Swapping war stories

As the centenary of the battle at Gallipoli approaches, it would seem the entire country is invited to remember the event that many feel ‘forged a nation’.

Official preparations have been underway for the past four years. The federal government is spending more than $300 million to mark the occasion and citizens have joined a lottery system to ‘win’ tickets to Anzac Cove.

Although the term ‘Anzac’ is protected by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the name is being used in a variety of enterprises in the lead up to 25 April. Pubs and restaurants are running Anzac themed menus; cruise ships are offering package deals to the Gallipoli Peninsula; key rings, watches and stamps will be available through Australia Post.

Soldier On is an organisation that supports wounded soldiers. Commemorative wrist bands, drink bottles and tote bags are just some of the items advertised for sale on their website. Vials of sand from the beach at Gallipoli are also available. Marketed as “a real link to the Anzac spirit”, 10 per cent of all money raised goes to Soldier On.

It has been said that the Anzac tradition (mateship, larrikinism, distrust of authority) was born on the shores of Turkey.

Often referred to as the most sacred day in Australia, some are uncomfortable mythologising such a tragedy.

That the birth of a nation should be associated with the death of so many young men is being questioned by the Anzac Centenary Peace Coalition. The coalition – an ecumenical organisation – is an initiative of Christian peace organisation Pax Christi.

Rev Harry Kerr told Crosslight the coalition would like Australians to see the Anzac centenary as an opportunity to reflect on the true impact of war and find ways to create a more peaceful and just future.

“It’s often said that Gallipoli was when Australia became a nation. Therefore the nation was born in war and conflict. There is an implicit justification that we continue to live in war and conflict,” Mr Kerr said.

“We want to challenge that by first of all looking at Australian history and saying ‘Australia was a nation before 1915’.

“We had a lot of unique and fairly advanced features like women’s suffrage, the eight hour day, becoming a nation of migrants.”

Coalition members are also concerned that concentrating on the Anzac identity negates other significant historical events.

Most notable among these is Australia’s relationship with the country’s original inhabitants.

“One of the forums we ran looked at the forgotten wars that Australia has been involved in – such as the war with Indigenous people. This is a war we refuse to acknowledge actually happened,” Mr Kerr said.

“It comes down to what history is forgotten and what is remembered, it’s always a political process.”

Mr Kerr feels that unless we challenge long-held assumptions, events of the past will continue to shape our country’s future.

“In 1914, Australia identified very strongly as part of the British Empire. It continued a tradition of our involvement in wars that had nothing to do with Australia.

“Australia has not been able to become fully independent in that way where it can adopt its own foreign policy and see itself as a nation in the pacific region, rather than as an outpost of the West.”

Mr Kerr stresses that the coalition wishes to honour all those who have died in war, but feels the best way to do this is through continued efforts to promote peace.

But, in order to learn from history, that history must be accurate.

The Medical Association for the Prevention of War – in conjunction with the coalition – has developed a series of lessons regarding war they are offering to secondary schools.
The coalition is also holding a number of public forums and conversations in the lead up to Anzac Day.

“The Anzac commemoration was originally an opportunity to mourn for families who had lost loved ones, often on the other side of the world. There was no chance to go to the grave or hold a funeral. This was a chance to do that.

“These days you see a lot of young kids taking part because their grandfather or great grandfather was involved. When you ask what they are doing they say: ‘they died for our freedom’.

“Well, we were already free. They are receiving this myth. They died for somebody else’s flag.

“And we were free already.”

For more information contact: lorelt@optusnet.com.au or visit the Anzac Centenary Peace Coalition Facebook page.

An ecumenical service for the centenary of the Gallipoli landings will be held on 25 April, 11.00 am, St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne.

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