Gallipoli – the fatal car park


I just can’t believe it. After a fortnight expecting the unfolding of a great national scandal, it seems the Howard Government has gotten away with desecrating Anzac Cove to make a tourist road and car park.

The facts are now staring us in the face, even if the Prime Minister won’t acknowledge them – preferring to stick his head in a filing cabinet full of worthless assurances.

A three-lane road and related car and bus parks are being constructed on top of the unmarked graves of Anzac, British and Turkish soldiers – if bodies ground into fertiliser by Krupp field guns can be called graves. Read any of the histories of the Gallipoli campaign: Anzac Cove is an ossuary of the finely powdered bones of young Australian men.

And the whole project – and this has been confirmed by the Prime Minister – is being undertaken not only with the blessing but at the urging of the Australian Government, which wants the tomb robbing complete for the ninetieth anniversary commemoration dawn service.

Thanks to Gregory Day

Thanks to Gregory Day

On the strength of the evidence, it seems John Howard is responsible for irreversibly damaging one of the most iconic sites of Australian history – considered by many to be more important than Botany Bay, Uluru, the Sydney Opera House and the Kokoda Track – for the sake of a trouble-free media event.

Ask yourself a question: if Paul Keating had done this in 1995, what would John Howard have made of it? He would have turned it into an example of the way an arrogant government was trampling on the patriotic symbols revered by ordinary Australians.

One misplaced word on our soldierly past is enough to draw a hurricane bombardment of derision on contrarian intellectuals, accusing them of insufficient patriotism, but Howard can get away with bulldozing Ari Burnu. He deserves the most severe public censure.

That the Prime Minister has so far largely escaped serious criticism is a tribute to his formidable political skills: first trying to blame the Turks; then citing ‘advice’ that no remains have be found; and finally gagging parliamentary debate through offers of departmental briefings to his Labor opponents and the use of brute numerical force in the House of Representatives.

Why has this outrage happened?

Why is John Howard using the bones of Australian dead as industrial fill for a Turkish car park?

It’s the story of more than a decade of mounting pressure on places like Anzac Cove, caused by decisions made sometimes with the best of intentions but inevitably corrupted by political motives.

It began with the Australia Remembers campaigns of the early 1990s. But the political use of our military and their past has been accelerated since.

From the late 1990s John Howard has succeeded in subtly harnessing military imagery into his political strategy.

When he committed Australian troops to East Timor in 1999, the Prime Minister discovered something important to his subsequent evolution into a man of steel – that when Australian troops are sent to the field, public criticism of the government usually stops and is seen as unpatriotic.

Perhaps this is the best context in which to interpret his next crucial military command decision – to get a detachment of the SAS to board the Tampa, in full view of the cameras, when a few lightly armed customs and immigration agents and a squad of doctors would have been more appropriate. Howard had successfully militarised the incident in the lead up to an election.

Emboldened by this, the 2001 election campaign became an endless series of troop farewell photo opportunities – with John Howard’s microphone conveniently propped in front of armoured personnel carriers, naval frigates and C-130 Hercules transports.

As the war continued, Howard’s iron support of the troops was contrasted with Labor’s opposition to their deployment.

Along the way, John Howard has learned a valuable lesson – that identification with young Australian soldiers, living and dead, is a universal antidote to public criticism, a way to demonstrate strength, and a sure fire way to increase your standing in the Newspoll. And it’s a good way also of appealing to the predominantly blue collar mums and dads of the young men and women sent overseas.

We truly kid ourselves when we think that politicians – of all hues – will not try to exploit war and its memory for political gain.

None of this is to deny the heartfelt nature of the Prime Minister’s identification with our young servicemen and women.

Like many Australian political leaders his family was touched by war. His father and grandfather both fought in Northern France in World War I, and famously met up in the village of Clery on the eve of the great battle of Mont St Quentin in 1918. The Prime Minister has every right to be proud of his family’s martial history, and identification with the Anzac legend is a genuine part of his understanding of our nation’s story.

But it’s also a story he has used in his long and determined battle to re-write the cultural origins of our nationhood. How could he be a party to the politicisation of Anzac and the destruction of Anzac Cove given his own family’s sacrifices in the Great War? How could he?

In broad terms, in Howard’s view the things we most often associate with the Aussie spirit – mateship, solidarity and the fair go – weren’t forged in the political upheavals that produced the eight-hour day, the arbitration system and industrial protectionism; they were forged under Turkish gunfire at Ari Burnu, Baby 700, Lone Pine and the Nek.

The sight of tens of thousands of generation-Xers at the dawn stand-to at Lone Pine fills John Howard with hope that the egalitarian ethos that once defined the nation is dying out.

Which leads us back to the justification for that road and those car parks.

By encouraging a new generation to be more ostentatious in its patriotism – in contrast to the more restrained remembrance of previous generations – we’ve placed enormous pressure on the fragile landscape of Gallipoli.

In Alan Seymour’s great play about the meaning of Anzac Day, The One Day of the Year, the Gallipoli veteran, Wacka, says of the Anzac Cove landscape: ‘It was all declivities, see. Declivities. ‘Oles and slopes and dirty big boulders. And bare. I’ve never seen country like it before or since, even out here.’

Well, Wacka, old mate, it ain’t declivities no more. The fox holes and the trenches, the beach and the heights are now the sort of landscape you can see anywhere – levelled under Turkish bulldozers to build a road and a car park so our Prime Minister can have a seamless media event this Anzac Day.

Maintaining the integrity of places like Anzac Cove is important, not just for historians. When we ask young men and women to put their lives on the line for our freedom, they must be absolutely certain that their memories and remains will be treated with unqualified respect. It’s part of the contract of military service in a democracy. ‘Some corner of a foreign carpark’, just doesn’t have the right degree of solemnity. Would the Americans have allowed this at Gettysburg, Pearl Harbour or Pointe du Hoc?

So this 25th of April, instead of reflecting the many contradictory themes of Anzac Day – the sublime courage and the gullibility of youth, the sacrifice of the young by impetuous and foolish old men, the scandalous mismanagement of the Gallipoli campaign itself, and the utter madness of the Great War – we have another, infinitely more squalid and dispiriting cause for reflection: John Howard’s wanton destruction of Anzac Cove to cover himself in glory.

Shame on you John Howard.

Gregory Day’s new book “The Patron Saint of Eels” out next week through Picador and Pan Macmillan Australia

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