The First Casualty of War is Truth; Gallipoli, the ANZAC Spirit Myth and Waltzing Matilda

Gary G. Kohls, MD

“We’re not made by God to mass kill one another, and that’s backed up by the Gospels. Lying and war are always associated. Pay attention to the war-makers when they try to defend their current war. If they’re moving their lips they’re lying.” -- quote from Catholic Worker ex-priest and antiwar activist, the late Philip Berrigan, who spent a total of 12 years in jail for a variety of inspired antiwar resistance actions.

Not too long ago I watched Johnny Got His Gun, the film adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s famous antiwar novel with the same title about a young American soldier who came home from the trenches of World War One France, having miraculously survived an artillery explosion that blew away his face, as well as both legs and both arms – not to mention his dog tags. The helpless victim was being kept alive in the back wards of a military hospital by his “caregivers”, probably out of scientific curiosity. The doctors and nurses treated him as a vegetable that was unable to communicate. Moreover, the staff believed that he was unable to perceive pain or have feelings.

Because the military didn’t want the public to be aware of this horrific example of the gruesomeness of war, he was segregated (as is still done to this very day in veterans’ hospitals and nursing homes) to a locked room where nobody would be able to give witness to his plight. A series of flashbacks provided sympathetic evidence of the victim’s innocent pre-war civilian life and total lack of appreciation about the ghastly reality of organized mass human slaughter that is modern war.

What was most moving about Johnny Got His Gun was the fact that the victim, kept alive by a stomach and tracheotomy tubes, was actually quite aware of his surroundings and what was being done to him without his consent. Finally finding a way to communicate with his caregivers, the story ends with no certain resolution, forcing the viewer to think about end of life ethics, militarism and the lies, half-truths and cover-ups of the consequences of war.

Several years ago I read portions of a book by Phillip Knightley entitled The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker.

Knightley convincingly tells us that in order to start or perpetuate a war, a nation has to lie, and the lies start with the approved war correspondent or “embedded” journalist who obediently only tells pre-approved versions of what is really happening in the war zone.

It is a historical truth that if an aggressive nation-state can’t get its intended victim to start a war, it can always cunningly provoke him into drawing “first blood”. That, of course, goes for most bullies, even the playground ones.

In the case of wars, aggressor nations can distort the truth by claiming self-defense as the motivation. Invasion and occupation can easily be obfuscated by the nation’s propaganda machine by calling it “liberation” or “protective custody” rather than the criminal acts of theft and murder. Sadly, whistleblowing truth-seekers who try to expose the truths about the dirty underbelly of war usually are silenced and accused of being unpatriotic or subversive or, in the case of capitalist or fascist nations – “soft on communism”.

Promoting lies and half-truths about a nation’s wars has certainly been true of most kingdoms, empires and other totalitarian states, and that includes the Greek and Roman Empires, the British Empire and the various Fascist imperialist powers like Hirohito’s Japan, Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, and it has also been true of almost every American war in recent memory.

Gallopoli and the
ANZAC Spirit Myth

Several years ago I saw a Mel Gibson movie titled Gallipoli. The film superficially told the story about the ill-conceived plan to invade World War I Turkey in 1915. The plan was hatched by the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who, after realizing that the war had turned into a stalemate in Europe, assigned the British Navy to open a second front against Germany in the East.

The plan was to open sea lanes to the Black Sea (in order to supply Russia with armaments) by invading and conquering Istanbul, one of the choke points in gaining access to the Black Sea. The necessary first step was to occupy the narrow sea lane to the Black Sea, called the Dardenelles strait, which was bordered on each side by land that was held by Turkey, an ally of Germany.

The Gallopoli peninsula, on the Adriatic side of the Dardenelles, was the initial target of Churchill’s invasion plan, and on April 25, 1915, a massive invasion force of mainly British Empire soldiers, including green Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (aka, ANZAC) troops. It was the first time Australian and New Zealand conscripts had fought a major battle, and they found themselves, on day one, trapped on the beach below machine gun nests of the Turkish army that inflicted massive casualties. 35,000 Anzac troops died in the 10 month campaign, with the troops mostly immobilized and pinned down from the well-protected cliffs above them. The Gallopoli invasion was a ill-advised logistical nightmare that should have been, but wasn’t, seen by the military strategists beforehand.

