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Commercialisation and the casualness of going to war

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Woolworths took down Anzac 'Fresh in our Memories' website after social media backlash

John Menadue calls for an end to the commercialisation of Gallipoli and Anzac, to put the drums and bugles away, and to stop and think about what we are doing. 

IF WE feel overwhelmed by the crass commercialism of Gallipoli and Anzac, take a deep breath because there are three years to go.

Target has sponsored “Camp Gallipoli”, Woolworths has asked us to “Keep Fresh in our Memories” the losses of Gallipoli; VB depicted for us actors on the steps of the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance who  tell us to bow our heads and raise a glass of VB in memory of the first Australians who charged and died at Gallipoli.

There have been endless advertising and sales of Gallipoli kitsch. Even our Governor General a few years ago fronted at the hotel bar for VB to raise a glass and money for veterans.

But the slipping TV ratings suggest we are getting tired of the saturation media coverage and the $400 m spent by the Australian Government on a whole range of Anzac “educational” programs.

When the myth making all started in 1915 Charles Bean, the official military historian carefully burnished the Anzac myth. Soldiers were strong, adaptable, cheerful, laid-back, but faithfully serving the empire.

Not for Bean the harsh realities of war unless they were laced with humour. He didn’t tell us much about the fear, desertion or boredom of soldiers far from home or the horror of it all. He was gilding the lily about the terrible nature of the war in which young Australians were killing and being killed.

We are told endlessly about how Australians fought in WWI. We are never really asked the very important question of why we fought in the interests of Britain’s colonial and economic interests, including access to oil in the Middle East for Britain’s navy.

The last surviving Anzac, Alec Campbell said in 2002

“For God’s sake don’t glorify Gallipoli...it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten.”

But the Anzac obsession continues.

To burnish the conservative interpretation of our military history we, and particularly the Australian War Memorial, are very selective about the story we tell. We have selective amnesia. We ignore the Frontier Wars, a race war by white landowners in which over 30,000 Indigenous people were killed defending their homeland. In proportion to our population it was the largest loss of life in war in our history.

But there is scarcely a grave or a memorial to remember the people who died in the Frontier Wars. Our first military alliance with New Zealand was not at Gallipoli but in the Maori race wars in the 1850s and 1860s.

Best we forget the Frontier and Maori Wars.

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We choose to make WWII almost a footnote to our military history, but it was far more important to our survival than any other foreign war.

Old soldiers will scarcely ever tell us about their experiences. They were haunted for years with the horror of it all. But today we don’t seem able to stop talking about Anzac and Gallipoli. We have seen so often on TV a long-lost cousin or a great uncle that has been forgotten. It seems more like sentimentality than grief.

The careful selection of people and events by Bean diverted attention from the enormous political, strategic and personal tragedy of Gallipoli. We do the same today. We are encouraged to forget the blunders we made as a nation, involving ourselves in wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Bean, we divert attention by focusing on the sacrifice and losses by ordinary servicemen and women. We seem to turn ourselves into a knot to avoid facing the history of our military blunders.

The same process is now under way with our expanded commitment to Iraq. What we will not acknowledge is that there was no national interest in sending Australian troops to Gallipoli just as there is no national interest in sending troops again to Iraq.

On Anzac Cove, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott told us that our involvement at Gallipoli was "right and just". Others talk of "defending freedom". In my view, none of these claims stand up to serious scrutiny...we were there for the empire.

The Bean myth-making was essential for conservatives to divert attention from the military, political and personal tragedies; the division at home over conscription; the sectarianism of Billy Hughes and the poverty and unemployment in the great depression. It was not a land fit for heroes. WWI sundered our nation and it wasn’t until 1945 that we really started to put it together again.

There are two bookends in our celebration of our military history. They are out dependence on the UK and the USA. We try to invent reasons why we fought at Gallipoli, but I have yet to hear a believable account of what we fought for there, except serving the empire. At Gallipoli, Australian soldiers flew the Union Jack. 

Today we also try to invent reasons why we are fighting in Iraq, but the real reason is the call of the latter-day imperial power, the USA.

How can we possibly believe that Gallipoli and Iraq is about nationhood? Our involvement in both was for quite opposite reasons serving the empire. Unfortunately, some people believe that nationhood, like manhood can only only be proven in war and violence.

My main concern about the Gallipoli myth-making and our military history is because it is pushing us steadily further and further down the military path. Our foreign policy has become overwhelmingly militarised. Combatting asylum seekers in Operation Sovereign Borders is an example of how civil policies and programs are being turned over to the military. We are again appointing military generals as governors and governor-generals.

This militarisation of Australia has contributed to making our involvement in wars a quite casual event. The latest addition of 300 Australian service people to Iraq scarcely raised any attention at all.

Taking a country to war used to be considered the most serious step that any government could ever take. But no more. The parliament doesn’t even debate a new overseas commitment. In an almost unthinking way we decide to go to war again. We commit to war after war and then refuse properly support returning service people.

As Henry Reynolds put it:

‘The threshold Australian governments need to cross in order to send forces overseas is perilously low. Because there has never been an assessment of why Australia has so often been involved in war, young people must get the impression that war is a natural and inescapable part of national life. It is what we do and we are good at it. We “punch above our weight”. War is treated as though it provides the venue and the occasion for Australian heroism and martial virtuosity. While there is much talk of dying, or more commonly of sacrifice, there is little mention of killing and never any assessment of the carnage visited on distant countries in our name.’

In Australia today, it is becoming much easier to go to war. War is becoming commonplace and the celebrations surrounding Gallipoli make it more so. Step by step we are moving into very dangerous territory, something that the diggers of Gallipoli or the Western Front would have warned us about. It was so horrible; they didn’t want to talk about it. But we talk about it endlessly.

We should behave with restraint and put some of the drums and bugles away. Let’s pause and think what we are doing.

The lesson of Gallipoli must surely be to avoid making the same mistake again — whether it be in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq.

This article was originally published on John Menadue's blog 'Pearls and Irritations' on 12 January 2016 (repost from 23/04/2015) under the title ‘John Menadue. Commercialisation and the Casualness of Going to War’.

You can follow John on Twitter @johnmenadue.

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