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Australia, PNG & Kokoda – an icon of true nation-building


NOW the patriotic and nationalistic breast-beating has subsided for another year it is worth considering what the annual Australian Anzac Day ritual means for Papua New Guinea.

The place of Anzac Day in the Australian psyche is complex. At its most simplistic, it is about remembering the soldiers who died in our many and often pointless wars.

At a deeper level it is about Australia’s place in the world and how that is expressed.

This level of expression has been changing over the years. It had a good kick along in political terms in the Hawke and especially the Howard years, when the association with nationalism strengthened.

In the beginning Anzac Day was about empire. The British Empire. While Gallipoli proved largely pointless and unnecessary – it was, after all, a military defeat - it was seized upon by politicians to herald Australia’s arrival, not as a nation but as a respected, contributing part of empire.

Australia, by sacrificing more than 8,000 of its young men at Gallipoli and more than 60,000 altogether in World War I, could claim to be doing its bit as part of that bloody empire.

That narrow interpretation slowly morphed into the idea that our ‘blooding’ at Gallipoli had somehow also heralded our birth as a nation.

The previous 120 years of pioneering effort and struggle somehow ceased to be relevant. It was the beginning of the unfortunate militarisation of Australia’s history.

However, the notion of Gallipoli as a focus of our history, patriotism and nationalism has that fatal flaw.

Whereas America has 4 July and France Bastille Day as defining moments in their histories, we have an ignominious defeat; an embarrassment linked to an event that had no significance whatsoever for our march to nationhood.

The only other event, Australia Day, has never inspired the Australian imagination apart from a few hoons driving around flying Australian flags on their vehicles. Australia Day, after all, is about Britain setting up a penal colony. For indigenous Australians it represents something far worse, the beginning of an invasion that cost many lives.

At first contact, it is estimated there were more than 250,000 indigenous people in Australia. When the massacres ended in the 1920, there were no more than 60,000.

This is where Papua New Guinea comes into focus.

Unlike the Boer War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is World War II that is considered by many Australians to be a ‘just’ war. In Australia’s case it was about repelling a possible invasion and it involved attacks upon our mainland.

If Australia is intent upon militarising its history and nationhood, the Kokoda Campaign is a more relevant point of reference. Unlike Gallipoli, it was a ‘just’ campaign fought for very tangible reasons.

On top of that, those ‘Diggers’ involved in the battles demonstrated all the qualities that Australia prides itself on: mateship, stoicism, inventiveness, irreverence and a healthy disrespect for authority.

Despite the bungling of the Australian government, those qualities won through and helped save our nation.

Of course, Papua New Guineans were deeply involved in the Kokoda campaign and an indispensable part of it. Without them the Diggers would probably have been defeated by the Japanese.

Defeating Japan in the Pacific was a defining moment for both Australia and Papua New Guinea and it should be celebrated together.

If those flag-waving zealots who converge on Gallipoli each year with little idea of what they are actually celebrating were redirected to Kokoda it would not only bring real meaning to Anzac Day as Australia’s national day but also strengthen our relationship with Papua New Guinea.

It is sad that any attempt at meaning these days is usually couched in economic terms but if it means Papua New Guinea making a few extra bucks along the way so be it.

Throw in an international football match, beef up security and it would be a great day.

Let’s forget Gallipoli and concentrate on Kokoda.


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William Dunlop

Paul. Well spoken, No wonder the Turkish commander, Colonel Mustafa Kemal Pasha, later Field Marshall, was to be called Kemal Ataturk when President of the Turkish nation.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I've just finished reading a collection of essays about South Australia in the years just prior to WW1.

The essays describe a host of South Australian and Australian achievements up to that period including the vote for women, introduction of aged and disabled pensions, child endowments and many more progressive social measures that were often world firsts.

In South Australia Aborigines had been able to vote and take up land titles since the 1850s.

The essays also detail the strident opposition to involvement in war in Australia, a movement partly born out of our experience in the Boer War, where we lost young men for an earlier pointless and brutal empire cause i.e. Gallipoli wasn't the first.

Those things truly register as nation building achievements.

William Dunlop

Philip. As an Australian by choice my sentiments entirely.

Several years ago the Darwin RSL commissioned a large mural on the foyer wall about Gallipoli,

After fleaing ears a suitable but smaller mural was placed on the opposite wall about Kokoda.

Paul Oates

While I agree with you Phil that ANZAC Day has changed over the years the essence of why Australians commemorate the anniversary of the first day of battle remains the same. It was the first time we as a nation of disparate states, together with our New Zealand friends, first combined to form a cohesive and organised operation.

That it took a war to get this to happen is lamentable but true.

Having twice been to the battle and burial sites on the Dardanelles, but not I hasten to add, during the time around ANZAC Day, the lessons to be learnt are as poignant today as they should have been then. Both Australia and Modern Turkey came of age during the battles and emerged as modern nations. That the Turkish people still respect Australians is demonstrated by at least two memorials depicting a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded digger to safety. Where else would you ever see that being depicted by a victorious nation?

The sites themselves are properly sign posted as places where no disrespect to those who died is accepted.

As a classic sign of conciliation, Mustafa Kemal’s words after the war had finished are worth repeating:

‘Those heroes that 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 the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours ... You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway 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.’

So yes, we need to learn from history and yes, and how wars between nations start is a good issue to commence. But we also need to remember why ANZAC Day is special to Australia and New Zealand.

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