Gallipoli and war propaganda

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Response to a question on Marxmail

Ed Lewis

Brian Shannon asked:

This is the 90th anniversary of the terrible disaster at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles Campaign. Apparently this WWI imperialist folly has become a great day of patriotism in Australia and New Zealand.

Is there an explanation for this?

There are a few things going on, Brian, but firstly the news report you quote says record crowds turned out, and then mentions 25,000 people at the dawn service in Sydney. To put that in perspective (if the figure is accurate, which I wouldn’t assume), later in the day, 32,000 turned out to see the Dragons play the Roosters (Rugby League) in Sydney and 80,000 came to watch the Bombers play the Magpies (Aussie Rules) in Melbourne. So the media are getting excited about the equivalent of a moderately sized football crowd, admittedly at 5am, which makes it a little more impressive.

Partly this crowd is made up of ex-services personnel preparing for a big day of reunions, lubricated by plenty of alcohol, and by about mid-day there are squadrons of under-the-weather old diggers heading for home on the trains, buses and taxis. The ceremonies also have a substantial contingent of serving military personnel, perhaps with friends and family along to watch the show.

Politically, this is not much to worry about, as attitudes to war are very mixed among the old service people, and the current ones who’ve seen action. For every gung-ho militarist there’s probably a very sobered veteran who is strongly of the opinion that war is hell, and that’s leaving aside those whose health (mental or physical) has been ruined by their military service.

This pattern is clear among World War I and II and Vietnam veterans, and no doubt it will be repeated among those returning from the Iraq adventure. Returned service people aren’t reliable salespeople for the glories of war message.

More worrying is the fact that Anzac Day for about a decade now has been preceded by a steadily increasing crescendo of militarist propaganda in the media, and the crowds are swelled by schoolkids and other young people sucked in by this propaganda, and no doubt some of these unfortunates will supply the next wave of cannon fodder.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve spent quite a bit of time in small towns in NSW, beyond the reach of cable television and reduced to watching free-to-air, which I normally avoid. It has been riddled with reruns of Anzac myth fare, quite a bit of it John Wayne with an Aussie accent sort of stuff. Paul Hogan as the bulletproof larrikin.

The Anzac myth is now fair game for militarist propagandists, as the last of the World War I diggers have died since last year’s march. There were one or two left last year, but there are none this year. The one or two left last year weren’t very useful, because at least one of them, Marcel Caux, was strongly antiwar and said so. Now there’s no one except historians left to contractict them, the propagandists can say pretty much what they like about Galipoli, etc.

Even then they don’t have it all their own way. Gerard Henderson, a rabid right-wing columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, devoted his annual Anzac myth column this year to a whinge about the playing of Eric Bogle’s song, “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” at Anzac ceremonies large and small across the country. From his point of view he’s right to complain, because the song is far from a militarist anthem. It’s about a young soldier who returns from Galipoli with no legs, and it’s clearly antiwar. I doubt that this has escaped the notice of the thousands of veterans’ organisations that play this song year after year.

Then there’s the small fact of the largest ever protests over any issue in Australia in the lead up to the Iraq invasion. The stay-at-home-and-cheer militarists, like Henderson, are doing their damndest to whip up war fever, but they have the job ahead of them.


John Howard’s carpark

April 26

There’s one other aspect of this year’s Anzac ceremonies that explains the larger attendance. It was the 90th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, and John Howard saw it as a big chance for a patriotic display by attending the ceremony at Gallipoli — his last chance on a major anniversary in fact, as he won’t be around for the 100th (at least not in politics).

As well, the military and the veterans’ organisations probably put more effort into the preparations because it was a major anniversary.

Howard’s plans turned into a bit of a fiasco, however, because the Australian government asked the Turkish government to build facilities on the Gallipoli peninsula to make the place fit for an important man such as Howard. In particular, the Howard government wanted a better road and a VIP carpark.

The Turkish authorities obliged by bulldozing part of the cliffs at Gallipoli on to the beach, thus destroying some of the cliffs that the Anzacs had to climb after the landing and about half the beach that they climbed from. The concrete mixers from the road construction then completed the job by dumping their leftover slurry over the edge of the cliffs and on to the beach. Some reports say there were bones, possibly of undiscovered World War I casualties, amid the rubble bulldozed on to the beach.

Howard emerged from this looking like a complete arsehole, and his appearance at the ceremony seems to have been relatively low-key as a result.

Of course, the Gallipoli ceremony pulled the usual crowd of young Australian and New Zealand tourists, who often include Gallipoli on their European and Mediterranean tour itineraries.

There’ve been outraged reports that some of these people did quite a bit of drinking, having sex, etc, and were entertained by Bee Gees and other music video clips on a big screen so they wouldn’t get too bored between ceremonies.

Incidentally, three more World War I veterans have emerged since last year, so it wasn’t the first Anzac Day with no World War I veterans. The only one of these veterans to participate in the parade, 107 year old Peter Casserley from WA, offered no comfort to Gerard Henderson and the rest of the war brigade. He said the war was “just one big tragedy. I think of all the lives that were martyred for no result. Nobody gained anything out of being in a war.”

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