November 1918, the counterfeit peace

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
Jim Morrison

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.  John 3:16

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 saw an end to four years of carnage on the western front and the end of of the First World War. The armies were demobbed and men went home to lives that were changed utterly:  British and French, Austrian and German, Belgian and Italian, Serbs and Bulgarians, Turks and Arabs, and also, soldiers from across the ocean – Americans and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders,  South Africans and Indians. Friends and foes.

The victors retired to a restless peace, but the vanquished, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, descended into revolution and civil war for a time as  gangs of former soldiers fought on the left and the right. In eastern Europe, the crumbling of empires, the Russian revolution, civil war and the struggle to establish the borders of newly established states meant that armed violence continued, leaving deep scars and bitterness that many ways set the stage for the autocracies of the 1930s and further bloodshed.

The Polish-Soviet war lasted until 1921. The Russian Civil War, ending in 1923, raged across most of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Baltic region. British, Australian, American and French soldiers were dispatched to Murmansk and Archangel to fight the Red Army; Poles fought Ukrainians and Lithuanians, and defeated the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw; pogroms were perpetrated against Jews just as they had been for years, decades, centuries prior, accelerating  ,  with subsequent consequence, Aliyah to Palestine.

The Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which saw the Greeks, with British and French support, endeavouring to seize Constantinople, led to terrible massacres, and a forced exchange of populations that uprooted one and a half million Greeks and Turks from towns and villages they had occupied for a millennium. Armies marched back and forth across the Great European Plain, bringing devastation and starvation and destroying millions of lives. Central Asia, the lands now covered by the once Soviet ‘’stans likewise became battlegrounds for Reds, Whites and local warlords.

And in ‘John Bull’s Other Island’, as expat GBS Shaw called it, a “terrible beauty was born” – WB Yeats’ exquisite words – the doomed intifada that was the rebellion of Easter 1916, launched, opportunistically yet quixotically whilst English eyes were elsewhere, led exponentially into open rebellion, a qualified victory, and a civil war and partition that rested, roused and then resurrected in Derry in 1968 and decades termed somewhat innocuously ‘The Troubles’.

For some, there was light at the end of the terrible territorial tunnel. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Finns, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, achieved statehood, or the restoration of nationhood, as did, fleetingly, Ukrainians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Poland reappeared on the map after over a century of having been carved up by empires. Hungarians lost two-thirds of their territory and more than half of their population. “Little” Serbia, which had ignited the Balkan powder keg in 1914, with Gavril Princip’s famous shot that ricocheted through complacent, twitchy and mightily armed Europe, was united with its Slav but religiously fractured Balkan neighbours in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – and we now know how well that worked out.

Beyond Europe too, a bitter ‘Peace’ sowed dragon’s teeth. Last year, we commemorated the centenaries of the infamous Sykes Picot Agreement, the first draft of a colonial dispensation that established borders that remained unchallenged until Da’ish assaulted the status quo in 2014, and the Balfour Declaration, which set in train the rise and rise of the state of Israel and the long descent of Palestinian hopes for a land of their own. Ironically, the most militant Zionist pioneers and later, soldiers, terrorists and statesmen, emigrated from Poland and the Tsarist empire. These many legacies resonate today.

The end of WW1 saw the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and left Britain in control of Palestine and Mesopotamia. The peace conferences that followed led to the creation of modern Turkey, and, though for decades under French and British colonial rule, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The Kurds turned up at the conference table but were denied a seat and thereafter, a state.

The war changed more than maps, frontiers and regimes. The needs of modern warfare brought women into the workforce, galvanizing the movements that won them the vote in many democracies. The pace of technological change already underway in industrialized countries was quickened by the demands of war, and advances in land transportation and aviation continued exponentially, as did the development of weaponry, together with the insatiable demand for fossil fuels. Economic privation precipitated the first successful Communist revolution and many failed ones, whilst the peace, resentments, reparations, and recession prompted many to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. The mass movements of populations helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus or Spanish Flu, which quietly killed possibly up to a hundred million souls – more than both world wars combined.

In the last decades of the Twentieth Century, historians would observe with the benefit of hindsight how the Second World War rose ineluctably from the ashes of the first, just as the division of Europe and the Soviet enslavement (and I say this as a lifelong leftist) of those Eastern European countries that emerged after 1918 led to the Europe of today, and as the peoples of the Middle East reaped the whirlwinds of both conflagrations. Many look back on the tumultuous decades that followed the Great War, and sensing signals and signposts in contemporary  temporal tea leaves, advise is to be afraid, be very afraid.

We like to identify patterns in history that help us understand and explain our contemporary world. But we should exercise caution. To continue the hindsight riff, remember that things we see in the rear view mirror appear closer than they really are. The world is very much different today, as is our knowledge, our perception, our hopes and fears, and so also, our prognostications and expectations. If we can do it all over again, we’ll do it differently, and much more dangerously and destructively. Having learned so much, we have, one fears, understood so little.

 As we remember that moment in Western Europe and the Levant when the guns at last fell silent, let us contemplate melancholy mathematics of the human toll poignantly described by American economist and academic Patrick Chovanec in a fine article in the New York Review of Books, which I have reproduced below:

 “In the Great War itself, over sixteen million people died, including almost seven million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds … people would (tell) me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future”.

Qurba-n قُرْبان

Sacrifice  – Rayner Hoff, Anzac Memorial, Sydney

On the occasion of the centenary, read also, Dulce et ducorem est – the death of Wilfred Owen, and A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West, 


World War I Relived Day by Day

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Gavrilo Princip arrested after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Sarajevo, June 28, 1914

Four years ago, I went to war. Like many of the people whose stories I followed in my daily “live-tweets” on World War I, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What began as an impulsive decision to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand’s death at the hands of a Serbian assassin, in June 1914, snowballed into a blood-soaked odyssey that took me—figuratively and literally—from the rolling hills of northern France, to the desert wastes of Arabia, to the rocky crags of the Italian Alps, to the steel turret of a rebel cruiser moored within range of the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. And like the men and women who actually lived through it, now that the Great War is ending I find myself asking what, if anything, I’ve learned from it all.

In the American mind, World War I typically occupies an unimpressive place as a kind of shambolic preamble to the great good-versus-evil crusade of World War II, a pointless slugfest in muddy trenches for no worthy purpose, and no worthwhile result. Its catchphrases—“The War to End All Wars,” “Make the World Safe for Democracy”—evoke a wry and knowing chuckle. As if. But the war I encountered, as it unfolded day by day, was far more relevant, passionate, and unpredictable.

