Remembering the remarkable John Guise
Baka Bina shortlisted for major literary prize

The sacrifice required to safeguard freedom

Dawn Service at McClaren Vale  2014
Dawn Service at McClaren Vale, 2014


ADELAIDE – With Anzac Day in Australia drawing to a close for another year, I want to make an observation on the public attitude towards it.

I attended the dawn service at McLaren Vale today, along with about 500 others. As many people did, I wore my father's medals with a sense of pride and gratitude.

Dad's war service had been a mixture of sometimes quite intense comradeship interspersed with moments of extreme terror and distress.

Incredibly, he and his aircrew mates survived no less than four crash landings precipitated by a Japanese fighter attack, two catastrophic engine failures and a terrifying bomb 'hang up' which resulted in an explosion that severely damaged the plane.

There was no glory in this, just terror and an astounding amount of luck.

About 15% of the McClaren Vale population turned out for the service, suggesting that Anzac Day is still seen as important enough to be commemorated at a very inconvenient but symbolically significant early hour of the morning.

Dawn Service at McClaren Vale  2014
British, New Zealand and Australian flag bearers, Dawn Service, McClaren Vale,  2014

The service itself was simple and respectful. Those who spoke stressed not the supposed glory of war, but the self-sacrifice and suffering it entails and the gratitude we should all feel for those who have fought and died for our freedom. It was conspicuously devoid of even covert nationalist rhetoric.

I agree with Phil Fitzpatrick’s view that at least some people, notably politicians, have to some extent fetishised and hijacked Anzac Day, investing it with hyper-nationalistic symbolism.

I doubt this was the intent of those who originally came up with the idea, notably amongst them General Sir John Monash, who was anxious that the sacrifices and suffering of so many Australians during World War I, the so-called 'war to end all wars', not be forgotten.

For Monash it was not an event designed to foster nationalist feelings.

The Anzac landing has now faded into the distant past and has been mythologised to a great degree.

It was, in truth, never a significant battle and is as much a tale of heroic Turkish resistance to invasion as it is of the undoubted courage and endurance of the Anzacs.

The battle on the Kokoda Track is well known but its significance is largely misunderstood, probably because, at the time, it was regarded as a defeat.

Indeed, in an especially shameful performance, General Sir Thomas Blamey, castigated the survivors for “running like rabbits” and dismissed their commander, Brigadier Arnold Potts, for his alleged failure to prosecute the battle aggressively enough.

This was an act that was, at a minimum, unfair, churlish and ignorant.

It appears to have been done to placate United States General Douglas McArthur who, despite having no idea about the conditions or circumstances applying to the campaign, formed the view that Australian soldiers were poor types who could not fight.

Later, of course, both men would learn some ugly lessons about fighting in mountainous tropical jungles and swamps but they should not be spared severe criticism for their deplorable early behaviour towards men who, in fact, had fought one of the most brilliant and heroic fighting withdrawals of the entire war.

Anyway, that is all history now. But it seems to me Kokoda was a hugely more important battle than the attempted invasion of the Dardanelles by the Anzacs.

The result of the Dardanelles campaign was an unambiguous and costly defeat for the allies, with Turkey fighting on for the remainder of the war.

On the Kokoda Track, the Japanese were fought to a standstill and then driven back the way they had come. Never again would the Imperial Japanese Army haveny significant victory against allied troops.

Paul Keating has always argued that Kokoda ought to be the focus of Anzac Day, but few others seem to share his view.

I suppose that, in the end, it does not matter greatly. The troops involved in both battles suffered and died on our collective behalf and it is to their sacrifice that we owe our ability to live in a free and democratic society.

As the current war in Ukraine (Slava Ukraini!) is demonstrating, sacrifice in war is not something we can ever take for granted.


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