For Australians and New Zealanders the 25th of April known as Anzac Day is writ large as the major annual occasion to remember those who died in war. On that date in 1915 Australians and New Zealanders fighting as one force (the ANZACS) for the one and only time, and albeit under British command, landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula of Turkey in what was to be an ill-fated campaign by the allies (Britain and France) to attack the heart of the Ottoman Empire which had unwisely allied itself to Germany. The whole operation was a total disaster and led to the resignation of Winston Churchill, who had promoted the campaign, from the British War Cabinet. After 8 months of bitter fighting when the Anzacs, British and French made very little headway and with the loss of 48,000 allied troops (including 9,000 Australians) and more than 86,000 Turks, the allies withdrew in December of 1915. Why is such an ignominious defeat commemorated each year by Australia and New Zealand as Anzac Day? Both were young nations fighting overseas in a major war for the first time and both “proved” themselves as a fine fighting force. It was later claimed that both young countries gained their identity through the bloody sacrifice of Gallipoli. So, while the day is one for remembering the dead, Anzac Day has a good deal to do with national identity.
It is interesting to note that this year it is one hundred years since the United States declared war of Germany in April 1917 following Woodrow Wilson’s famous address to a joint sitting of Congress. The recent series shown on PBS, “The Great War: World War 1 – America’s Coming of Age” was a timely reminder how US engagement in that war (which had been regarded as a “European War” up until that time) helped move the nation from its previous isolationism onto the international stage not only as a participant but as a leader. Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points” became a benchmark in the Paris Peace Talks in 1919. And it is not all that surprising that Canada looks to the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, when Canadians fought as a separate fighting force for the first time in battle, as “Canada’s Coming of Age.”
I am always impressed at the Anzac Commemorative events in which I participate each year (as the only Australian cleric in town) with the presence of the Turks who of course were the enemy in 1915. But for Turkey also Gallipoli is one of a number of military engagements led by the future founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which led to the birth of Modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
However, for all these lofty claims about the birth and re-birth of national identity being forged on the anvil of war, the rationale of any memorial day is the remembrance of the young lives who died in times of war. Sadly, those losses continue being inflicted right until the present moment in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. We must never forget those who died fighting for their country and those whose lives have been forever blighted by war through loss or injury. But, for those of us who are followers of the Risen Christ we need to recommit ourselves to do all we can to further peace, truth and justice in our world. Peacemaking starts right here and now. It is how we deal with each other and our neighbors, both the stranger in our midst as well as all who seem different from us. We might not be able to solve the Syrian war but we can start to model a way of living that treats all people as children of God, who are loved by God as we are.