In 1915, my country said, “Son-
“It’s time to stop rambling, there’s work to be done.”
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun.
And they sent me away to the war.
Today is ANZAC Day, the 99th anniversary of the start of the Gallipoli campaign. ANZAC was originally the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, raised to help the British Empire during the Great War. ANZAC Day has become a general day to honor the military and broadly reinforce nationalism and militarism, but like its parallels in other countries, originally it was a popular commemoration of a tragedy.
The tragedy was the death of over 100,000 men on both sides in a particularly futile campaign during the Great War. As conceived by Winston Churchill and others, the invasion of Gallipoli was intended to open another front in the war, take pressure off the Russians and perhaps draw some of the Ottoman Empire’s traditional enemies into the war on the Allied side.
Nothing of the sort happened. Like so many of Churchill’s idiotic and monstrous plans, all the invasion of Gallipoli created was horror. All the hideous ferocity of early 20th century warfare was concentrated on one narrow, rocky peninsula. Heavy artillery and disease ravaged the Allied and Turkish forces, leaving well over a quarter of a million dead and wounded.
Like Veteran’s Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada and the United Kingdom, ANZAC Day began as a solemn occasion dedicated to remembering a great tragedy born of folly, but as elsewhere, the forces of militarism and nationalism continue to try to subvert these occasions into glorifications of the nation and of the military.
And now every April, I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march-
Reliving the dreams of past glory
As a veteran it is tempting to fall into this trap. We long to believe that our suffering was not in vain, that our dead friends did not die senseless deaths. All humans want to rationalize their suffering, and for military veterans our militaristic culture offers a readymade rationalization broadly supported- we fought for freedom, we suffered honorably, we are brave heroes.
The truth, though, is bitter. We were deceived. We fought for the interests of our rulers, and now that we are no longer fighting they have no use for us. We kill ourselves at astronomical rates, we struggle to find work, our families disintegrate. Many of us end up homeless or in prison. And the people we fought, they were never our enemies. They were worse off than we are now, they were invaded and occupied by angry young men from an alien country. And while we came home, they are still there.
I see the old men, all twisted and torn:
The forgotten heroes of a forgotten war.
And the young people ask me, “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question.
As veterans, we must not be props. We have done more than enough for the ruling class. We do not need to allow them to use our experiences as recruiting tools. We must see clearly and face the reality of what we were, what we did, and how we were treated, even if that means denying ourselves the comforting self-deceptions the warmongers proffer. They won’t give us adequate health care, they won’t give us jobs or places to live, because giving us these things does not serve their purposes the way telling us we are heroes who fought for good does. Every child wants to be a hero. We did. We mustn’t let them use us to fool our sons and daughters the way we were fooled.
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
And the old men still answer to call.
But year after year, their numbers get fewer-
Someday no one will march there at all.
When Harry Patch, the last veteran of the trenches of the Western Front, died in 2009, for the first time it occurred to me that one day no one alive would remember the Battle of Haifa Street, or Route Tampa and Route Irish, or any of the other little incidents that made up my war. I felt a strange peace at that thought. One day, all those horrors would pass out of living memory. As veterans, we can play a key role in ensuring that no fresh horrors replace them.