On the eve of ANZAC Day, the day when Australia takes a day off work to pause and reflect on what ANZAC Day means to them I thought that I would take some time t0 explain what this day of memorial means to me as an Australian.
To me, first and foremost ANZAC day is about remembering the landings at Gallipoli on the 25th of April, 1915, the first time we fought as a nation for Queen and country.
This was a day where we went to war and faced incredible challenges, landing at the place now known as ANZAC Cove, in a hail of gunfire, our young men having to dodge heavy fire from troops fighting for the Ottoman Empire, now known as Turkey.
Australia sustained heavy losses in this campaign, thanks largely to unforgiving terrain and the well-prepared and alert Turkish troops that were able to pounce and inflict devastating losses on our troop deployment to this far-off land. This mission inflicted a heavy toll of dead and wounded in the Australian contingent, with 26,111 casualties, 8,141 of which were fatalities, a truly devastating statistic for a campaign that ended just 8 months later on December 20, 1915.
As the acronym subtly suggests, the day is one to also remember our fallen friends from “across the ditch” in New Zealand, who went into combat with us during that part of World War One. They too sustained heavy losses with 2,721 soldiers killed, about a third of the Kiwi contingent of 8,556 troops that landed on the shores of Gallipoli on April 25.
ANZAC Day has evolved to mean much more than just the first combat mission we undertook under the Australian flag with our allies. Now it is also about remembering the troops past and present who have served and died or been wounded under the banner of Australia in all operations from Gallipoli onwards, including in World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, East Timor, the Solomon Islands and more recently Afghanistan and Iraq.
To me, commemorating ANZAC Day has nothing to do with glorifying the act of war like critics of the day and of participation in conflict in general suggest, it is purely and simply about acknowledging that loss and the part that the past has played in our identity whether it was positive or negative, which in itself is an inherently subjective judgement anyway.
The day beginning with the dawn service is one that should be beyond politics. Yes war and conflict is a truly sad and unfortunate reality in the world, but the people involved have been sent there by government to participate because those in power have decided for a reason, be it sound or not, that our presence has been required in a particular theatre. To diminish the loss of life and the injuries sustained by questioning war on this day is folly.
There have been both “good” and “bad” wars, if I can phrase it that way, but we cannot rewrite history by arguing against the pros and cons of each particular conflict we as a nation have been involved in prosecuting, but clearly we should take lessons from them.
ANZAC Day is also a day to reflect on events of history and to learn about our involvement in the the politics of the world and our place in the history of it. To learn about history will help us understand the future as many have said in the past and that knowledge translates into the power to shape our future, another cliche also apt when thinking of ANZAC Day.
The day is also one of a more deeply personal nature for me, for although I never met him, my grandfather’s brother, John Mickle Tait was shot down over Leipzig in the plane he was Air Gunner in over Germany in April 1945 as the second world war involving Germany was coming to an end, a loss that came devastatingly close to having been avoided, just weeks prior to German surrender.
There is no doubt that there will be differing reasons, some deeply personal, some based on a learned history which will colour your the way you go about your ANZAC Day. For me it will be to first and foremost remember the loss to my family in World War Two. But it will be to also remember all of those who have served, in all wars and to learn more about our history.
Lest we forget.
New Senator for New South Wales and Foreign Minister designate has used his first trip overseas to visit our long term ally in the far reaches of Earth, New Zealand. The incoming Minister for Foreign Affairs headed there this week to meet with parliamentary colleagues while he finds his feet in the crucial role.
But is it smart for our new Foreign Minister to visit New Zealand ahead of all other nations in the region, some of whom we share a strong or growing relationship with and others with whom we have struggled in recent years, think Fiji and Papua New Guinea, the latter with their own political strife in recent times.
Nobody doubts the importance of New Zealand to our defence interests in particular with our southern partners across the Tasman being a long-time ally, particularly since the ANZUS Treaty was signed, but harking as far back as when the ANZAC legend was born on the shores of Gallipoli.
New Zealand are our strongest friends but also the most stable of nations in our immediate international region and a growing trade partner with whom we share a great history in realms other than defence relations. This is precisely why the wisdom of New Zealand being the first port of call for Bob Carr above all other neighbours in our dynamic Asia-Pacific region.
There are multiple countries in our immediate vicinity where our diplomacy is required for reasons including political stability, security and action on people smugglers and asylum seekers.
Think most recently of Papua New Guinea, a country where in recent months and years there has been some very serious political instability at the very top tier of government, with former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare at loggerheads with the parliament and his own party, aspects of the police and the military and even senior officials of the judiciary.
Thankfully there has not been a successful coup in the country over the power struggle, although a temporary “mini coup” of sorts by a small part of the security forces in one part of the country shows that the country is far from stable, even if tensions have been suppressed since that moment.
Fiji is another country requiring some serious attention from the Australian Government, even though this has been made all the more difficult by the expulsion of the acting Australian High Commissioner to Fiji.
The coup where Fijian Commodore Frank Bainimarama was just one in a serious of military overthrows of democratic government in the country over the last twenty plus years and has led to freedom of speech being completely overrun with foreign-owned media expelled, making it harder for reporting of human rights violations.
There are positive signs with consultations on a new Fijian Constitution initiated, to be completed in 2013, but it remains to be seen whether the deeds will meet the words of another Fijian dictator.
Further, the Commodore has stated that 2014 will be the year when democratic elections will return to the small multi-island nation in our region so our work in the region, through multilateral bodies and non-government organisations will be to help ensure, albeit from a distance, that this timeline will come to fruition and be met at the earliest possible opportunity, with 2014 still being too far away.
Indonesia is another nation in the Asia-Pacific that deserves our ongoing attention at an intense level with security concerns post the Bali bombings continuing to be an issue not just for Australians travelling to the country for holidays and business, but also for a regional response to people smuggling which runs rife in the country and the broader asylum seeker issue.
A large number of Australians travel to Indonesia, particularly the capital Jakarta and Bali for both business and leisure activities each year so this requires intense diplomatic efforts in mutual security support in an attempt to make sure that our two nations do all they can to stamp out terrorism activities in the south-east Asian nation.
Australian attention is also needed with our partner Indonesia, to ensure that people smuggling is combatted at the source in Indonesia in efforts to stem the flow of boats which can lead to the drowning of asylum seekers. This can be done on a bilateral basis, but also as part of the so-called Bali Process of nations in the region. This must mean that all nations in the region sign up to the UN Refugee Convention and agree to take on their share of asylum seekers.
In the broader Asian region there are other countries which need to become more open, democratic and free, such as Malaysia and Singapore, so focusing an initial trip on peace-loving New Zealand, whilst important must not neglect those nations in our region where there is much work to be done to ensure they enjoy the freedoms that both our nations have enjoyed.