Posting daily newspaper clippings and photographs, found mainly in books and online archives, I began to see the Great War as a kind of portal between an older, more distant world—of kings with handlebar mustaches, splendid uniforms, and cavalry charges—and the one that we know: of planes and tanks, mass political movements, and camouflage. It snuffed out ancient monarchies in czarist Russia, Habsburg Austria, and Ottoman Turkey, and gave birth to a host of new nations—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan—that, in their struggles to survive and carve out an identity, continue to shape our world today. The British declared their intent to create a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews.

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Russian infantry marching to battle, Poland, August 1914

The needs of the war brought women into the workforce, and helped win them the right to vote. The huge privations it inflicted triggered the world’s first (successful) Communist revolution, and the frustrations it unleashed prompted many, afterward, to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. And finally—though many have forgotten it—the comings and goings of people caused by the war helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus, which quietly killed an estimated 50–100 million human beings in their homes and in hospitals, more than both world wars combined.

I also encountered a cast of characters more varied and amazing than I thought possible. Rasputin, the dissolute Russian mystic who warned Czar Nicholas that going to war would destroy his dynasty, and was murdered in part because he was (falsely) suspected as a German agent. The Austrian Emperor Karl, who inherited a war he didn’t want, and tried fruitlessly to make peace. T.E. Lawrence, a scholarly young intelligence officer whose affinity for the Arabs helped turn them to the Allied cause, and shaped the modern Middle East. Mata Hari, a Dutch-born exotic dancer who played double-agent, seducing high-ranking Allied and German officers for valuable information, until she was caught and shot by the French as a spy.

Some of the names are familiar, and offer hints of future greatness—or infamy. A young anti-war journalist named Benito Mussolini, sensing the way the wind blows, changes his tune and aggressively advocates for Italy to enter the war, before signing up himself. A young Charles De Gaulle is wounded at Verdun and taken prisoner for the rest of the conflict. A relatively young Winston Churchill plans the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign and pays his penance by serving in the trenches, before making a political comeback. A young Harry S. Truman serves as an artillery officer on the Western Front, alongside (and outranked by) a young George C. Marshall (his future Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State) and Douglas MacArthur (his future general in the Pacific and Korea). A young George S. Patton develops a fascination with tanks. A young Walt Disney doodles cartoons on the side of the ambulances he drives, in the same unit as a young Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s). Another young ambulance driver, Ernest Hemingway, finds inspiration on the Italian Front for his novel A Farewell to Arms. A young Hermann Göring (later head of the Luftwaffe) becomes a dashing flying ace, while a young Erwin Rommel wins renown fighting at Verdun and in the Alps. Meanwhile, an odd young German corporal, who volunteered in the very first days of the war, is blinded by poison gas in its final days, and wakes up in hospital to the bitter news that Germany has lost. His name is Adolf Hitler.

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French troops under shellfire during the Battle of Verdun, 1916

The dramatic panoply of people, places, and events, however, only occasionally rises to the fore. For the most part, the war is a steady stream of ordinary people doing ordinary things: washing their clothes, attending a concert, tallying supplies, fixing a car. History books give us a distorted sense of time, because they fast forward to major events. A day may take a chapter, a month may be passed over in a sentence. In fact, there were periods where nothing much happened—plans were being made, troops trained, supplies positioned—and when you live-tweet, you experience that waiting. Sometimes, it led to intriguing surprises, like photographs of dragon dances performed by some of the 140,000 Chinese laborers brought over to France to lend muscle to the Allied war effort. Mostly, it was a matter of endurance. Each winter, the fighting came to almost a complete stop as each country hunkered down and hoped its food would last. The “turnip winter” of 1916–1917, when the potato crop failed, nearly broke Germany; the increasingly desperate craving for “bread and peace” did break Russia the following year.

The future president Herbert Hoover made his reputation by coordinating food relief shipments to German-occupied Belgium, and later as the US “food czar” ensuring Allied armies and populations were fed. The vast mobilization was effective: by 1918, the Allies were able to relax their food rationing, while Germany and its confederates, strangled by an Allied naval blockade, were on the verge of starvation. America’s war effort was accompanied by a vast expansion in the federal government’s power and reach. It nationalized (temporarily) the railroads and the telephone lines. It set prices for everything from sugar to shoes, and told motorists when they could drive, workers when they could strike, and restaurants what they could put on their menus. It seized half a billion dollars of enemy-owned property, including the brand rights to Bayer aspirin, and sold them at auction. The US government also passed espionage and sedition laws that made it illegal to criticize the war effort or the president. Some people were sent to prison for doing so, including the Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president for a fifth and final time from a cell.

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A woman munitions worker operating a machine in an armaments factory, Britain, circa 1915

Winning the war, however, was far from a sure thing. For three years, the Allies threw themselves against an evenly-matched enemy on the Western Front, without making any breakthroughs, while the Eastern Front gradually crumbled. An early Allied foray to take out Turkey, at Gallipoli in 1915, ended in bloody disappointment. Inducing Italy to enter the war on the Allies’ side, that same year, was supposed to swing the entire conflict in their favor; instead, the catastrophic Italian rout at Caporetto, in the autumn of 1917, put the Allied effort in greater jeopardy. When Lenin seized power in Russia, at the end of 1917, he took it immediately out of the war and ceded immense land and resources to German control. True, the US had by then entered the war, in response to Germany’s submarine campaign against merchant ships and its clumsy diplomatic scheming in Mexico. But with the war in the East essentially won, the Germans saw a window in which they could shift all of their armies to the West and crush the exhausted British and French before enough American troops could arrive to make a difference. Their spring offensive, or “Kaiser’s Battle,” in early 1918 drove deep into Allied lines, prompting the French government to evacuate Paris.

The Germans’ big roll of the dice failed. The Allies held, and the US mobilized much faster than anyone expected. By the summer of 1918, a perceptible change had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of American troops were arriving every month at French ports, and their first units were taking part in battles, piecemeal at first, to push the Germans back. Even in September, however, nearly everyone expected the war to continue into 1919. That was when a huge US army of 3 million men would be ready to take part in a big Allied offensive that would drive all the way to Berlin. It never happened. That fall, the German army—and those of Turkey, Austria, and Bulgaria—first buckled, then collapsed like a rotten log. By November 11, the war was over.

The fact that nobody saw the end coming, the way it did, highlights the value of going back, a hundred years later, and reliving events day by day, as they took place. What may seem obvious now was anything but so then, and we do the people who lived through it, and our understanding of them, a real disservice when we assume that it was. “Life can only be understood backwards,” the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, “but it must be lived forwards.” The British historian C.V. Wedgewood elaborated on the same idea: “History is lived forwards but is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was like to know the beginning only.” We can’t entirely forget that we know what happened next, but when we at least try to identify with people who did not know, we shed new light on them, and on what did happen.

