consequences of many of our societies essentially treating the Earth like garbage for hundreds of years, often with an almost militaristic disdain for the blowback from massive alteration of ecosystems and pollution.
Indeed have a look at who some of the biggest polluters and users of fossil fuel are – the US military is one of them. If humans are to approach the urgent need to evolve to something far better whilst acknowledging this imperfect pluralistic existence then serious debates need to be held about the wisdom of allowing militarism to continue any further.
And I, for one, am sick to my guts of watching governments and their yapping media lapdogs hijack events like Anzac Day and the centenary of WW1 with their attendant spin, which is inevitably embued with the gross falsity and emptiness of nationalistic fervor. Nationalism and patriotism being particular scourges that in their modern form originated in the 18th and 19th centuries.
What we effectively witness is, as someone eruditely put it in 2015, the “funnelling of history through the prism/focus of the state or in simpler terms what the state wants the public to know (and not question).” Well, I reject this editing of history and the effective glorification of war without ever questioning the structural nature of the violence and expansionism that wars and other conflicts are about.
Wars, despite their sales pitches, are always about the ownership or control of resources and it is generally always those who have nothing to do with that ownership who suffer after being sold innumerable falsehoods and manipulation by soul-less creatures with vested interests. Needless to say I believe my late great-uncle would have detested and loathed to see the same kinds of institutions doing the same kinds of things now in 2016 that left he and his comrades in arms, and the society he came from so scarred and battered. How ironic is it that WW1, the so called ‘Great War’ that was the war to end all wars is now a footnote of almost 100 years of continual warfare somewhere on the planet.
I may turn on the tv or look up some other media at some point today to see what the 101st commemoration looks like but for the most part I am thinking it is perhaps better left alone. I would rather enjoy some silence than have to experience what idiocy and vacuous sentiments the mainstream media in the UK might provide. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised in the last few days in the build-up to Anzac Day to see some properly researched stories in the kiwi media that doesn’t pull its punches on the horrific nature of Gallopoli, the barbaric way some soldiers were treated by their own command structures, and the bigger picture around it where Anzac troops were basically pawns for continuing the imperial ambitions of Britain.
There has also been, for me, the discovery that some of the Anzac troops witnessed at first hand the horrific events of what became known as the Armenian Genocide of 1915. I first read about the latter more than 20 years ago after investigating the Armenian philosopher Gurdjieff’s book Meetings with Remarkable Men but it seems that only in the last decade or so has more become known about this hideous part of Turkey’s history.
So there we have the crux of the matter – imperialism, and all of its vile manifestations including its latent militarism, surely one of the most useless, wasteful, and destructive things ever to have developed since humans moved away from hunting and gathering after the retreat of the last ice age into settled ‘civilizations’. Imperialism is alive and well in the 21st Century make no mistake just look at what has been going on in the middle east since the beginning of the 20th century and even further back. The latest geo-politicking has long historical roots.
To conclude this essay I want to finish with this quote about war and militarism from the Dalai Lama, which brings other crucial things to the fore – in terms of conditioning, unexamined societal norms, what is legal, and why.
“Of course, war and the large military establishments are the greatest sources of violence in the world. Whether their purpose is defensive or offensive, these vast powerful organizations exist solely to kill human beings. We should think carefully about the reality of war. Most of us have been conditioned to regard military combat as exciting and glamorous – an opportunity for men to prove their competence and courage. Since armies are legal, we feel that war is acceptable; in general, nobody feels that war is criminal or that accepting it is criminal attitude. In fact, we have been brainwashed. War is neither glamorous nor attractive. It is monstrous. Its very nature is one of tragedy and suffering.”