Toy Guns, Toy Soldiers

Chris Danger on Gallipoli and Tony Abbott militarising memory.

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It was the toy guns that caught my eye first. They are not inherently strange things to sell, and nor were the camouflage t-shirt and (real) bullets displayed alongside. It could be standard fare, sans bullets, at any $2 Shop. This wasn't a $2 Shop, though: it was a Turkish war memorial on the Gallipoli peninsula.

Let's stop there. In my head, I had started formulating this piece as an experiential critique of war tourism's effects: “something that gets at Gallipoli as battlefield-cum-tourist attraction,” were my exact words in a rough pitch. I assumed Gallipoli’s bloody history would have been commodified, precious drops of commerce squeezed out of battle’s cold stone. I would have offered up a rootin', tootin', powerful-yet-nuanced take down outlining how each keychain and screenprinted hat slowly erodes and degrades the magnitude of sacrifice and suffering. 

But toy guns aside, my experience of Gallipoli was overwhelmingly different to my admittedly cynical expectations.

At 6.30am, a 24-seat bus with ‘Gallipoli Battlefields’ in large black Times New Roman down the side picked me up outside my hostel in Istanbul. Australians filled twenty-three of the seats. As we trundled south, twenty-four nicely cut cheese sandwiches were handed out. Drinks were served. And, despite my fears, the entire day unfolded with thoughtful arrangement and deep respect. (And just two rows of souvenir shops, both near Turkish memorials and mass graves, and hardly enough to moralise about.)

Our guide, Hasan, was a Turkish history student who fell in love with Gallipoli on a high school field trip. He has the grace of a funeral director, and you can practically see tact etched carefully into every facial expression. The first question he asks is whether anyone lost a family member at Gallipoli. Two hands raise: 9th Battalion, 6th Battalion. He knows the cemeteries where the 9th and 6th battalions lie — we’ll be going there after lunch, he says, and there’ll be plenty of time to reflect. He’s brought poppies — if you want one, see him later. And if anyone, upon returning home, discovers they lost a relative here after all, no problem. He’ll leave a poppy himself and send you photos, free of charge.

Within five minutes of lunch finishing we’re standing in a spot that tens of thousands died in vain to reach, and that even more died to protect. It’s then I realise I’m not entirely sure of my own motivations for coming to Gallipoli. I had family that fought in the Great War, though I’m not sure if any came here. I’d never really studied it, or had any keen interest. In hindsight, I guess I would put my visit down to a sort of nationalistic curiosity; a desire to experience and reflect on a place tragically seared into our shared consciousness. Erebus; Tangiwai; Bastion Point; Parihaka; Napier; Christchurch; Gallipoli.

What we know as Gallipoli, meaning the peninsula on which the Anzacs invaded, the Turkish national memory knows as Çanakkale. It's the key port city on the Dardanelles Strait which the Allied campaign sought to capture. The Çanakkale campaign is one of the most important military victories in Turkish history; a campaign which protected the motherland and began Mustafa Kemal’s ascension to father of the modern Turkish nation. Before I’m even in Turkey, Çanakkale is being remembered and celebrated with a large lift-out section in the Turkish Airways in-flight magazine.

It is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk whose words, carved in stone on the hills of the peninsula, shape the modern relationship between Turkey, Australia and New Zealand:

Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

It’s an odd thing to be one of the Johnnies; to be on the other side. A century makes a world of difference though, and you really can feel the strong Anzac-Turk kinship of today. In the Balkan states, my New Zealand passport is scrutinised and double checked, and officials ask what I’m doing there. In Turkey, nary an eyelid is bat. The significance of Gallipoli to the Anzacs is visible beyond the battlefield memorials. The town of Eceabat, across the Dardanelles from Çanakkale, has a kiwi painted in black on a building wall, as well as a Boomerang Café and the Hotel Crowded House. You don’t have to look far.

As you can imagine, juxtaposing histories can be a fraught and tricky business. History isn’t entirely written by the winners: instead, each side creates mythologies that justify and defend their countrymen’s actions, or pass the blame. Somewhere amongst the competing stories lies the truth, and it's quite literally buried here. With a salesman's craft, Hasan methodically unpicks many of the stitches in traditional Gallipoli narrative(s).

This was perhaps the most interesting part of my visit: the unravelling of the Anzac myths. Many of the things I thought I knew about Gallipoli were wrong: our soldiers weren’t machine-gunned down on the beaches as they landed, and the British didn’t send us to the wrong beach. We always intended to land on the cliffs and hills, not the flat land.

Anzac Day can be a difficult time to be a progressive New Zealander. Maintaining steadfast anti-war activism while remaining respectful to our veterans, their histories, and their families can be a tricky fence to straddle. (This has been the case for decades, but more recently, see the Morse flag-burning case, the VUWSA flag-burning debate, or even The Daily Blog).

And recent events have made the thin end of the fence even thinner: when Tony Abbott called today’s Iraq-bound soldiers “sons of Anzacs”, it was a rhetorical middle finger to the possibility that Anzac memorialisation could include those who opposed current political maneuvering, and not just those who supported it. In the aftermath, amidst a Facebook feed of commentary, a good friend of mine had summarised similar feelings more eloquently. Asher Emanuel writes:

“Politics, as Abbott ably demonstrates, can be the process of cowardly misdirection and exploitation. But abstaining from it won’t make Abbott go away. And politics is not necessarily politics as he practices it. It still has the promise of moral leadership, of the possibility that we might by the process of deliberation and debate become better people. I’m just at a loss as to how that politics can happen on a day like Anzac Day.”

For me, my experience of Gallipoli made me feel more comfortable separating the actions of today’s defence force and Government decisions from Anzac Day commemorations. I left feeling like it was possible to depoliticise the tragedy: possible to remember our past without invoking our future. Abbott’s words make this more difficult.

A century ago, thousands of young New Zealand and Australian men came to Gallipoli to invade a foreign country out of colonial loyalty. After the best part of a year, during which they didn’t advance past the ground they captured on the first day’s assault, they gave up. 2,779 died, 5,212 more were wounded. These men were soldiers borne of the politics of distant empires, compelled to fight by law or social pressure or both, and when all was said and done, a quarter of them never came home. To me, that doesn’t require partisanship or protest. The memories I have standing at graves in their thousands, marked and unmarked, make both seem too glib. I will spend ANZAC Day in quiet and respectful remembrance of a time we are lucky to have moved past.