The young reshape Gallipoli and maybe a nation

Yesterday was a time to reflect — on a defeat and a journey.

It is a journey in parallel with Australia, though Australians seldom see it that way and we have for long periods travelled wide apart from each other. And it has been a journey of many hesitations, only now gaining firm direction.

Gallipoli punctured the imperial triumphalism of a young, ultra-loyal colony. It scythed through the raw settlements. Worse followed on the western front.

Historian and poet Keith Sinclair saw in Gallipoli the beginnings of national identity. Television documentary makers still parrot that line.

But Sinclair was premature. James Belich got it more nearly right in chronicling a recolonisation of this country through the early years of last century. New Zealand went to Gallipoli as a province of the British Empire. The war carnage sobered and seared this outpost but did not decolonise it.

Sixteen years after Gallipoli New Zealand rejected Britain’s invitation, in the Statute of Westminster, to take its independence. The ratifying law was enacted only in 1947. In the second world war where Britain stood we stood, where Britain went we went, in Australian-born Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage’s immortal formulation. So we kept troops in Europe to fight Germans at Winston Churchill’s request, to the fury of the Australians who pulled theirs back east to fight the Japanese threat.

We revere Churchill for facing down his war cabinet appeasers of Germany in his early days as Prime Minister in 1940. Had Britain not fought on, the fascist darkness in Europe would have lasted much longer.

But we might rightly revile Churchill as the architect of Gallipoli. It was a wild adventure with little chance of success and even had it succeeded had little chance of achieving its grander objectives. (And ditto in a minor key for squandering more of our young men in a hopeless gesture in Greece and Crete 26 years later.)

Anzac was cannon fodder in Gallipoli. Young men (boys even) went for adventure and were mired in slaughter.

But a sonorous mythology arose around it: baptism of fire, coming of age, Australians and New Zealanders brothers in arms, Anzacs.

We might think so. Australians by and large don’t unless prodded. In Australia, the NZ in Anzac is mostly silent (as it is officially in Anzus), except where joint ceremonial makes it inescapable. Across large tracts of officialdom and the commentariat the dominant view of this country is as a military backslider unworthy of the Australians’ Anzac tradition. New Zealand is, simply, incomprehensible.

Don’t we share closely similar colonial origins and institutions? Do not our citizens mingle easily in each other’s country, even able to tell rude jokes about each other? Are not our economies deeply integrated and headed towards a single market? (Though some troubled water is yet to flow under that bridge before it is built, about which I may have more to say next week.)

Well yes. But the culture on this side of the Tasman is becoming more “Pacific”, as the numbers and confidence of Maori and other Polynesians grow and their inventiveness in music and art also grows. Australian incomprehension is likely to continue to grow.

But we do share the fact of Gallipoli and the fact of Anzac Day. And in both our countries Gallipoli has an iconic dimension.

Back in the late 1960s Anzac Day here had become a day of contention (as Waitangi Day later became).

We shall remember them, sermonisers intoned of those who “served” their imperial masters in 1914-18 and the cause of liberty in 1939-45. But numerous young people instead insisted on disrespectfully remembering what was going on in Vietnam, a war in which this country was a very reluctant participant.

As a young journalist at that time sent to a dawn parade I asked respectful open-ended questions of veterans sipping their tea (and rum?), expecting talk of comradeship and heroes and freedom. To my naive astonishment they talked instead of mud and poor food and tribulations. The editor spiked the story: it was the wrong colour.

Now young people turn out to ceremonies respectfully and make pilgrimages in thousands to Gallipoli.

What are they seeking? My guess is that, subconsciously at least, the military hell and bravery in that defeat forms for them an ingredient of nationhood.

In 1915 Gallipoli was an imperial excursion which turned to horror and ended the convenient fiction that war and glory are bedfellows.

We did not make a nation there. That came 70 years later with the rise of a truly independent expression in film, writing, art and music.

But Gallipoli has itself become a convenient fiction, a useful myth, in our developing sense of nation. It didn’t “shape the nation”, as one newspaper headline simpered last week. But young people are reshaping Gallipoli and in doing that they are in part shaping a nation.

That is Anzac Day now: not just the past but a future, which only the young, by their actions, can describe to us.