To really appreciate the truth about the Gallipoli disaster, interested readers should go beyond watching the movie. The real story of the 250,000 total casualties suffered by both sides can be found by googling “Gallipoli Disaster Documentary” and watching the 5 part series. Gallopoli is just another example of yet another shameful episode in the history of warfare that was lied about and/or unreported at the time by the few war correspondents, military leaders and politicians who were either witnesses or accomplices of the disaster but who refused to tell the embarrassing truth. The documentary evidence uncovered by unbiased historians tells a vastly different story than what was told during the war.

And yet, almost a century later, Australia is still in denial about the reality of Gallopoli, and somehow, proudly celebrates the covered-up reality every April 25th, the anniversary of the Gallopoli invasion that led to such senseless death and dying.

Down Under, April 25 is called Australia Day, and the national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda”, is played reverentially on that day – and often during the rest of the year. Most non-Aussies don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, but they like the catchy tune. The song lyrics tell a strange tale about an loveless, solitary outback vagabond (whose knapsack he calls “Matilda”) who inadvertently poaches a sheep from some One Percenter absentee landowner and then drowns himself in a deep pool when the police are about to arrest him for his “crime”. Odd theme for a national anthem that seems more like a drinking song, but it is far easier to sing than the Star-spangled Banner.

An internet site says this about the song. The explanation may help to explain what patriotic Aussies call the “Anzac Spirit” (see below for more):

“To non-Australians it must seem strange that this much-loved Australian song does not refer to the land itself, but rather mourns the suicide of a thieving vagabond. Nevertheless, “Waltzing Matilda” somehow speaks to the strong anti-authoritarian and independence streak in the Australian psyche, as it represents the battler struggling against the wealthy and being one with the Australian bush.”

Most Australians have been led to believe in, through repeated propaganda lies that have obscured the truth over the last century, what they like to call the “Anzac Spirit”. As I understand the concept of the Anzac Spirit, it represents the courage and loyalty to the Crown that the first Anzac infantrymen exhibited in their baptism of fire in 1915, obediently (and blindly) following the suicidal orders of their commanding officers to go “over the top” over and over again into the deadly machine gun fire. Certainly their misbegotten, almost congenital sense of patriotism was facilitated by the patriotic history book version of WWI, fabricated by nationalist pseudo-historians in order to avert attention from the sad fact that the whole fiasco at Gallopoli was totally unnecessary. Not only that but it was bungled and then misrepresented to avoid the fact that the deaths of the 35,000 Anzac troops were totally in vain.

The following antiwar song, singer-song-writer Eric Brogle’s “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, tells the poignant truth about the futility of war and the cognitive dissonance that keeps Aussies focused on the song rather than the many unwelcome truths about war. It was written in 1971 and provides a “mike check” dose of reality to a world awash in war. It should be listened to with the story of Johnny Got His Gun in mind. We Americans could learn a few lessons by searching for similar inconvenient truths about any of our recent military misadventures. They are so numerous as to be uncountable.
The Band Played
Waltzing Matilda

By Eric Bogle 1971 -

When I was a young man I carried me pack And I lived the free life of the rover From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback I waltzed my Matilda all over

Then in 1915 my country said: “Son, It’s time to stop rambling, there’s work to be done”
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda When the ship pulled away from the quay And amid all the tears, flag waving and cheers
We sailed off for Gallipoli

Well I remember that terrible day
When our blood stained the sand and the water And how in that hell they call Suvla Bay We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter

Johnny Turk, he was ready, he primed himself well He rained us with bullets, and he showered us with shell And in five minutes flat, we were all blown to hell He nearly blew us back home to Australia

And the band played Waltzing Matilda When we stopped to bury our slain Well we buried ours and the Turks buried theirs Then it started all over again

Oh those that were living just tried to survive In that mad world of blood, death and fire And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive While around me the corpses piled higher Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head And when I awoke in me hospital bed And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead I never knew there was worse things than dying

Oh no more I’ll go Waltzing Matilda All around the green bush far and near For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs No more waltzing Matilda for me

They collected the wounded, the crippled, the maimed And they shipped us back home to Australia The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla

And when the ship pulled into Circular Quay I looked at the place where me legs used to be And thank Christ there was no one there waiting for me To grieve and to mourn and to pity

And the Band played Waltzing Matilda As they carried us down the gangway Oh nobody cheered, they just stood and stared Then they turned all their faces away

And so now every April I sit on my porch And I watch the parade pass before me I see my old comrades, how proudly they march Reviving their dreams of past glories
I see the old men all tired, stiff and worn Those weary old heroes of a forgotten war And the young people ask “What are they marching for?” And I ask myself the same question

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda And the old men still answer the call But as year follows year, their numbers disappear Someday, no one will march there at all

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me? And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?