Monday, May 18, 2015

Griffith Review 48 Enduring Legacies

The modern world was shaped by the wars of the twentieth century. The centenary of Gallipoli provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the many wartime legacies – human, political, economic, military – that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions. The carnage of the world wars, and those that followed, gave extra meaning to the phrase 'lest we forget'. Beyond the commemorations, consequences still reverberate.

Exploring the consequences of Australia's involvement in war with a critical and inquiring eye, Griffith Review 48: Enduring Legacies assembles a team of scholars, non-fiction and fiction writers, journalists and broadcasters to pose hard questions about why we remember and what we forget. How did the wars shape Australia socially, economically and politically? How did they alter the understanding of Australia's place in the world and in our region? Did Gallipoli mark the coming of age of the new nation, or did that war devastate its potential?

I recently returned from a brief trip to Australia where the "BRANZAC" debate, the commercial exploitation of the 100th Year Commemorations of the Gallipoli landings, has been raging.  Australians, it seems. at least in the major dailies are keen to honour their fallen.  An that is perfectly understandable.  But the way it's gone about and the shunning of any deeper debate or inquiry is less than palatable.  In issue 48 of the "Griffith Review", a regular publication of Brisbane's Griffith University, tackles war through the Aussie lens.  In 21 short essays, nine memoirs, a work of prose fiction and one poem this journal seeks to explore the enduring legacies of war.  "The modern world was shaped by wars of the 20th Century.  The centenary of Gallipoli provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the many wartime legacies - human, political, economic, military - that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions."  This is the standpoint from which we begin the journey.  Peter Cochrane, in "The past is not sacred", seeks to challenge the dangerous obsession with the myth of ANZAC, the connection with the returned servicemen's need to find honour and fulfilment from a time of futility and waste and the rhetoric of politicians like Tony Abbott who send troops to modern day Iraq under the banner of "The Spirit of ANZAC." He dissects the reasons for Australia's need to go to war in 1914 and how that has been overshadowed by the spectre of 'sacrifice'.  That's a common theme here too, in New Zealand.  Raise a conversation about how our troops were duped by incompetent British commanders and a false dream of adventure and you'll be knocked back by aghast listeners who will immediately reply "My relative died in that war, are you calling them naïve and stupid?"

Cochrane notes with despair how the Australian press have  whipped up the Commemorations into a untouchable and sacred edifice.  He quotes the Australian from 2013 on the nation's perceived response to any in-depth academic analysis of Gallipoli.  "They (academics) must recognise that the current intellectual zeitgeist is at odds with the spirit of Anzac (note the lower case spelling, now a noun not an acronym). It recognises neither the significance of a war that had to be fought nor the importance of patriotism.  Honour, duty and mate ship are foreign to their thinking.  They may be experts on many things but on the subject of Anzac, they have little useful to say." It is this very message that Cochrane tears down, as does the rest of this editing of the Griffith Review.  In her introduction Co-Editor Julianne Schultz reminds us that the Great War did not "make" Australia and the myths of Baptisms of Fire or Freedom from Bloodletting are very naïve attempts to curtain the historical motivations of the time.  In New Zealand, I'm sure we all argue that we were a nation of settlers obsessed by the superiority of England and all things British.  But in Australia, barely a nation, more a collection of states and colonies, the people were more independent and divided.  This was also a social laboratory and a world leader of what colonisation could achieve, indigenous segregation and their poor treatment aside.  In several places the questions of why Australian needed to flex it's muscles and prove its worth when it was already so far ahead are asked time and again.  Because it was this driver that encouraged so many young men to enlist - to prove Australia (and here too, in New Zealand) could cut it on the world stage. 

With vigour and creativity, prominent Aussie academics and four Kiwis, including military scholar Chris Pugsley tackle 20th Century Wars and the dirty secrets that lie under the surface.  These go further than WWI, stretching right up to Afghanistan but dwell mainly on the earlier, where rightly distance of time allows subjective, at least in part. Pugsley's "Breaking Ranks" essay has to be the most thought provoking, after Cochrane's.  It's a fascinating breakdown of the official reporting of Gallipoli loses and of four controversial memorials erected at Gallipoli.  He also looks at the legacy of the losses on Massey's post war government (97% of New Zealanders were hurt or died on the peninsular, compared to 22% of British troops).  New Zealand poet Rosetta Allen writes about Japanese Kamikaze pilots in "Dear Mother" - "I am your sacred cherry blossom /that falls in the spring... I kept my daughter's dollhouse close/Pinned to the steel of my cockpit."  It's a moving essay from the pilot's perspective, perhaps an attempt to understand...ultimately unanswered.
Fred Dagg (aka John Clarke) writes of his neighbour in "A remarkable Man", a simple memoir of a time in war, but well balanced, and a response to that age old adage of regret "we learned to cope!"   

The Griffith Review won't be the only voice of debate in this commemorative year but it might be the most sane to date.  I've read many books already that tackle different aspects of the war but nothing is as poignant or a well informed, travelling between high level political and socioeconomic to individual and very personal accounts and critiques.  For all this it proves the sheer capacity for us all to think.  It's just a shame that our leaders and politicians don't read this before they act.