Friday, 24 April 2015

Remembrance and hypocrisy

One hundred years ago the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed on the coast of Gallipoli in Turkey, their mission being to take out the Ottoman artillery which had held back the Allied navy from securing the region. The immediate objective was to allow military traffic between the West and Russia, while closing it off for the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; in the longer term, the British Empire hoped to gain privileged access to Middle Eastern oil, having recently upgraded their navy from coal-powered to oil-powered ships. Reconnaissance of the area had been grossly inadequate, and the Anzacs found themselves facing a steep slope and a well-prepared enemy. The Ottoman army couldn’t stop the landing but easily prevented the Anzacs from advancing past the beach. A classic war of attrition followed, with corpses mounting on both sides for very little strategic gain.

New Zealand and Australia commemorate the anniversary every year on what we call Anzac Day. It’s become a bigger and bigger thing recently as the centenary approaches. Red poppies appear all over the place like Santa Clauses at Christmas, phrases like “Honour the Fallen” and “We Will Remember Them” being the equivalent of “Season’s Greetings”. Predictably, our cultural gatekeepers seem to have decided that the Fallen are best honoured by sanctifying the lies that got them killed. But they’ve revised and updated them, because “freedom and democracy” are more appealing causes nowadays than “king and country”. I suppose that’s progress of a sort. (World War II, at least the European arena of it, could reasonably be called a war for freedom and democracy; World War I cannot.)

At least the Anzacs at Gallipoli were all volunteer soldiers, not conscripts. The following year New Zealand passed an Act of Parliament drastically reducing the permissible grounds of conscientious objection – you only got out of military service if you belonged to one of three small religious groups who believed God forbade it. Otherwise, you were arrested and shipped to the front by force. Then you were punished like any disobedient soldier, which as flogging had recently been banned typically meant you were tied to something and left there for hours, often in places likely to come under enemy fire. Deserters were shot, and in some places advancing troops were followed by squads called “file closers” with orders to kill straggling men of their own side.

I wear a white poppy on Anzac Day, not a red one. I don’t do it to disrespect the soldiers who have died in war, though that accusation was certainly levelled at the white poppy when it first came into the public eye a few years ago. The thing is, wars kill more than just soldiers. We in the West are in the privileged position of losing only soldiers to war, because in the last seventy-odd years we’ve always been the invaders, and it’s been Johnny Foreign across the sea whose civilians get the pointy end. It is a terrible thing to be sent into harm’s way by your government, but it is also a terrible thing to be cluster-bombed, napalmed, mined, or drone-struck. Those who call my concern for the latter an insult to the former will get no respect from me.

Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and John Key, having zero sense of irony, have decided that the centenary of Gallipoli is a good time to have Australian and New Zealand military personnel headed for a conflict in the Middle East. This is particularly poignant for New Zealand, since we proudly abstained from George Bush’s Iraq War. OK, sure, ISIS are very bad people, and they are killing lots of people. That actually doesn’t make it OK to go around killing just as many people ourselves just in the hope that some of them will be ISIS.

ISIS may be doing things that are as bad as what the Nazis did, but they are not the threat that the Nazis were. They don’t have the industrial infrastructure to produce armaments, they don’t have productive land to feed soldiers on. Cut off their supply of weapons and they’ll be stuck. I’m no military strategist, but wouldn’t a moratorium on the arms trade be just a little bit helpful here? As for the human rights violations, surely the least the West could do is open our arms to refugees from the conflict. If we’re going to go in there at all, let it be to help smuggle innocent people out. Well, New Zealand isn’t increasing our refugee intake this year, and – look, just go and Google “Australia refugees”, OK? I’ll wait.

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