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Leon Trotsky with the Soviet delegation to negotiate a peace treaty with Germany, Brest-Litovsk, 1918

Take the Russian Revolution. We see it as the birth of a Communist superpower, and struggle to make sense of the seemingly half-baked, half-hearted effort by the Allies to intervene by sending troops, including Americans, to Russia’s ports in the far north and far east. People at the time, however, saw it almost entirely through the prism of the Great War. At first, the Allies welcomed the overthrow of the czar, and believed it would rejuvenate the failing Russian war effort. By replacing an infamous autocrat on the Allied roster with a fledgling democracy, it made “making the world safe for democracy” a more credible call to arms, and helped pave the way for the US to enter the war. When Lenin took over and made a ruinous peace with the Central Powers, he was seen as simply a German puppet. And when Bolshevik forces, augmented with released German and Austrian prisoners of war, attacked a unit of Czech soldiers crossing Siberia to rejoin the Allies on the Western Front, those suspicions blossomed into fear of a full-fledged German takeover of Russia. The Allies sent troops to key Russian ports to secure the war supplies stockpiled there and provide an exit route for the loyal Czechs. They considered trying to “reopen” the Eastern Front, but realized it would take far too many men. They assumed that when Germany was defeated, their proxy Lenin would eventually fall, and when the war ended, they naturally lost interest. It all makes sense, but only if you see through the eyes that people saw through at the time.

Did it really matter who won the war? In its aftermath, the Great War came to be seen as a colossal waste, a testament to the vanity of nations, of pompous older men sending foolish younger men into the meat-grinder for no good reason. War poems like “Dulce et decorum est” and novels like All Quiet on the Western Front have crystalized this impression. But this was not how people felt at the time. German atrocities in Belgium and on the high seas—some exaggerated, but others quite real—convinced many people that civilization, as they knew it, really was at stake. I was consistently and often surprisingly struck by the sincerity of support, not just on the home front, but among soldiers who had seen the worst of combat, for pursuing the war unto victory. The tone matures, but remains vibrant: these were, for the most part, people who believed in what they were fighting for. At what point the bitter cynicism set in, after the war ended, I cannot say. But at some point, that enthusiasm, and even the memory of it, became buried with the dead.

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Boys wearing bags of camphor around their necks to ward off influenza, 1917

Though, in fact, in many places the war did not actually end. An armistice was declared on the Western Front, and the armies there were disbanded and sent home. But Germany, Austria, and Hungary all descended into revolution and civil war for a time, with gangs of demobilized soldiers fighting on all sides. In Russia, the Soviet regime and its multiple enemies would battle for several years, while trying to reconquer territory surrendered when it quit the war against Germany. The Greeks tried to reclaim Constantinople from the Turks, and would be massacred when the Turks succeeded in reconsolidating their country. The Poles fought wars with the Ukrainians and the Soviets to define the boundaries of their newly independent country. Jews and Arabs continue to fight over the new lands liberated from the Ottoman Empire to this day.

In the Great War itself, over 16 million people died, including almost 7 million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 percent and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds. Some of the most touching parts of my experience live-tweeting were the times when people would tweet back to me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future.

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

British artillery at the Somme, France, 1916

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O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…

Poets and painters have long been drawn to Bethlehem, and to the birth that may or may not have taken place here some 2,018 years ago. Even agnostics among them have been moved by the myth and magic of the place: the advent of that auspicious “star in the east”, the fulfillment of prophecies of old, wise men journeying on camels’ back from the exotic and mysterious “orient are”, angels heard on high, shepherds watching their flocks, and the well-loved dramatis personae of the classic manger scene.

The Christmas Story, the Crucifiction and the Resurrection, is at the heart of the Christian creation myth. Like Jerusalem, its sacred. senior sibling, just ten kilometres away as the crow flies (and much, much longer by road due to the impositions of the occupation), the “little town of Bethlehem”  is as much a city of the mind and heart as one of bricks and mortar and of ordinary people with myriad preoccupations and passions.

British author and screenwriter Nicholas Blincoe has now written an affectionate and informative biography of a town that is as close to the heart of our culture as any town ever was, and yet one that is almost unknown. Whilst “the hopes and fears of all our years” abide with this town of some 27,000 souls, it has a story of its own that reaches back eleven thousand years.

Ballad of a border town 

Blincoe’s story is part history, part travelogue and memoir, the past intermingling with the present in informative and ofttimes entertaining anecdotes and interviews, memories and personal experiences, as he takes us on a journey from the stone age to the stone wall – one that is in places eight metres in height.

Bethlehem has since the beginning of recorded history been a border-town on a physical and metaphysical borderland.

A borderland between “the desert and the sown”, the Judean Desert with it’s sheep-herding nomads and Bedouin bandits, and the orchards and vineyards in the fertile wadis that for centuries had supplied world-famous wine and olive oil.

A borderland between the Christians who once constituted a majority, and who for generations have tended to the churches, shrines, and monasteries that were drawn to the holy ground around the Church of the Nativity, and the vast Muslim hinterland from whence over the centuries have come traders and invaders, missionaries and marauders, tourists and tanks. For two thousand years, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been one of the world’s preeminent destinations for religious tourism, and over two million tourists and pilgrims visit the town each year.

Bethlehem’s location has given it a social, political, economic, and strategic significance disproportionate to its size. It grew the confluence of the springs and aqueducts that have supplied nearby Jerusalem for millennia. “All ittakes to conquer Jerusalem is to seize its water supply…This is what every future invader did.” It was close to the historic trade route between the Kings Road that linked the Hijaz to the Hauran, Damascus and the north, and the ancient Palestinian ports on the Mediterranean.

Its importance as a Christian island in a sea of Islam saw it serve as a refuge for the oppressed and dispossessed of Ottoman pogroms and genocides and also of the Nakba, it has earned a reputuaion as a haven for the more secular and radical elements of the Palestinian national movement their struggle with more religious and indeed fundamentalist adversaries.

But over the last half-Century, it is town that is increasingly cut off and isolated by the Separation Wall, encircled and encroached upon by the ever multiplying and expanding Israeli settlements (forty one at the last count with well over 100,000 inhabitants), hostile and acquisitive settlers, and the daily impositions and injustices of the military occupation with its restricted roads, armed soldiers and border police, checkpoints and the Kafkaesque permit system.

