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Big Fights on Old Questions


How important is Gallipoli to Australian identity?

A row has erupted between Australia’s PM Kevin Rudd and his Labor predecessor Paul Keating over the importance of Gallipoli, a WWI battle site in Turkey.

Mr Keating dismissed as “nonsense” the view that a new Australian identity was forged in 1915 at Gallipoli, where 300,000 troops were killed or injured.

Mr Rudd disagreed saying: “It’s part of our national psyche, it is part of our national identity.”

Not being Australian, I can’t definitively comment on the importance of Gallipoli to national identity. However, Gallipoli does have a few of characteristics that mark it as critical national symbol. First, it was indeed an enormously costly battle, one of the first such fought by Australia. Second, it was a defeat; for some reason, defeats seems to produce national psychic markers more than victory. Finally, it was a defeat that could be blamed on the British. Australian national identity has little to do with any conflict against the Turks, but much to do with distinguishing Australia from Great Britain. The perceived British betrayal of Australia at Gallipoli would seem to provide this distinction, and thus provide the grounds for the creation of a real Australian national identity. I understand that the Dieppe Raid plays a similar, if more understated, role in Canada. Of course, Gallipoli is also crucial to Turkish national identity; Mustafa Kemal rose to prominence as a commander at Gallipoli, and this line is about as singular a distillation of the role of battle in modern nationalism as I can imagine:

I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders can come and take our places.

As is this, apparently inscribed on the Attaturk memorial in Canberra:

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 far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

In a rather more serious dispute:

A high-ranking Japanese military official was dismissed Friday for writing an essay stating that the United States had ensnared Japan into World War II, denying that Japan had waged wars of aggression in Asia and justifying Japanese colonialism.

The Defense Ministry fired Gen. Toshio Tamogami, chief of staff of Japan’s air force, late on Friday night, only hours after his essay was posted on a private company’s Web site. The quick dismissal seemed intended to head off criticism from China, South Korea and other Asian nations that have reacted angrily to previous Japanese denials of its militarist past.

Actually, it’s the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, not the Japanese Air Force. Anyway, in addition to claiming that Roosevelt tricked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor, General Tamogami asserted that many East Asian countries have a positive view of Japanese behavior in World War II (maybe he’s thinking of Indonesia?), and that Korea was “prosperous and safe” under 35 years of Japanese colonial rule. The article was apparently submitted for an essay writing contest on a website, and won General Tamogami $30000. Hope it was worth it…

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