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Anzac Day and the pageantry of deception

April 30, 2024 at 6:30 pm

Mounted police are seen heading Anzac Day parade at Shrine of Remembrance memorial in Melbourne on 25 April 2024 [Alexander Bogatyrev/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

On 25 April every year, the military parade can be witnessed along Melbourne’s arterial Swanston Street with its banners and crowds bedecked in medals, ribbons and other decorations. Many will have been on their feet since the Anzac Day dawn service, keen to show that they “turned up”. Service personnel are marked by a sprig of rosemary.

The greater the pageantry, the greater the deception. In the giddy disruptions caused by war, this tendency can be all too readily found. The dead are remembered on the appointed day, but the deskbound planners responsible for sending them to their fate, including the bunglers and the zealous, are rarely called out. The memorials are filled with amnesiac sweetness, and the successors of those planners are always happy to add to the numbers of the fallen to be remembered on future April days.

Anzac Day tends to be saccharine and tinged with words about sacrifice, a way of explicating the unmentionable and the barely forgivable.

But make no mistake, it remembers when Australians and their counterparts from New Zealand in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, bled on Turkish soil in a doomed First World War campaign. Modern Australia, a country rarely threatened historically, has found itself in wars aplenty since the 19th century.

The 1915-196 Dardanelles (or Gallipoli) Campaign was conceived by the then First Lord of the Admiralty thousands of miles from Australia in Whitehall. Like many of Winston Churchill’s military ventures, it ended in calamitous failure. Today’s Australian officers and politicians extolling the virtues of the Anzac soldiers tend to ignore that fact, as well as the inconvenient truth that Australians were responsible for a pre-emptive attack on the Ottoman Empire to supposedly shorten a war that lasted in murderous goriness until November 1918. To this day, the Turks have been cunning enough to treat the defeated invaders with reverence, tending to the graves of the fallen Anzacs and raking in tourist dollars and pounds every April.

For the Australian public, it was far better to focus on such words as those of British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett written on the occasion of the Gallipoli landings: “There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and the storming of the heights.” Ashmead-Bartlett went on to note the views of General William Birdwood, British commander of the Anzac forces at Gallipoli: “He couldn’t sufficiently praise the courage, endurance and the soldierly qualities of the Colonials.” They “were happy because they had tried for the first time and had not been found wanting.”

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In March 2003, these same “colonials” would again participate in the invasion of an independent, sovereign state, claiming, spuriously, that they were ridding the world of a terrorist threat in the form of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, whose alleged weapons of mass destruction were never found, and whose subsequent overthrow led to the fracturing of the Middle East. Far from being an act of bravery, the move in alliance with the US and the UK was a thuggish example of gang violence against a country weakened by years of sanctions.

When options to pursue peace or diplomacy were available to them, Australian governments have usually chosen to be slavish and supine before the dictates and wishes of other powers keen on war. War, in this context, is affirmation, assertion, cleansing. War is also a sign of a chronic lack of imagination, and an admission of diplomatic failure and inferiority.

Anzac Day 2024 was acrid with the stench of future conflict. Australia has become, and is becoming increasingly, an armed camp for US interests in a war that will be waged by dunderheads over such island entities as Taiwan, or over patches of land that will signify which big power remains top dog and ascendant in the Indo- and Asia-Pacific. It is a view promoted with sickly enthusiasm by press outlets and thinktanks across the country, funded by the Pentagon and military contractors who keep lining their pockets and their bank accounts.

Central to this is the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the UK and the United States, which features a focus on nuclear powered submarines and technology exchange that further subordinates Australia, and its tax paying citizens, to the whims of Washington. Kurt Campbell, US Deputy Secretary of State, cast light on the role of the pact and what it is intended for in early April. Such “additional capacity” was intended to play a deterrent role, always code for the capacity to wage war. Having such “submarines from a number of countries operating in close coordination that could deliver conventional ordinance from long distances [would have] enormous implications in a variety of scenarios, including in cross-strait circumstances.” That’s Taiwan sorted, then.

Ultimately, the Australian role in aiding and abetting empires has been impressive, long and dismal.

If it was not throwing in its lot with the British Empire in its efforts to subjugate the Boer republics in South Africa, where many Aussies fought farmers not unlike themselves and their parents, then it was in the paddy fields and jungles of Vietnam, doing much the same for the US in its global quest to beat off atheistic communism. Australians fought in countries they barely knew, in battles they barely understood, in places they could barely name.

Anzac Day is an occasion to commemorate the loss of life and the integrity of often needless sacrifice. But shouldn’t it also be an opportunity to reflect and understand that a country with choices about going to war and living in peace has too often decided to jump on the warmonger bandwagon? The pageantry of deception in this process risks being repeated time and time again.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.