Eamonn McCann: Rage not reverence should mark first World War commemorations
Like the Kiwis and the Aussies, the Irish too, were flung to their deaths like fistfuls of chaff
‘It is right and proper that all those killed in the first World War should be remembered. But they should be remembered with rage against the obviously predictable futility of the enterprise and of the crime which it represented against humanity, not with reverence for a sacrifice well made.’ Above, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (right) and Defence Force Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin at the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, France, April 26th, 2015. Villers-Bretonneux was the site of fighting of allied forces against German forces in April 1918. Photograph: REUTERS/Brad Hunter
Scott McIntyre was sacked last week as a sports presenter on the Australian TV network Special Broadcasting Service for having tweeted acerbic comments about Anzac Day – the annual commemoration on April 25th of the role of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli in 1915.
“The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society,” was McIntyre’s opening salvo. Australians should rather be “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs”.
The anger has been phenomenal. An online petition calling for McIntyre’s sacking attracted a reported 180,000 signatures in a day.
The country’s communications minister Malcolm Turnbull denounced him as “despicable . . . difficult to think of more offensive or inappropriate comments.” Twenty-four hours after the messages were sent, SBS announced it had “taken decisive action to terminate Mr McIntyre’s position with immediate effect”.
Anzac Day is of huge significance in Australia and New Zealand. Australia had become independent 13 years before the outbreak of the first World War, New Zealand six years later. The white section of the population regarded itself still as empire-loyalist, but now with this difference: that in joining the conflict as independent entities, they could see themselves as having taken their place among the nations of the world.
The writer of Waltzing Matilda, Banjo Paterson, caught the note perfectly: “The mettle that a race can show/Is proved with shot and steel/And now we know what nations know/And feel what nations feel.”
McIntyre had trashed the foundation myth. More generally, he had drawn attention to the way soft-lit Remembrance is used slyly to promote wars of the present and future. On a visit to New Zealand on the eve of Anzac Day, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott referred to soldiers fighting in the Middle East today as “Sons of Anzac”.
There are no exact parallels with Ireland’s experience, except in this: that the sentimentalisation of slaughter which McIntyre lost his job for exposing is evident, too, in the memorialising of the Irish misled into following England’s flag. Like the Kiwis and Aussies, they, too, were flung to their deaths like fistfuls of chaff.
The attack on Turkey was intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war and clear the path for Tsarist Russia through to Constantinople. In the longer term, it can be seen as the moment when Britain and France stepped decisively into the Middle East to replace the Ottomans as imperial rulers, then to draw the boundaries of invented nations, the better to divvy up the resources of the region between them. (A glance at today’s news pages will tell how that one worked out).
It is right and proper that all those killed in the first World War should be remembered. But they should be remembered with rage against the obviously predictable futility of the enterprise and of the crime which it represented against humanity, not with reverence for a sacrifice well made.
How can it be that crowds gather today with heads bowed for the victims but no show of anger against those responsible nor firm resolution of Never Again. How can there be commemorations of the 1914-1918 war which are not also anti-war demonstrations?
Herein, of course, lies the reason rouge is freshly applied every year to the skeletons of the fallen. In repose now, still beautiful, all worth it.
There is a positive side. After McIntyre had been battered for a couple of days, a different response began to emerge. A number of commentators spoke up, some to endorse what he’d said, others to defend his right to have said it. “It took four months for the defenders of free speech to move from #JeSuisCharlie to #SackScottMcIntyre” wrote one correspondent in the Sydney Morning Herald.
After apparent hesitation, the Australian journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, came out strongly in McIntyre’s defence.
Perhaps some who are sick in their souls at the drenching of Ireland in toxic Remembrance will be encouraged to disrupt the displays of consensus.
In the 1970s, the Scots-Australian song-writer Eric Bogle adapted Banjo Paterson’s anthem: “They gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia/The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane, those proud wounded heroes of Suvla/And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay, I looked at the place where me legs used to be/And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me, to grieve, to mourn, and to pity./ And the band played Waltzing Matilda . . .”
Very many of us who have no time for the nationalist falsifications of the history of the Easter Rising are nevertheless content that it was far better to die ’neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sedd el Bahr. We should be saying that out more loudly.