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Commemoration reticence

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 25 November 2014

I must admit that I am irritated at the constant media attention to the one-hundredth year anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign and the almost unquestioned assumption that this event marked the birth of the nation. While the pointless tragedy of the campaign may have given Australians pause when thinking of loyalty to England, and thus helped us detach ourselves from our colonial past, it is difficult to see the connection between the national character and the event. The experience of "the band of brothers" in battle is surely not confined to Australians fighting abroad. Men who share danger are universally bound together. So it is a far reach to see values such as mateship and self sacrifice as forged from uniquely Australian experiences.

A new history wars has began over this led by a group calling itself Honest History that challenges the myth of national identity. The point is made that commemorations serve a political agenda, one that is difficult to argue against, given that it involves the death of so many young men and any demurral appears callus and unfeeling.

It is significant that the idea of sacrifice is at the centre of memorialisation of war. The logic is simple. These men made the "ultimate sacrifice" so that we could live in freedom; a logic that holds even for WW1 during which Australian shores were never threatened by an enemy. This understanding is reflected in the speech given by the Minister of Veteran Affairs at Lone Pine this year: "As our nation enters its most important commemorative period, no Australian now or forever, must ever forget that the freedoms we enjoy today were paid for in blood nearly 100 years ago." This is nothing less than the establishment of a civil religion meant to claim the imagination of the nation to perpetuity.


By positing the birth of national identity and freedom on the beaches of Gallipoli we automatically discount the real history and formation of the nation. This is to be found in the history of settlement, the journeys of exploration, and all that is held in geography, sociology, politics, religion, science and economics. Why, I wonder, do we insist that the birth of the nation is associated with a military disaster? Australia was never born out of war, we have never had a robust military culture as exists in America and existed in Prussia before WW1. I hesitate to say it but there is something religious in our focus on a blood sacrifice that in the Christian context is not exactly healthy.

I have a hunch that the increased popularity of Gallipoli commemoration is due to a thirst for religious experience; to stand before something grave and terrible that dwarfs our petty interests. We experience transcendence. It does not matter, therefore, that the myth of national identity is a fraud, the feelings are real and feeling is at the centre of religious experience.

My problem with this is that while being reminded of awful death and waste does produce deep feelings, it is not obvious where it leaves us. It is like living in a perpetual Good Friday. Morals can be struck from the experience but they have to be couched in terms of a quid pro quo and we know that such a deal is only burdensome. It kills us with duty and guilt.

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the deep North. is an antidote to the over-reach of the centenary and the general hand waving about its importance. Here is an interpretation of a very dark event that involved Australian soldiers on the Burma railway. While history will give us the facts, it is the novelist who can tease out the meaning of such an event.

We find, for example, that reliance upon national character, British pluck, for example, was short lived, as was muscular Christianity. The spirit of Japan only led to more and more cruelty. The brutality of the Japanese, the diseases of starvation, the forced work without rest, the fecund jungle conditions that supported tropical ulcers, malaria, beri beri, pellagra, cholera and gangrene broke men down and killed them regardless of national pride or religious belief. There was no thought of sacrifice, only the day-to-day grind of survival.

Flanagan tells the story from the view of Australian POWs and their Japanese guards. The sole reason that thousands of lives were lost building the railway was that the Emperor willed it. The faulty logic of the task that asked the impossible, that a railway be built by hand in a tropical climate by men reduced by starvation and disease snags in the mind. It was here that the Japanese commanders relied on the Spirit of Japan that they were sure would triumph over their lesser enemies whose chief offence was to survive capture.


Emperor worship is exposed as an absolute monotheism to which all humanity was to be sacrificed. This is how the commanders rationalised their brutality. It was an honour to die for the emperor. Absolute monotheism breeds dehumanisation because humanity is nothing before it. We have had our fill of it in the twentieth century. What was National Socialism in Germany, or the Communist state in Russia, or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia but a kind of absolute monotheism/hegemony that slaughtered millions on the altar of an idea? Each of these movements defied rationality and the nature of the real world was their undoing.

I wonder if the dark events in the history of the church, the crusades, the witch-hunts, the pogroms against the Jews and the inquisition occurred under the shadow of just such an absolute monotheism. Did the church lose the gentle Galilean in its rush to cling to orthodoxy or to safeguard the Church? Did the theology of the Trinity that included Jesus in the godhead, fail?

The great strength of The Narrow Road is that it follows the protagonists to their deaths in the years after the war. Nakamura, the Japanese commander, tries to become a good man, a father and a husband. He is haunted by monsters and it is only during his last days dying of throat cancer that his pretence at goodness deserts him. He dies viciously attacking his devoted wife and daughters who attend him. A bad death for one who thought that life and death were indistinguishable.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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