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Gallipoli

The day began with me taking a shrapnel hit to the shoulder.

We boarded the bus at about 6:30am. Most of the seats were already taken with the bus having collected people from all over Istanbul before finally arriving in Sultanahmet. We were the second last pair to be picked up, and as such, we were forced to make our way to the back of the bus where there were a few vacant seats next to each other. Briefly after, the final pickup was made, and the final two passengers, a young couple, wandered their way through the isle and into the center of the back seat behind us. The bus took off again, but not five minutes later I heard the guy right behind me cough one loud wet cough, and then a low murmur from the rest of the back seat. I heard his girlfriend say under her breath “Nope, that’s it. We are not going…you are too sick” and the two wandered back down the isle in much the same way as when they came up it, only this time with red chunky porridge smeared across his face and her pants. The bus doors opened and they were dropped off under the hateful glare of the rest of the passengers, and a while later an American guy who was seated next to the couple leaned forward and broke the unpleasant news that I had been tagged. It was devastating.

I remember learning about the Gallipoli campaign when I was no older than eight, about what it meant to be an Anzac, about our Australian heroes, about the entire military debacle that resulted in the non-acquisition of strategic high ground in Turkey and, far more importantly, the deaths of thousands upon thousands of young men. I also remember learning that a lot of these men were recruited as cannon fodder, as a distraction from the main game (to open up the Bosphorus to allow for the free passage of Russia, that famous piece of water making its bloody mark on history once again). This sort of information has a very insignificant emotional impact when you are eight and have not yet fully grasped your eleven-times-tables, let alone your sense of self and how it is continually compromised by your existence in this world, war being the ultimate desecration of that self. But, this time around, I think that the tales of Gallipoli hit me on a deeper, and in most ways, a more disturbing level.

Our first stop was Brighton Beach, the intended landing spot for the troops, a beach that stretches across about a kilometer and has the terrain of an advanced golf course. As our guide held up a whiteboard and described the context of the landing at this beach and the intentions to cross the segment of land between Gallipoli and the Bosphorus, isolating the machine gun nests that protected the aquatic thoroughfare, behind us there was a group of middle-aged Turks playing soccer on the grassy area further back from the sand, thrusting forward in strategic attack and retreating hurriedly and dynamically in defense, cheering and laughing with each goal scored and with each completed play. I have often thought how different the world would be if the passions of war were redirected into an equally pointless enterprise to decide a victor, into some sort of globally approved sport or game (chess was the one that came to mind; its correlation with depth of thought, its stable rules and clear cut outcomes, and, most importantly, its strictly metaphorical violence). So, as he spoke about getting in behind the Turkish lines while a through-ball was passed to the striker behind him, the irony wasn’t lost on me.

After taking the time to absorb the crucial details of the place from the perspective of a landing battalion (its long and smooth gradient of a coastline, its patchy forestation as a means of cover, and its line-of-sight towards the desired objective) we were then driven around to Anzac Cove. The contrast was undeniable. If it were not for the currents, the dark, and the mass of casualties, Anzac Cove is such a small dent in the sheer coastline it would not even warrant a name. It is only known for its dead.

Sixteen. Twenty-four. Seventeen. Nineteen. As I walked past all the tombstones and the names on the walls I couldn’t help but remember back to what was I doing at that age, how unprepared I would have been to face my mortality. I tried to vividly picture myself in the position of launching up over the wall of the trenches at Lone Pine, testing my will against that of the Anzacs, seeing if I would be able to justify the sacrifice of my self in its entirety in the name of a cause I don’t quite understand. And I never could. Even in my imagination I would find myself shirking certain death, watching on with cowardice as 7000 bodies mound up in No Man’s Land, an area the size of two tennis courts.

Existential thoughts plague my mind whenever I tried to analyze why I did not jump. I question the purpose of the war not just in terms of a political or humanitarian context, but in the context of the existence of everything, and in some way I reason to myself that it would not matter if I did or if I didn’t as there is an absolute futility behind it all that deems me as universally insignificant. But, the inescapable fact remains that I don’t think I would jump, and to overcome that hurdle of thought would have required bravery and a temperament that I don’t think I would ever be capable of.

We were told about how compassion and respect for the enemy had been shown from both sides; the sharing of food, the ceasefire on days of significance, even an instance where a higher-ranking Australian officer was wounded in No Mans Land, and the Turks briefly waved the white flag so that they could carry him back over to the other side and continue the battle. There is a large statue commemorating this action, and it is easy to see that the Turks look upon this battle with a sense of national pride the same way that Australians honor the soldiers of the Kokoda trail, the successful defense of their country with the enemy at their doorstep.

Hearing these stories of “friendly warfare” provokes conflicting emotions in me. There is a sense of nobility about it, but I feel that the nobility is misplaced, and in some ways it trivializes war, attempts to justify it by making out that it is not the vile thing that it actually is. The recognition of a like-minded enemy before a bullet is put through that mind is like the taming of a wild animal before it is shot, one more step to decay the survivor’s soul.

Finally, the last thing that must be mentioned about Gallipoli is the juxtaposition of its grizzly history and the serenity and beauty of its scenery. It is a spectacular part of the world, and the preservation of it means that there has been limited commercial and residential build up. What you are looking at is almost exactly what they were looking at as they smoked their cigarettes and twitched with anxiety, as they attached their bayonets and wrote their letters, as they kissed their crosses and mourned over their mates. It is in some ways reassuring to think that one of the final images passing through the minds of the fallen would have been the Turkish coastline, flat green patchworks of varying darkness, a thin divider of pearly white sand and a cool blue ocean rippled by a light breeze. I highly doubt that it was any of these images that were on the mind of the soldier as he thrust himself over a sandbag and into the unknown, but I like to think that, in some way, it was the belief in this sort of perpetual beauty that would compel them to do so, the belief in a beauty that is indiscriminate of their own survival.

Oscar Wilde once said that “patriotism is a virtue of the vicious”. While I agree that in most cases patriotism breeds xenophobia and warmongering, I think that patriotism serves its place best in remembrance. Remembrance of your country’s part in the establishment of global stability, a sense of pride about the acquired respect of other nations. And by remembering this, it serves as a harsh reminder that war is the vilest of things, and that these sacrifices were made in the name of unity.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well

LEST WE FORGET