The myth that binds
LOTS of questions remain about Gallipoli. And the debate about the details of the campaign will only intensify as its centenary comes closer. Australians will be bombarded by a government-financed commemoration that will produce an explosion of publications, documentaries and public events. All of them will be designed to cement the Gallipoli story firmly in the popular consciousness.
The usual questions will get another run, such as whether the troops landed on the wrong beach, or whether the plans of General Ian Hamilton were adequate for the task. The most important questions for Australians will not be asked. Yet they are crucial to our progress as a nation.
The questions we should be asking are: why has Gallipoli come to occupy such a central place in the Australian story? And has it played a mostly positive or negative role in our development? These questions need to be addressed if we are to be freed from the shackles of our dependent past.
Initially, Gallipoli was embraced as a way of closing the curtain on the shame of Australia's convict origins. The stories of the war correspondents allowed the international image of Australian manhood to be transformed from a cowering convict to a courageous soldier. From being the rejected detritus of British jails, Australians could project themselves to the world as being the bravest defenders of the British Empire.
Few publicly questioned the terrible cost - 8709 Australian dead - for no gain. And the architect of our war effort, Billy Hughes, ensured as prime minister that the official version of the Gallipoli story would be used to bind Australia even closer to Britain rather than advance Australia on the road to independence.
There might have been more resistance to the official story, but which nation wants to hear that the sacrifice of its sons was for nothing and that the courage of their soldiers was not extraordinary. Australians had a particular need to believe in the martial prowess of their menfolk. They wanted the blood of battle to invest them with the right to possess the continent they were still in the process of occupying.
Gallipoli gave Australians that battle in a way that the scattered skirmishes against the Aborigines never could.
It would have been more satisfying if the battle had been fought and won on Australian soil, rather than fought and lost on Turkish soil. Although far removed and ending in defeat, Australians could console themselves that the battle was fought in a region where mythic heroes had won fame in ancient times. And descriptions of the Australian soldiers freely compared them to ancient gods.
It was heady stuff for a people who had spent more than a century scrubbing away at the supposedly shameful ''stain'' of convictism. The accounts of Gallipoli gave Australians a new foundation story of which they could be proud. The story was shaped in such a way that the defeat at the hands of the Turks was somehow transformed into a story of triumph.
In doing so, Gallipoli gave Australians some confidence that their small population of barely 5 million, far less than the population of London, might be able to defend their huge continent. This was the real significance of the Gallipoli story, as it was told to successive generations of Australians.
Gallipoli provided a security blanket for a people who had feared since the 1840s that Asian nations coveted their continent and would one day invade it.
When the sons of the First World War Diggers, and some of the Diggers themselves, went off to the Second World War, they went with a swagger, self-consciously carrying the legacy of Gallipoli. Australians had convinced themselves, and many Britons as well, of their superiority as soldiers.
Consequently, there was a sense of panic in Australia, and a feeling of surprise and disappointment on the part of British leaders, when Australia's volunteer soldiers were unable to hold Singapore against the Japanese army. The men of Gallipoli were seen momentarily as ordinary mortals.
The Australian panic was quickly assuaged by the arrival of the Americans and the later success of the Australian conscript soldiers in holding back the Japanese soldiers on the Kokoda Track. The security blanket was back in place.
Yet that abiding fear of invasion was misguided. The only invading force that ever headed for Australia was led by Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788. Even when Japan had the chance to do so, it chose to send its forces elsewhere.
Australians have been loath to acknowledge the natural advantages we enjoy, occupying an island continent situated so far from possible powerful enemies. Perhaps more importantly, we have been slow to recognise we have become the rightful inhabitants of the continent that the early British Australians invaded and occupied.
We still embrace the myth of Gallipoli, which reassures us that we somehow excel at soldiering. But we are still obsessed with a fear of invasion. Taken together, the confidence that came from Gallipoli, combined with the fear of invasion, has left us with an unjustified swagger combined with a forelock-tugging dependence on great and powerful friends. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, it has been a costly combination.
David Day's history of Australia, Claiming a Continent, won the South Australian Festival prize for non-fiction in 1996.
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