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25 April 2016

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Thank you for posting this Keith. It is a very fitting contribution on this day.

In today's Sydney Morning Herald someone wrote an article which asserted, amongst other things, that the Anzac mythology has airbrushed from history some of the distinctly less noble things that our soldiers did during World War 1.

The tone of the article, whatever its intention, was somewhat disparaging, managing to conflate Anzac day commemorations with our supposed national amnesia about how our noble ancestors treated Aboriginal people.

This article annoyed me quite a lot but, as a historian, I know that gathering the facts about a given event is usually the easy part of the exercise. Putting those facts in context and then trying to give them some sort of meaning is the really tricky bit.

So it is with Anzac Day. The bald facts are well enough known but are insufficient, in themselves, to explain why Australians have latched on to a major military defeat as somehow being the event that created, or at least revealed, a unique Australian identity.

It is much easier to understand why the Anzac campaign is important to the Turks, because the whole notion of modern Turkey arose out of that conflict, led and embodied by the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his fellow "Young Turks".

Ataturk was a special man by any measure and his magnanimous words of comfort to grieving Australian mothers are, to this day, exceptionally compassionate and moving.

Sadly, neither the Anzac campaign nor any other event has produced an Australian of comparable genius or standing. No political figure in this country has come even close to Ataturk. Our World War 1 leader, Billy Hughes, was a bright but devious, quarrelsome and divisive figure, not a great nation builder.

So it is rather fitting that we choose instead to venerate a group of men who, mostly unhindered by either real knowledge or understanding about the war and its purposes, gallantly charged ashore at Gallipoli Cove.

In doing so, they accidently created a legend of courage, sacrifice and humanity that has transmogrified into the Anzac myth. That they were all too human, not really heroes at all, simply magnifies the myth in a country that has, since its founding, always insisted that no man (or woman) is better than any other, either before God or the law or their fellow citizens.

This is, I think, why Anzac still resonates so strongly with us today. We know that the Anzacs were essentially like us.

They were not heroes of the type extolled in Homer and other classics: they were just men, often scared and bewildered, who did what they felt they had to do even when caught up in events beyond their understanding.

Importantly, when they left Gallipoli for the last time, they understood that they had been defeated by men just like them. It turned out that "Johnny Turk" was not the inferior and cowardly fighter that they had been encouraged to expect.

The courage, determination and humanity of the Turkish troops had been on vivid display throughout the campaign. They fought and died for their country in a way we could only respect and admire. We still do.

So, the meaning I'd like to give to Anzac Day is really about how human beings can rise above their limitations to endure great suffering and do great deeds in the name of a cause they sincerely believe in.

This inherent capacity in humans has been both a great curse and a great boon to us all. It has brought us triumph and tragedy in equal measure.

Today, of all days, we should reflect on this in the probably forlorn hope that someday, somehow, we will reach a point where we collectively cease to have any need to go to war.

Having visited Gallipoli twice in recent years I can only say that the experience is very moving and I empathise with you Keith. It is a very emotional experience. The care and effort the Turkish authorities have made, make the whole area well worth a visit.

Interesting that the ship played 'Taps'. I wasn't aware the yanks were part of the campaign or in fact the war until 1917? Oh well, nothing like friendly relations.

Speaking of which, in the PowerPoint travelogues I now give to historical groups, schools, service groups, retirees etc. I have an extended version of the ANZAC story.

I explain the fact that there are at least two Turkish memorial showing a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Digger to safety. Where else could you see that magnanimous spirit of reconciliation?

http://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2016/04/anzacs.html

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