 

A cultural caravanserai

For most of his historical narrative, Blincoe maintains a degree of scholarly detachment with regard to the serpentine history and politics of the region, and  crafts a captivating tale of warlords and adventurers, of soldiers and saints,  as a parade of foreign armies pass through. Egyptians, Hittites, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, Arabs, Franks, and Mamluks, Turks, Brits, and finally, Israelis. There is a great picture of a group of Anzacs from the far side of the world in their winter coats emerging from the cave of the nativity in December 1917. Rulers and rebels have passed this way, and many, like mad, bad King Herod, Bar Kokba’s Jewish fighters, and the Shabab of the Palestinian Intifada-t have died nearby.

Given its religious significance, Bethlehem has forever been a focus and at times, a flash-point for events that have enmeshed the Holy Land and its Holy Places, from the fossicking of Emperor Constantine’ mother Helena and the self-imposed exile of estranged Empress Eudocia, through the Muslim conquest, the Crusades and Mongol raids to the Crimean War, the Palestine Campaign of WW1, and the Arab-Israel conflict. Bethlehem’s history has been one of civilization, colonization and conquest.

As a former scholar of philosophy, Blincoe seems particularly at home amidst the theological disputes of the early Christian, Byzantine period, and brings to life a host of passionate, idiosyncratic, adventurous, and infuriating men and women – the wandering saints and scholars, clerics and ascetics, wealthy widows and society matrons of the Middle Ages, and an unending caravan of pilgrims, tourists, evangelical adventurers and amateur archaeologists that have walked these hills and valleys for centuries. As with Jerusalem, seekers of the numinous could never get enough of the place.

He doesn’t shy away from the social, theological and political complexities of his chronicle, but his objectivity is severely tested in his final chapters when writing of Bethlehem and the occupation.

But then he does after all have a lot of skin in the game: he is married to Bethlehem filmmaker Leila Samsour, dividing his time between London and Bethlehem. He is quite embedded with Leila’s Christian Palestinian family, one with deep roots in the town’s history and politics, and has often been in the thick of the crises, protests, incursions and violent clashes that periodically embroil his adopted home.

He is not some desktop warrior, NGO apparatchik or “occupation tourist”. And whilst he deplores the actions of the settlers and the right wing politicians – Avigdor Leiberman and other nationalist MKs are virtual neighbours of his – and ascribes to revisionist Israeli historians like Ilan Pape and Benny Morris’ reading of the Nakba, he is not one of Israel‘s haters But he is disappointed, saddened, infuriated even by the Jewish state’s often cavalier and callous approach to its Palestinians who are its neighbours and also, its sullen, subject people.

Banksy’s Bethlehem Bouquet

Breaking the wheel

Palestine, and with it, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have always been under strangers’ dominion. But in the past, the rulers largely left the locals to live their own lives and manage their own affairs in accordance with their own social, political, and religious ways, and in the fullness of time, they departed, ceding the land to the next despot. Until, that is, the Israelis. In the words of Daenerys Targaryen: “ We’re not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”

Year by year, Bethlehem’s economy shrinks. Over two million tourists and pilgrims visit “Royal David’s City” annually, but its economically stressed, and it has the highest unemployment rate (nearly 30%) in the West Bank.

Year by year, Bethlehem’s Christian population diminishes as people head overseas in search of a better life – and particularly its young folk. In 1950, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were 86% Christian, but by 2016, the Christian population was but 12%.

Year by year, the settlements grow, and settlers, encouraged by an extremist, nationalist government and a seemingly compliant IDF, become more emboldened in their expansion onto Palestinian land. Considered illegal under international law, Israel regards them as legitimate suburbs of Jerusalem- a territorial fait accompli that is tantamount to de facto annexation.

Year by year, Bethlehem becomes more and more cut off from the rest of the West Bank by walls, wire, and a web of “Israeli only” highways, and indeed from the world beyond the wall. Travel to Jerusalem and to the rest of the West Bank is severely restricted by roads, checkpoints and permits, whilst the interaction between Israelis and Palestinians that existed during the seventies and eighties, in workplaces, educational and health institutions, friendships and romances, ceased after the terrors of the second, bomb Intifada as israel and Israelis withdrew into their mental and physical fortress.

A generation of young people on either side of the old and ostensibly moribund Green Line have grown up with negligible contact with their peers on the “other side” – and this is most likely to be limited to military service in the Occupied Territories on the one hand, and confrontations with armed soldiers on the other.

Writing of the 1948 war, Blincoe notes: “From their future actions it became clear that both Jordan and Israel saw the term “Palestine” as an empty tag: it was the name of a piece of real estate rather than the home of people demanding self representation”, this is how he sees the future for Palestine and for Bethlehem, his adopted home. He argues that the settlement project is first and foremost about land and cheap housing for middle and lower class Israelis pressed by rising property values and a shortage of affordable housing to rent or buy in Israel proper. it is real estate developers, he argues, with friends in high places, who are calling the shots, rather than the more visible and vocal Zionist nationalists. As the Israeli historian and one–time deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti puts it, the settlements are a “commercial real estate project that conscripts Zionist rhetoric for profit”. The story of Jesus and the money-changers somehow comes to mind.

It is an intriguing argument that invites further research. it also echoes what would appear to be a similar patter in those parts of the West Bank that are under the direct control and administration of the Palestinian Authority, as we have reported earlier in Castles Made of Sand, an account of the land rush that is taking place in Area A.

With this and all the other pressures in play, from Blincoe’s perspective, the future prospects of Palestine and the little town of Bethlehem not appear to be promising. Bethlehem – Biography of a Town does not have a happy ending.

Synchronicity – a footnote

A few days after this post was published, an article by Hillel Zand appeared in the Matzav Review addressing the settlements and the real estate argument:  “Israel’s right-wing has strengthened in recent years because it has promoted heavily financing the settlement project as a way to compensate for the not insignificant negative side-effects of neoliberal economic policy, especially rising housing prices and increasing inequality and poverty…In Israel, the “losers” are being compensated by the advocates of these policies with incentives, subsidies and entitlements that allow them to maintain, or even raise, their quality of life by living in West Bank settlements”.

The Israel- Jordan collaboration referred to by Blincoe also raised its controversial head recently when Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked and her boss Naftali Bennett hinted, favourably, at the prospects of US’ impending “peace deal” that includes the West Bank being ceded to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt. Murmurings from US allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also indicated support for such an idea.

Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem

Walls and wire define the brotherhood of man

 Some further reading about Bethlehem:

There are the PLO’s official facts and figures, and the National Catholic Reporter on the declining Christian population. And there is always Wikipedia. There are a series of posts in In That Howling Infinite about Jerusalem and Palestine in: O Jerusalem

Author’s Note: 
Whenever In That Howling Infinite posts commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.
With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I  come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archeology, and  of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.
I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.
I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that followed –  Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.   
The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the  Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.
I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.
Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.
Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.
But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.
Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back –  but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.
Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.
So what happens next?
I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”.  I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”
One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.
October 8th 2017

The Church of the Nativity

Adele at the Church of the Nativity

Where Christianity began

We’ve got them Australia Day blues

Today is our national day. We celebrate the first settlement of white settlers on Australian shores. Captain Cook had been here a decade before, and Dutch, Portuguese and English mariners had touched land at various point earlier in the century, but didn’t find the amenities attractive enough to stick around.

Many people, particularly rightwing politicians and opinionistas, and white Anglo-Celtic nationalists regards this seminal moment as “a good thing” to borrow a phrase from “1066 and All That”. After all, it brought the benefits of European civilization to those whom Rudyard Kipling might later have referred to as “fluttered folk and wild, half demon and half child”. After two centuries of dispossession, enslavement, massacre, and, in recent times, gradual steps towards recognition and restitution, many descendants of the first peoples think otherwise and regard 26th January as Invasion Day, a time of mourning.

Around this time every year, people argue about moving the date to one that is less divisive, and indeed, to one that more realistically commemorates the founding of the Commonwealth of Australia. January 1st for example. is put forward as the day six states came together as one Commonwealth under a federal government. The problem with January 1st is of course that being News Day, and already a fireworks and hoopla greeted day off, no one would notice.

As if responding to Pavlov’s bell, folk of a conservative persuasion evoke the irrevocable sanctity of January 26th as a commemoration of how we became who we are – that is, a mainly white and Christian but increasingly multihued and multifaith democracy at the fagend of the earth. The conservative media seize upon it as an opportunity to serve up overblown, meretricious flimflam not withstanding the fact that the story of the First Fleet is thrilling enough without over-leavening it with patriotic flagwaving, triumphalism, and a big serve of manifest destiny.

The idea celebrating the acknowledged virtues of our country – its tolerance and openness, its acceptance of immigrants of all colours, cultures, and religious beliefs, its mythical values of “mateship” and a “fair go” are sound. In citizenship ceremonies across our island continent, migrants from all over swear allegiance to our nation and it’s English queen (but we won’t go there). And yet, the day itself has evolved into a shibboleth, a caricature, a bombastic, jingoistic carnival of flags and fireworks, partying and posturing. It’s as if we forget that on January 26 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip established a penal colony – not a nation. Of the 1336 souls who landed, over half of them were in chains.

Ironically, the day is not at all sacrosanct. For most of the century of our existence as a nation, most Australian states did not see a reason to celebrate this Sydney-centric beano with such gusto. It was only on the occasion of our bicentenary in 1988 that it officially donned the aura of a secular holy day of obligation – and, of course a public holiday conveniently placed between the hot and lazy Xmas holidays and the commencement of the school year. Recent polls have show that a majority of Australians wouldn’t be too fussed if the date was moved. A significant proportion are hard pressed to say what it is we are actually commemorating.

[I have included at the end of this post what I consider a reasonably well-nuanced appraisal of the culture wars being fought out over Australia Day. Paul Kelly of The Australian  is a conservative commentator, and is obliged to recite form the News Corp song sheet when it comes to repeating the cliched mantras of his mother-ship – or is it ‘fathership’?) but he weighs well the tired arguments of left and right and argues for what would, could or should pass for the ‘reasonable middle’]

And so, today is our national day. A day when the “black armband” and “white armband” tribes leave off their month-long cage-fight that has dominated the media during the Xmas holiday doldrums, and just enjoy a day off.

And we can have a break from self righteous patriotics until our next official day off: Anzac Day, when we celebrate our defeat the hands of Johnny Turk at Gallipoli, and when, of course, The Australian and it’s hired hacks will get carried away by all the Anzacery bluster, and express their indignation with all who criticize that shibboleth. The irony of Anzac Day is that whilst it rightfully remembers the cost and futility of war, its commercialization has meant that more money is spent on political and patriotic posturing than on our serving soldiers and on those who return home injured and traumatized. As Samuel Johnson quite rightly (is said to have) said, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

We’ve had those Australia Day blues for a long time as this report from the ABC demonstrates:

We thought they were going to be massacred’ 

ABC Broken Hill. Aimee Volkofsky, 25 January 2018

Watch the  video here:  Eighty years since forced First Fleet re-enactment (ABC News)

WARNING: This story contains images of deceased Indigenous people.

Aboriginal men perform a dance at a 1938 re-enactment of the landing and proclamation of Captain Arthur Phillip at the 150th Australia Day celebrations.    (State Library of NSW)

On January 26, 1938, as the first rally against Australia Day was held, 25 Indigenous men were told if they did not perform the role of ‘retreating Aborigines’ in a re-enactment of the First Fleet, their families would starve.

Government officials had selected the best dancers and singers from Menindee mission in far-west New South Wales and told them they were required to perform cultural dances in Sydney. What they were sent to take part in was a re-enactment of the landing and proclamation of Captain Arthur Phillip at the 150th Australia Day celebrations.

Ngiyaampaa elder Dr Beryl (Yunghadhu) Philp Carmichael, born and raised on the mission, was only three at the time, but her memory of the fear in the community never left her.

Ngiyaampaa elder Dr Beryl (Yunghadhu) Philp Carmichael,

My grandfather protested Australia Day in 1938

The inescapable reality is that Australia’s current national day excludes and alienates Indigenous people — 80 years after my grandfather marched the streets in a fight for equality, writes Ngarra Murray. “All I can remember is the crying, all the women were crying,” she said.  “Whether they were taking them away to be massacred or what, no-one knew. The community went into mourning once they were put on the mission truck.”

The men returned a week later, but Dr Carmichael said it was many years until they would talk about their experience. ‘They came back very quiet,” she said. “It was only in the late 70s they started saying something about what it was like down there. We knew whatever happened down there really hurt them and we didn’t question them.”

Hidden from friends and family

It is speculated that part of the reason for bringing Indigenous people all the way from Menindee was because those in Sydney refused to take part. In Sydney plans were afoot to hold a rally on Australia Day; the Aborigines Progressive Association would declare it a ‘day of mourning’.

Aboriginal rights leaders William Ferguson and John Patten published the Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights! pamphlet on January 12, 1938. In it they declared, “We do not ask you to study us as scientific freaks … the superstition that we are a naturally backward and low race … shows a jaundiced view of anthropologists’ motives”.

