It is expected that in marking the centenary of the First World War over the next four years the Australian Government will spend in the order of $500 million, a major portion of which will go on the celebrations at Gallipoli on April 25th next year.
Some important questions arise from this. Where are the political and military forces taking us in the increasing obsession with WW1 and Gallipoli in particular; and why? What are the implications of the increasing religiosity surrounding Anzac all around Australia? Is this what we want? If not, how can we redress this? What are we not seeing clearly enough?
It would seem no other event quite touches us and makes us feel one people as this badly planned, disastrous defeat at the hands of the Turks. It was Australia’s first major step into the world as a sovereign State. We had come of age. Despite the terrible consequences we have come to look back with pride at the forging of an Australian identity at Gallipoli. In the true meaning of religion as that which brings unity to a community and a people, Anzac Day has become the most religious day in our calendar, and people are beginning to actually ‘feel’ this and be moved by it. A whole new generation is coming on board. It does what no formal modern religion can do; it makes us ‘feel’ one people regardless of race, creed or colour. Surely this is a good thing? The thousands of innocent ordinary men and women who went to the slaughter are our national heroes, our ‘gods’ whom we commemorate with increasing pomp and ritual, recounting the myths about them as they tell us who we are as Australians.
But is this really the truth? Is this direction good enough? In the many books and articles that are appearing as reflections on this most terrible of wars, a recurring theme is the failure of leadership, both political and military. The cause of the war is seen no longer as the murder in Serbia of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in a Europe frothing with sovereign hubris. Rather, as historian Margaret MacMillan argues clearly, the key cause of the war was all too human failure. In the words of her reviewer Paul Ham, “One of MacMillan’s recurring themes is that the political leaders were simply not up to the job. Many were unintelligent, utterly unversed in statecraft and promoted above their ability. Her portraits of the bumbling politicians and bewhiskered generals who ran the world make a superb case for the prosecution against inherited power”. Even the best of them made terrible mistakes, none more so than the decision to attack the Turks at Gallipoli, something Winston Churchill went out on a limb for and for which he had to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Is this increasingly recognized failure of political and military leadership the other side of the coin that needs to be acknowledge and apologized for 100 years later. Is this what might save us from the religiosity that appears to be emerging as the ‘powers that be’ pour large sums of money into our war rituals? Do we need in these Centenary celebrations to really come of age and recognize that while it is entirely appropriate we recognize the ordinary men
and women who died or were injured in the course of the war, we also need at the same time to have the courage to apologize to them for the mistakes and bungles of our leadership that put them unnecessarily into places where the likelihood of death was so much higher. Can those in power now apologize on behalf of those in power then?
Another way of looking at this is to recognize that the origins of religion are in sacrifice, human sacrifice, and in the myths and ceremonies that grew up out of such ritualized and legitimated violence there was a necessary cover up, a hiding of the fact that the sacrifices were of innocent victims, be they human or as happened later animals. You covered this up by divinizing them. Students of religion know that where ever ritualized violence is witnessed or commemorated it is an entirely legitimate question to ask, what is being covered up here?
The religiosity that is growing around WW1 and in particular Gallipoli appears to be really touching this archaic origin of religion, despite the universal religions that broke away from from such sacrificial origins. There is power to centre and unite a nation here, as it appears to be doing for Australia. The legitimate and necessary question to ask is ‘What is being covered up?” I put it to you that the answer to this question is the failure of leadership.
In the promotional material around Patrick Buchanan’s book Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, we read:
In this monumental and provocative history, Patrick Buchanan makes the case that, if not for the blunders of British statesmen - Winston Churchill first among them - the horrors of two world wars and the Holocaust might have been avoided and the British Empire might never have collapsed in ruins. Half a century of murderous oppression and scores of millions under the iron boot of Communist tyranny might never have happened, and Europe’s central role in world affairs might have been sustained for many generations.
Can we the ordinary people of Australia from whose families so many went forth in innocence to their death or wounding now respectfully ask that along with the acknowledgement of these deaths we also receive an apology from representatives of those privileged with the authority and power to so order the circumstances that allowed these deaths to occur in the first place, particularly where such ordering was blatantly in error.
Would it not be a true and fitting centenary memorial if representative leaders from all sides of the conflict that was WW1 gather at the many occasions that will occur over the next four years, and in particular at Gallipoli next year, and while acknowledging the dead and fallen also apologize for the many failures on all sides that was the cause of their deaths.
To further perpetuate a suspect religiosity by not acknowledging at the same time what it is helping to cover up will not serve us well in the future when our security will increasingly be dependent on our willingness to face the truth and acknowledge all our shortcomings. The madness of war can no longer be afforded. This is what our centenary reflections on WW1 and Gallipoli must teach us. The time for apology has come.
David Oliphant is a Uniting Church minister living on the far south coast of NSW.