A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Spinning the War

Jim Considine

Jim Considine

One of the most impressive monuments in Christchurch is the Bridge of Remembrance, battered now by the earthquakes, but still standing tall and proud. Many times over the years, I have paused and looked at the inscriptions engraved on its impressive walls, with places such as Passchendaele, the Somme and Gallipoli carved into the stone. Every year, commemorative wreaths are laid at its steps by citizens, anxious to remember those who died in the Great War.

The tragedy is that they were all victims of a huge propaganda machine which would have made Goebbels look on with envy. As the proverb says, ‘truth is the first causality of war.’ All wars are spun with gross deception and outright lies, and none more so than World War One. The beating of drums, conscription and the appeal to nationalism was overwhelming. Little did our young men know when they left with such high hopes that 18,166 of them would be killed in battle or die horribly from its effects.

Battles, like that at the Somme, witnessed slaughter beyond imagination with 60,000 deaths in one day, 1.2 million by the time it finished. What madness! Gallipoli was little better. A disaster from day one. The statistics for WW1 could go on – 16 million lives lost, 36 million casualties, 6500 ships sunk by German U-boats, 1.2 million soldiers horribly gassed, tens of millions shell-shocked.

And for what? Four losing empires were dismantled, their territories carved up, seeds sown for future wars. The winner-takes-all Treaty of Versailles set Hitler and a humiliated Germany up for World War II. We never learnt then. We still haven’t. Witness Iraq.

French 2nd Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire wrote home saying, ‘Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what we are doing. What a massacre. What screams of horror and carnage. I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad.’ No glory here. No romance.

Yet here in New Zealand, we have commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing almost like a sacrament. This is holy ground! Few seem to question it. This is not happening by chance. This commemoration has been skilfully engineered. It is propaganda at every turn. Anzac Day has become a sacred icon to the ‘heroic feats of war,’ rather than a solemn recognition of the demonic presence of violence, carnage and death. The subliminal message is insidious. War is sanitised under the banner of heroism.

Sadly, many New Zealanders have also embraced the notion that our identity as Kiwis is somehow tied at the umbilical cord to Gallipoli. This is not to question the courage of those who fought and died there. But let’s not forget they were invading a foreign country thousands of miles from their own unthreatened homeland. They had no business being there. No wonder the Turks fought with such vengeance.

Gallipoli has been milked to the nth degree by vested interests in NZ as we have commemorated the centenary of that landing.  To challenge the widely held perception that this was all about gallantry is to risk being accused of trivialising the ‘heroic sacrifice’ of our soldiers. Questions of loyalty and patriotism are raised, friendships strained.

Despite many recent documentaries and films about the casualties WWI inflicted, why are we elevating Anzac Day to rank as a virtual second founding day of our nation? The Gallipoli campaign it commemorates was an absolute disaster. Talk about sending lambs to slaughter! Such was the horror, most who survived wouldn’t talk about it for the rest of their lives.

On the 100th anniversary, the massive propaganda effort by the Government and all major media outlets was mind-blowing. We were saturated with dawn-till-dusk war stories. ‘Dear Jessie’ letters from the Western Front, or ‘my granddad’s great-great Uncle Bert from the Somme,’ read during prime-time TV may well help the ratings, but will do little for the soul of this nation. There has been no mention of the conscientious objectors who refused to kill an unknown enemy, nor other New Zealanders who opposed this war on moral grounds. Nor 100 years of peace-making since.

Thirty years ago, New Zealand stunned the world, stood up to the biggest empire on earth and said ‘no’ to nuclear powered or armed ship visits to our ports. The world accepted we stood for peace-making, not war. We stood for something different. For a short while, we stood close to the  last words and command of the non-violent Jesus, ‘put away the sword.’ Since that time, we have struggled to maintain that non-nuclear position. We are still holding on by our finger tips, despite the US repeatedly shaking the branch. That is something to take pride in.

Ironically, the Anzacs fought to bring lasting peace. Let us truly acknowledge their dreams by honouring peacemakers and peace-making – not sanitising war .   

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