Those in power at the time seemed eager to keep the Menindee men well away from activists, keeping them locked away in police barracks.

The incident was detailed in a biography on William Ferguson, written by Jack B Horner in 1974. “The Secretary of the Protection Board had a shrewd idea that Ferguson would try to prevent the Menindee men from taking part in this re-enactment. The Board was taking no chances. Nobody could meet the Aborigines in the coming week in Sydney, without … obtaining personal permission.” — from Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal freedom: a biography by Jack B Horner
Dr Carmichael said there had been whisperings of the movement on the mission, and a direct link to Mr Ferguson.

“Most people on missions couldn’t read and write; that made it really hard for them to understand the government documents they were throwing around,” she said. “Old Bill [Ferguson], because he knew his brother Duncan was back on the mission, he used to send messages back to him. But in the end the mission manager found that out, picked the old fella [Duncan] up in a truck and dumped him over the hill [outside the mission boundary].”

Mr Ferguson attempted to get word to the Menindee men while they were in Sydney but, as elaborate as they were, his efforts were unsuccessful.  “Then followed in the week before the celebrations an amusing battle of tactics between the Protection Board officers and the executive of the Aborigines’ Progressive Association….Some Sydney relatives of a Peter Johnson from Menindee tried to see him at the barracks.  The relatives had been sent by Ferguson, of course, in order to pass to Hero Black (the leader of the Menindee party) a message not to take part in the mortifying ‘retreat’ from the ‘first party of Englishmen’.” (From Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal freedom: a biography by Jack B Horner) . They were eventually allowed a closely supervised visit from two female relatives.

The men soon discovered their duties would include playing the part of Aboriginal people fleeing British soldiers.

Threatened with ration cuts

While the activists may have gotten their message through to the performers, discouraging them from taking part in the re-enactment, the men were left with little choice.

Dr Carmichael said when it came to performing traditional dance, the men were troubled to find they would be led by an Aboriginal actor who did not speak their language or know their culture.

“The government unknowingly or knowingly put up a big Aboriginal, good looking fella as the leader of the dancers and they didn’t even know him. He wasn’t from Ngiyaempaa,” she said. “That really devastated the people and they refused to dance. [The government] threatened them and threatened them; if they didn’t perform they’d cut off the rations to their people on the mission. It was the toughest time of their lives, I think.  I’m just happy we survived’

Eighty years on, as debate continues around whether January 26 is celebrated or mourned, Dr Carmichael said she was happy to have survived, even though she was sad about the past. “We were brought up to tolerate a lot of things and to give thanks for being alive,” she said. “I’m just glad I survived with my culture intact and am alive to teach and pass it on. We should strive for peace, between all nations. We need to come together as people.”

Australia Day: we must face the two truths about January 26

Paul Kelly, Editor-At-Large, The Australian,  
Illustration: Eric Lobbecke
Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

Australia Day is getting bigger, brighter, more celebratory and stained by the rising tide of culture war hostility. The transformation of January 26 from a sleepy public holiday two generations ago into a boisterous party and civic commemoration has provoked a political backlash conceived in two different sentiments — grievance and exploitation.

The debate is not just about our national day. It’s really about who we are, what symbols we honour and, ultimately, the legitimacy of our civilisation. This debate can break one of two ways: robust differences can generate a better understanding of Australia and its national day or the upshot can be a destructive orgy of self-interested identity politics leading to a diminished and divided country.

The progressive crusade to ­remove January 26 as Australia Day has won fresh momentum for a movement bent upon imposing its views on the nation. Nobody should be surprised.

The volatility of social media, the power of negative politics and the emotional manipulation around “invasion day” constitutes sufficient warning that things could go badly wrong.

A nation ignorant of its history or simply unable to handle its history is heading for trouble in the present age of populist and cheapjack disruption.

Those pledged to “change the day” underestimate the popularity of the late January public holiday before the kids return to school, when barbecues abound in parks and backyards, fireworks make a spectacular night, the Australian flag adorns cars and front verandas, the sense of community is tangible, and civic and citizenship ceremonies at the local level testify to a beating patriotism.

In every such event there are tributes to the first Australians. This is embedded in our civic ­culture. More indigenous peoples are participating and being recognised on Australia Day, with its ­official emphasis on multi­culturalism and diversity. Since governor Lachlan Macquarie nominated the public holiday in 1818, the day has seen enormous and essential reinterpretation.

Beware, however, the emerging malaise — a culture war between the green-identity, politics-progressive left determined to destroy the current day and the hopelessly unpersuasive conservatives who defend the status quo, speak and listen only to one another and lose every battle because they cannot find a language to appeal to a ­diverse mainstream.

There are two truths about January 26, 1788. It was the threshold moment for one of the most audacious experiments of the ­Age of Enlightenment seeding a British settlement and society on the continent most distant from Britain under the practical yet visionary leadership of Arthur Phillip, in many ways the true founder of Australia who, against almost every prospect, had the ­insight to believe this convict ­colony at the ends of the earth would one day be “the most valuable ­acquisition Great Britain ever made”.

Those who say the story of the First Fleet and settlement are boring and uninspiring are dead in their imagination and blind in their vision.

The associated truth is that the oldest civilisation on earth, isolated for thousands of years from the rest of the globe and hence ­extremely vulnerable, was unable to defend ­itself and suffered dis­possession of its lands, ravage from disease, loss of life in conflict and loss of its way of life.

Despite the ­initial good ­intentions towards the Aborigines displayed by Phillip, the great moral failure in Australian polity was the belief there was no place, no dignity and, indeed, no life for the original Australians.

Both truths are authentic. Neither can, nor should, be denied. This is our inheritance and, in its soaring achievement and murderous squalor, it constitutes the unique meaning of Australia. One of the central purposes of our existence is to find a way of living with these truths and ensuring the peoples who embody such different traditions can live together and thrive together. There is simply no alternative.

We should exist neither in perpetual grievance nursed by the ­indigenous peoples and those, like the Greens, who recklessly exploit their grievances, nor in the complacency of those Europeans who still pretend there was no dark side to the civilisation we enjoy.

The issue is whether we have the maturity to hold together conflicting truths and sort things through, or whether we choose ideological indulgence and cynical zero-sum politics.

Australia Day needs to stand because the nation cannot run or hide from either the glory or ­tragedy in its duality. The answer to indigenous feelings about January 26 is to construct, not destroy — if there is sufficient agreement, then construct a new day of indigenous commemoration, suffering, survival and triumph. That will take time but over time it may emerge as one of the constructive solutions for Australia.

