Being a migrant is a strange journey at times. You have to learn a lot about the new society you enter. Some lessons are learned quickly, others take time and much understanding until you feel at ease.
One of the harder lessons for me as a migrant to Australia was the celebration of Anzac Day. My head spun at the idea of glorifying war and remembering the fallen. Back in Germany during my upbringing this would have been interpreted as nationalism and strictly forbidden considering what it has caused us to do in the past.
For many years I generally avoided driving my cab on Anzac Day, but despite some considerable apprehension (and being dead broke) one Anzac Day I decided to work.
I was wary of picking up ex-servicemen, thinking that some of them fought against my people and lost many of their friends in these battles. So when I came across a group of four passengers, blokes who did fight in WWII, and honestly conveyed my feelings to them, I received the most amazing reaction.
Touching me gently on the shoulder, one of these fellows said, “Don’t worry about it son, all of us were soldiers and we had a job to do.”
I will never forget the sentiments expressed and the graciousness displayed by these men.
This year celebrates (is that the right word?) the one hundredth anniversary of WWI and, next year, it will be the one hundredth anniversary of Gallipoli. A big day for Australia, one of national pride and remembrance. Much is made of this military campaign, with the suggestion that Gallipoli is a founding block of this nation, one that should be remembered as an event that shaped the society we live in.
Gallipoli shaping the nation?
Something we should be proud of?
Let me take a few misconceptions out of that abhorrent idea. The campaign that was waged in the Dardanelles was a total disaster, a massive waste of human life, and whatever idiot came up with the idea of fighting an enemy in that terrain was definitely stationed in a ship safely anchored offshore with not a bullet in sight.
I fully understand the enthusiasm displayed by young Australians at the time to go and fight for the Empire, but any bloke being dumped on that beach knew they were going to die sooner or later. Technology also played a big part – until WWI the British fought many a glorious war, such being a driving force for young men enlisting, but this war was fought with a new invention – the machine gun – perched high on top of a hill.
The notion of “mateship” is always attributed to Gallipoli, almost as though being invented there for the benefit of future generations. I guess that’s all these poor fellows had – their mates looking out for each other and accompanying them to death.
And then there are other myths constructed around the Gallipoli campaign. Take Simpson and his donkey: “What a great Australian, saving the lives of the wounded,” most would say.
The truth is Simpson was an Englishman who enlisted in Australia because he wanted to go home, and this was his free ticket to get back to Europe. A real hero “our” Simpson was, I take my hat off to him. The Turks watched him do his thing for a long time before one became bored and decided to shoot him.
As always the real misery during the was was back here in Australia among the families of the fallen, where whole country towns were in mourning as “the letters” arrived not just at one house but also next door and across the road as well. All those broken hearts, and let us not forget those poor fellows who made it home, traumatised and damaged for the rest of their lives.
So, whatever you tell me about this tragedy in Australian history, please don’t expect me to see this event as a foundation of this nation. All Gallipoli presents is a tale of the stupidity of war and the waste of human life for someone else’s economic or political gain.
As to the huge celebrations we saw yesterday, a word from Robert Manne.
One of the most interesting and unpredicted features of recent times is the way so many young Australians have been drawn to Gallipoli and Anzac. My guess is that they are attracted by the need to feel they belong to something larger than themselves and, living as they do in a hedonistic age, by astonishment at the sacrifices young men in a different time had been willing to make.
Some of that rings true, but in my experience Anzac Day for the young is an activity that involves a big booze up, playing two-up and socialising with your friends. I’ve had plenty of youngsters on the back seat of my car on Anzac Day telling me “They died for us” before collapsing in a drunken stupor.
Lest we forget, I will remember all of them.