Monday, May 11, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.



I have tactfully let some weeks go by before mentioning a matter that bugs me greatly.
Anzac Day is past. The parades, the concerts and the TV coverage from Turkey are now over. The newspaper supplements have ceased rolling off the presses and we are no longer being assailed by those instant experts, who suddenly know everything there is to know about the Dardanelles campaign.
It is understandable that this year, the centenary of the campaign, Gallipoli should have been given such high-profile coverage. But it has run the risk of giving New Zealanders the false idea that this was the most lethal campaign in which New Zealanders took part in the First World War. The reality is that far more New Zealanders died on the Western Front, and especially at Passchendaele, than at Gallipoli. Like those of other nations, our dead and wounded were most mauled by the European meat-grinder, not the Turkish one.
This misapprehension, however, is not what bugs me.
I make it clear that I am not a pacifist. I think it is fitting and proper that every nation both mourn and commemorate its war dead. I believe there are times when, regrettably, the use of military force is justifiable. I won’t explain my attitude in detail. Let’s just say it’s a modified form of the Thomist “just war” theory.
I also make it clear that I do not belittle or ridicule things in the past simply because they were “failures”. To do so would be to deploy the sweet and seductive faculty of hindsight, and to claim to be wiser than people in the past, who could not possibly know with certainty what the outcomes of their actions would be. In short, it would be rank “present-ism”.
Even so, here are the three things that bug me about current mythologisation of Gallipoli.
First, it was a foolish and botched campaign from the word go. Lives are always lost in war, but they can be lost to some purpose. The original strategy for the campaign was a feasible one. Here on the Western Front are the allies France and Britain and their respective empires. Separated from them by the belligerent German, Austrian and Turkish empires is France’s and Britain’s great ally Tsarist Russia. The idea of cutting through the Dardanelles, linking up with Russia, taking joint control of the Black Sea and helping Russia belt Germany, Austria and Turkey from the east was a good idea on paper. I am not saying smugly that it was not worth a try. But, forgotten in all the recent hoopla is the fact that the first attempt to put this into effect was a purely naval affair. The British and French navies attempted to rush the Hellespont, barge past Constantinople and connect with the Black Sea. They failed. The Turks had mined the Hellespont at strategic points. British and French ships were sunk. The British and French navies withdrew. The first attempt to “encircle” Turkey failed. Worse, this failed naval action gave the Turks full warning as to what the British and French strategy was. This meant that by the time British (and Australian and New Zealand) boots made contact with the Gallipoli peninsula, the Turks were fully prepared for them and – with the assistance of astute German military advisors – they were waiting to repulse the invaders of their home turf. We hear much of the circumstance that ANZAC landings were flunked and that, instead of landing at beaches from which they could have advanced across level ground, they were landed where there was a thin ribbon of beach overlooked by daunting cliffs and rugged terrain. True – but it would probably have made little difference to the outcome inasmuch as the Turks were already one strategic jump ahead of their enemies. Remember, I am not using sanctimonious hindsight in saying all this. I am simply suggesting that, after the failure of the naval action, there must have been at least somebody in the British or French War Departments to suggest that the Turks would now be in a state of alert and preparedness, and that pursuing the grand strategy of linking up with Russia was probably not advisable.
Second, I react very negatively to the notion that the Gallipoli campaign was somehow the birth of our nationhood. Wiping away the patina of post-war fictions, one has to accept that most young New Zealanders and Australians who rushed off to war in 1914 and 1915 did so from motives of loyalty to the British Empire, rather than from the idea that they were building their respective Pacific nations. They thought of themselves as British. To be involved in the big war going on, on the other side of the world, was essentially a way of saying to Mother England “Look, Mum, we’re big boys now and we can fight too.” It is quite true that when the Gallipoli campaign was in progress, some Aussies and Kiwis modified their views of British High Command, began to see British (as opposed to colonial) forces as other than themselves and, like Malone (fictionalised by Maurice Shadbolt as “Connolly” in his play Once on Chunuk Bair) began to assert their non-British identity. It is quite true that, especially on the Western Front, Aussies and Kiwis sometimes became disrespectful towards British manners and the old-school-tie ethos of British officers. (Read John A. Lee’s Civilian into Soldier sometime.)  But even so, neither at the time nor until a process of post-war mythologisation had occurred, was Gallipoli seen as the birth of our nation. Damme! I know that custom means we have to believe something was the start of the nation we inhabit, but give me the election of the Liberals or Gate Pa or Mickey Joe Savage’s feints at welfare or even the wretched Treaty of Waitangi if we are going to canonise some event as our national birth date. [By the way, subsequent to writing these remarks, I have been reading Steven Loveridge's Calls to Arms, a study of the New Zealand mentality during the First World War which I will be reviewing on this blog in a few weeks' time. I am delighted to note that Loveridge strongly reinforces my view that most New Zealanders at the time thought of themselves as British, and willingly fought in defence of British interests.]
Finally, and most in reaction to the recent celebrations of the centenary, there is my fear that Gallipoli becomes a pretext for recruitment – that, in effect, commemorations of soldiers’ courage and determination function as a big recruiting poster. It is right to remember soldiers’ sufferings, remember the courage of some and the fear of others, remember the hard conditions they had to endure and be thankful for our own easy and comfortable lives in comparison. But courage, endurance and perseverance, admirable though they are, can be deployed in the service of monstrous or foolish causes. Soldiers who went through Gallipoli (including at least one of my great-uncles) were going through a campaign that could not possibly be won. In short, for all their admirable qualities, their lives were thrown away. The words “Lest we forget” are often invoked in their remembrance as if we are being called to emulate their warrior spirit. Surely “Lest we forget” should also mean “Lest we forget the realities of their historical situation and the way their lives were squandered”. I am reminded that the phrase was most popularised in a poem (“Recessional”) by Rudyard Kipling who, great imperialist though he was, was warning the British people not to be too smug about their empire. And I am very cautious about the current justification of intervention in Iraq on the basis of the ANZAC spirit.
Different war. Different circumstances. Irrelevant imagery.

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