Declaring that January 26 must be shut down as a day of shame, genocide and mourning offers no solution to anyone. Telling the ­descendants of Arthur Phillip that the origin of the British civilisation and prosperous multicultural democracy they have built lacks sufficient legitimacy to be honoured as the national day is dishonest and destructive. How could it not be?

In this paper today, indigenous leader Noel Pearson says the blackfellas were here 65,000 years before whites arrived and it is vital we “recognise and honour this”. Pearson also says the whitefellas aren’t going away, they created something and it is also vital to “recognise and honour this”.

Tearing one truth down in the cause of another is the road to ruin for Australia. Both truths need to be confronted and engaged. “Trying to erase January 26 is denying the very history we want Australians to face up to,” Pearson says. “There is no other relevant time or date other than those 24-48 hours when ancient Australia passed into the new Australia.” It is this transition the nation must face.

The enemies of this obligation are thick on the ground as radicals and conservatives, often peddling phony mantras. The self-interested cynicism in the stand of Greens leader Richard Di Natale is gobsmacking. With his eye on stealing future votes in inner-city Melbourne, Di Natale announces changing Australia Day will be a priority for the Greens during the rest of the year since the day is about theft and genocide.

What will replace January 26? Why should Di Natale bother with such trifles when there are ideological axes to be swung and votes to be purchased through cultivating national self-abasement under the fraudulent cover of morality?

In response, Labor leader Bill Shorten was just pathetic: he won’t defend Australia Day, he won’t abandon Australia Day and he doesn’t like another day of ­Aboriginal commemoration. In the end he says the day itself is not what really counts. Yes, this is the alternative PM on our national day. Perhaps we should be grateful he didn’t line up with Di ­Natale’s view that the flag should be flown at half mast on the national day.

Malcolm Turnbull, unsurprisingly, said he’d like to hear Shorten speak “proudly and passionately” about Australia Day. But Shorten has a problem, given the embrace by much of the Labor rank and file of a progressive orthodoxy ­towards changing the national day anyway and at odds with majority public opinion.

Indigenous ALP frontbencher Linda Burney stepped into this confusion, criticising the Greens, saying Australia Day won’t be changing any time soon, but highlighting the difficulty it poses for Aborigines as a day of celebration. Aware that NSW ALP policy calls for consultation about a new and separate public holiday devoted to indigenous commemoration, Burney put this idea on the table. It is not ALP policy but Burney was being constructive and her proposal merits serious consideration.

Turnbull preaches an Australia Day that brings people together and celebrates our multicultural diversity. The government has properly removed the right of local councils to hold citizenship ceremonies if they refuse to recognise Australia Day and hold citizenship ceremonies on that day. But the ­reality cannot be avoided: division over Australia Day will mount in the future and this will require astute leadership and management.

For many Aborigines, January 26 will remain invasion day, and that is understandable. But any alternative national day that commemorates British settlement or the foundation of Australia has a similar problem. The logical ­alternative of January 1 — the ­inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia — would honour an event that denied any role or existence for Aboriginals and assumed they were a dying race.

In truth there is no escape from the history — yet the historical story must be authentic, not convenient mythology. Australia was always destined to be settled by a European power. The force of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution would never be denied from the great southern land. There are few inevitabilities in history and this was inevitable.

We are fortunate the European power was Britain, not France or Spain. This was an 18th-century blessing. We are fortunate the British came not just to establish a convict colony but to bring their values and institutional ethos.

Phillip had an 18th-century faith in improvement, a belief he was founding a new British society and serving the cause of humanity. With slavery still not abolished in the empire, Phillip declared from the inception of Australia that “there can be no slavery in a free land and consequently no slaves”.

The Aborigines he encountered were not a nation state. They were a collection of hundreds of tribes speaking different lan­guages, devoid of collective political purpose or leadership, often at war with each other and without the structures to allow sovereign negotiations or dealings.

To say the British should not have come is a ludicrous denial of reality and makes as much sense as saying the early explorers should not have advanced inland to ­discover the continent. To pretend the Aborigines could or should have retained their possession of the continent forever is delusional and is a device to avoid historical reality.

The encounter between the British and the Aborigines was without precedent in human history. The idea that good intentions were enough for success is absurd. Historian Geoffrey Blainey says in first volume of his The Story of Australia’s People: “The racial conflict in Australia — nearly all would agree today — should have been handled more wisely and firmly but the British leaders lacked the political and cultural experience needed to handle a ­dilemma that was exceptional in world history. Furthermore, London at one end of the globe and Sydney and Hobart at the other end viewed the dilemma and their duties and powers, differently.”

The idea that the British ­arrivals should have negotiated a treaty is nonsense. With whom and on what basis? There is no ­answer. During the 70 years after settlement many thousands of ­Aborigines were killed by Europeans — though far more died from diseases — creating a moral legacy the nation cannot deny and must confront.

Efforts to do this have been substantial while incomplete. Witness the Reconciliation process, the Mabo case and granting of native title rights, huge though flawed public funding, and the continuing process of constitutional ­recognition.

The first Australians lost much from the events of 1788 yet they also gained much, eventually — proving that indigenous peoples could live and thrive in a modern urban society. Aborigines are poised to become more prominent in every facet of Australian life.

The related truth, however, is that as a nation we cannot pretend there is full atonement for the ­dispossession. We cannot say: “Sorry, let’s leave.” We could not do this in 1808, let alone 1901, let alone 2018. There can be no full rendering of justice, no full recompense after dispossession. History cannot be reversed.

We must honour and reflect on the history, restore Aboriginal rights, and strive for justice as much as practicable. But it cannot serve indigenous Australians to engage in perpetual grievance, to magnify the sins of the past in an endless demand for atonement and more atonement still, part of a futile quest to deny any legitimacy to January 26. That is the road to a self-defeating misery.

The bulk of the Australian population, including the millions of post-World War II immigrants and their descendants, will neither accept nor tolerate the idea that the British founding of this country was a shameful and illegitimate event. When the Greens and other progressives promote this sentiment — exploiting indigenous ­resentment for their own ideo­logical and electoral gains — there is no upside for our polity, just ­counterproductive bitterness with the risk of violence.

Where is the legitimacy in January 26? It lies in the society that evolved and continues to evolve, a nation that, for all its faults, is democratic, egalitarian, tolerant and, in per capita terms, has opened its door to immigrants on a more sustained basis than ­virtually any other developed country. This constitutes a powerful legitimacy.

