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What Have We Learned?

Today is ANZAC Day. If you are from outside our region I should explain that this day commemorates the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ exploits in WW1, and more generally remembers the sacrifices made by all of our armed forces. This year was the 100 year anniversary of the disastrous ANZAC landings in Gallipoli during WW1 and there was a greater than usual participation in the annual ceremonies.

So, are there any lessons that we can take from what happened 100 years ago? The general message I get is the utter meaninglessness of the actions, and the ineptitude shown during the events at Gallipoli.

There had been good advice that the attack would not succeed, there were numerous battles within the campaign that were utterly pointless and close to certain suicide for the attackers. The British commanders were both incompetent and neglectful regarding the casualties they inflicted on the New Zealand and Australian troops under their command. And the political and religious propaganda used to support what was basically a poorly considered attack on another country was quite contemptible.

I’m not criticising our soldiers or even most of the New Zealand commanders. I am criticising those further up the hierarchy who sacrificed other people’s lives so easily. And I am criticising the politics that lead to the First World War even starting.

So we got involved in a war which was really nothing to do with us purely to support another country which we saw as being our leader in some way. Does this sound vaguely similar to more recent events? How about New Zealand sending troops to the Middle East to support a conflict which our American allies caused in the area? Have we learned anything at all from history?

I do have to say that I am not totally convinced that military action isn’t necessary in some cases but I am persuaded by some of the arguments of the pacifist commentators I have seen. In many cases real change is achieved through non-military means. After all, the greatest change in modern times – the demise of the Soviet Union – was not primarily affected by military action.

And I don’t think Islamic extremism is going to be stopped by military action either. In fact every military campaign in the Middle East seems to make things worse rather than better. Many people say that the rise of ISIS is a direct consequence of earlier American military action in the area. As long as militant Islam is engaged by western military power the problem is likely to get worse rather than better. As happened in the Soviet Union, change has to happen from within.

The New Zealand troops in World War 1 were expecting to fight the Germans, not the Turks. They were expecting to repel aggressive attacks into other countries, not attack an army defending its own land. They were expecting to have the moral, political, and religious high ground, not be a force wondering which side was really in the right. They were expecting to be lead by people with the greatest skills and with real consideration for avoiding unnecessary casualties, instead of leaders who treated them like cannon fodder.

And they were expecting to make a difference, which ironically they did by failing. But did it make enough difference? How many similar conflicts have we been dragged into since then by our powerful allies? World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East. Will it never end? What have we learned?

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