It was Noel Pearson more than a decade ago, in a famous letter to John Howard, who offered the most honest and enduring framework for presenting and understanding contemporary Australia. For Pearson, the nation embodies three traditions: the indigenous peoples, the first Australians, who roamed this continent for 65,000 years, long before the ages of Babylon, Athens and Rome, finding a way to live and thrive in this environment; the British inheritance dating first from the voyages of James Cook and then from the ­initial colony under Phillip, followed eventually by Lachlan Macquarie and more settlements across the continent that led to a polity of British-derived laws, values and institutions that still operate today; and the immigrant tradition, the ethnic input from so many nations that broadened and deepened the culture and led to a multicultural nation, one of the most successful on earth.

These three traditions need formal embodiment. Pearson’s vision was adopted by Tony Abbott as PM. But it needs a more declaratory form authorised by the parliament or the people. This is a critical step in finding a national identity that is shared and inclusive and can win wide support ­because of its validity.

The issue of constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples needs to be reopened with a new process. This time there needs to be greater realism on all sides. The Turnbull cabinet rejected the final recommendation for an indigenous advisory body to be inserted into the Constitution because it believed such a referendum had no prospect of success. Those ­attacking this decision have singularly failed to offer any explanation or strategy of how such a referendum could be passed.

There have been some suggestions that the Australia Day issue can be postponed pending the ­inauguration of an Australian ­republic. That is a tempting but most unwise proposition. The ­republic will not provide the ­answer and, moreover, it is probably many years or decades away.

While the republic is a necessary step in Australia’s evolution, its cause is currently weak and devoid of energy. This is because of the ­destructive transformation in progressive politics to embrace change based on individual and group rights around sex, gender and race, a combination of tribal and narcissistic imperatives.

The republic has no voice or ­appeal in this world. It won’t change your personal life, it won’t relate to how you live, it won’t speak to your gender, sexual or ­racial identity. Paul Keating once lamented the republic had been consigned to an after-dinner conversation; these days it doesn’t even win that rating. When was the last dinner party you attended where the republic got anything more than the briefest mention?

Shorten pledges that in office he will launch a path to the republic. But that will prove immensely difficult in today’s Australia. The republic is now a token of progressive politics, nothing more. The emotions, energy and priorities of progressive politics lie ­elsewhere.

The nation must face the Australia Day issue and competing historical truths as a constitutional monarchy or not at all.

The Watchers Of The Water

A song about Gallipoli, sung by a Turkish soldier

Back in the last century, before ANZAC Day became the secular Christmas that it has become, before marketing people and populist politicians saw its commercial and political potential, before the fatal shore became a crowded place of annual pilgrimage, my Turkish friend, the late Naim Mehmet Turfan, gave me a grainy picture of a Turkish soldier at Gelibolu carrying a large howitzer shell on his back. Then there was this great film by Australian director Peter Weir, starring young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. There were these images of small boats approaching a dark and alien shore, of Lighthorsemen sadly farewelling their Walers as they embarked as infantry, and of the doomed Colonel Barton humming along to a gramophone recording of Bizet’s beautiful duet from The Pearl Fishers, ‘Au fond du temple saint’ before joining his men in the forlorn hope of The Nek.

There were other melodies I could never quite get out of my head. One I first heard in a musical in Beirut before that magical city entered its Dark Ages  –  Al Mahatta, written by the famous Rabbani Brothers and starring the Lebanese diva Fayrouz. And The Foggy Dew, one of the most lyrical and poignant of the Irish rebel songs:

Right proudly high over Dublin town, they hung out the flag of war. ‘Twas better to die ‘neath that Irish sky than at Suvla or at Sud el Bar…Twas England bade our Wild Geese go that small nations might be free,  But their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves or the fringe of the grey North Sea.

Over three thousand Irishmen died at Gallipoli.

The song grew out of these many inspirations.

It was first performed in public by HuldreFolk in the closing concert of Coffs Harbour Folk Festival at the RSL on Australia Day 1984. When we had finished, there was absolutely silence in the hall. Then a voice cried out “the sky didn’t fall down!”, and the hall erupted with applause.

Some Notes on Gallipoli and the Anzacs for readers unfamiliar with the history. 

Monday 25th April is Australia and New Zealand’s national day of remembrance for all Anzac solders killed and wounded in their nation’s wars, and to honour servicemen and women past and present. At first, the Anzacs fought in the British Empire’s Wars, beginning with the Boer War, and then through two World Wars. From the mid -twentieth century, they have fought and died in what could ostensibly be called America’s wars even though these were waged under UN, EU or western alliance auspices: Korea, Gulf Wars II and III, Afghanistan, and the current interventions in Syria and Iraq. Incidentally, Australian veterans are presently commanding mercenary forces hired by the Gulf coalition that is laying waste to towns and villages in Yemen (with the help of American and British weaponry).

At the heart of the Anzac Day remembrance is the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ role the Dardanelles campaign of 1915-16, Winston Churchill’s grandiose and ill-conceived plan to take the Ottoman Empire out of the war by seizing the strategic strait between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, thereby threatening Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. It was a military failure. From the initial seaborne assault to the evacuation, it lasted eight months and cost 114,000 lives with 230,000 wounded.

Gallipoli is cited as the crucible of Australian nationhood, but the Anzacs’ part in the doomed campaign was but a sideshow of the wider campaign. Although it is celebrated in Australian song and story, it was the Ottomans’ most significant victory in the war that was to destroy the seven hundred year old Ottoman Empire secure the reputation of its most successful general Mustafa Kemal, who as Ataturk, became the founder of modern Turkey.

Some thirty four thousand British soldiers died on the peninsula, including 3,400 Irishmen, and ten thousand Frenchmen – many of these latter being “colonial” troops from West and North Africa. Australia lost near on ten thousand and NZ three. Some 1,400 Indian soldiers perished for the King Emperor. Fifty seven thousand allied soldiers died, and seventy five thousand were wounded. The Ottoman army lost fifty seven thousand men, and one hundred and seven thousand were wounded (although these figures are probably much higher). An overlooked fact is that some two thirds of the “Turkish” solders in Kemal’s division were actually Arabs from present day Syrian and Palestine. Gallipoli was indeed a multicultural microcosm of a world at war.

Whilst the flower of antipodean youth is said to have perished on Gallipoli’s fatal shore, this was just the overture. Anzac troops were despatched to the Western Front, and between 1919 and 1918, 45,000 Aussies died there and 124,000 were wounded.

There are abundant primary and secondary sources relating to the Dardanelles campaign and the Anzacs, but here is a wiki primer: Gallipoli Campaign

And here is HukdreFolk’s rendering of Russian poet Yevtushenko’s account of the parade of German prisoners of war through the streets of Moscow in 1941, juxtaposed with The Watchers of the Water.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.