Over and Over Again: As at Gallipoli so in Afghanistan

Critics may charge that following this course would meet the definition of insanity—which, as that old adage has it, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

So write Kosh Sadat and retired US Army General Stan McChrystal about America’s persisting strategy of train & assist and limited engagement in Afghanistan. For them, there are no better alternatives.

America’s longest war drags on

Perhaps this almost inevitable status quo – unchanged by the small additional deployment of troops authorised by President Trump – is why Afghanistan fails to ignite passions in the same way as it used to amongst Western publics?

Indeed the same could almost be said of the civil war in Syria, which no longer dominates the headlines as in years past. When President Bashar al-Assad seemed on the verge of defeat, or when he turned the tables and subjected his countrymen to savage military reprisals, or when the Islamic State overran vast swathes of the battered nation…then you couldn’t pick up a newspaper without seeing the word ‘Syria’ on the front page.

Now, with Assad pretty much back in control, the rebels subdued if not eradicated, and IS on the run from a motley coalition of Syrian, Iranian and Russian troops – perversely backed by American air power – the same air of inevitability as with Afghanistan has set in. Whereas America’s longest war looks set to continue in perpetuity, Syria almost certainly looks set to be rebuilt in Assad’s image, whatever Western leaders may desire.

The Assad regime’s destruction of Aleppo drew worldwide attention only a couple of years ago. Now the city is firmly back in his grasp

This selective war fatigue, for lack of a better term, is not unique. Citizens, and the journalists who thrive off their reaction, need to be shocked to allow events to remain at the forefronts of their minds. Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency has therefore contributed to ‘bigger issues’ being increasingly overlooked.

Car bombings in Baghdad or drone strikes in Syria just doesn’t register with people in the same way that a mass shooting or a lorry ramming into civilians on home soil does.

Even global war cannot alter this fickle public temperament, the extremities of the time forming unfathomable perceptions about what constitutes a noteworthy event.

Take the First World War and, as an example, the comparison between British public reaction to happenings on the Western Front and during the Dardanelles Campaign.

On the charge during the Battle of Verdun

For the British, the Turks were not the real enemy; that dishonour belonged to the Germans and the tragedy of the Western Front consumed everyone back at home.

Even General Charles Monro, who had replaced Ian Hamilton has commander of the Allied forces at Gallipoli in October 1915, had no time for this Levantine Front. He wanted to kill Germans in France and Belgium and he wanted his soldiers to have the opportunity to do likewise.

Similar parallels can be drawn with today, with the likes of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda now viewed as little more than a distant menace rather than the fear-inspiring terrorists of post-9/11. IS and the ‘lone wolf’ or ‘deranged gunman’ have taken their place in the public consciousness.

Al-Qaeda was seared into the public consciousness by inspiring images such as this

Like Sadat and McChrystal’s assessment of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Allied tactics during WWI involved doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This was as true of the Dardanelles Campaign as it was of the Western Front, with trench warfare, and the incessant shelling that accompanied it, favoured over more adventurous strategies.

There were calls for Naval action in Turkey and, of course, this was how the campaign had begun, with the Royal Navy very narrowly failing to force through the Ottoman defences and minefields to gain a run on Constantinople. Pleas for a repeat performance were rejected by Monro; he wanted to kill Germans and he wanted the peninsula evacuated. End of.

An Allied shanty town at Gallipoli: the endless waiting, the lack of progress and the public detachment have erased the campaign from many memories

Whereas the Dardanelles received relatively little press coverage or public attention back in Britain, however, the Western Front was a never-ending topic for conversation and commiseration. Equally monotonous as Gallipoli may the tactics have been, yet the casualties and the carnage were simply monstrous. What’s more, they were visible.

Soldiers returning wounded or on leave from the French and Belgian battlefields told their stories with an uncompromising forthrightness. Those injured fighting the Turks were usually evacuated to the Greek islands under British military control. Nobody back home saw them.

Soldiers wounded on the Western Front engage in a spot of croquet

Today the number of American casualties in Afghanistan is minimal, whilst the British have as good as left. As with Gallipoli in the Winter of 1915/16 they left defeated, whatever spin the Government tried to put on the 2014 withdrawal.

Helmand province, a territory that claimed scores of British lives at the height of public awareness in the late 2000s, is now back under Taliban control. Death and humiliation; perhaps that is why memories fade so fast.

As the number of American troops in Afghanistan has significantly declined, so have casualties and, simultaneously, public attention

The British and their Allies won the war against the Ottomans in the end and the Dardanelles Campaign almost single-handedly created an ANZAC identity. Yet how many British schoolchildren could tell you anything about Gallipoli? Of Suvla Bay? Of Winston Churchill’s pivotal role? Of Mustafa Kemal and the beginning of a Turkish legend?

Suvla Bay just before the evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula

Probably too few…the Western Front, on the other hand, lives on, commemorated and venerated a century later in as forceful a manner as it was reported on at the time.

America’s involvement in its longest war will end, as Britain’s understated hand in Afghanistan already has. How it will be remembered remains to be seen, though one doubts it will trouble the annals in the same way as Vietnam, as Verdun and Ypres or Normandy, maybe even as Iraq.

It is a pity because for so many the commitment hasn’t died and never will. There is a cause to fight for, be it with drones, small arms or simply compromise. Stated in the most basic of terms, the war in Afghanistan can be won but the need for political capital and will is wanting. With a disinterested public, that will remain the case.

And so we drift, as at Gallipoli, waiting for a new Front to fight on, to capture the public’s attention, to spur the politicians into action, to do something new…before it all slowly fades away into dust.

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And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda: Gallipoli 100 Years On

It is almost a century since the commencement of the Gallipoli Campaign during World War One when troops of the British Empire and France attempted to secure a foothold on Ottoman soil with the ultimate intention of marching upon Istanbul. A bloody eight-month battle ended in Allied defeat, with thousands of deaths on both sides. In particular, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) was decimated and the campaign has retained a prominent place in the national consciousness of those two countries.

ANZAC soldiers rest at Gallipoli
ANZAC soldiers rest at Gallipoli

Hundreds of books and articles have been written about Gallipoli but perhaps the most poignant contribution is Eric Bogle’s composition, ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. In it, Bogle addresses the futility of the Gallipoli Campaign whilst implying that the experience of the narrator could apply to almost any combatant of the Great War.

The song is sung by a rambling Australian who is plucked from the outback in 1915 to go and fight in Gallipoli. Many of the song’s verses begin with the refrain, ‘And the band played Waltzing Matilda’, the famous bush ballad synonymous with Australia. Our narrator’s initial feelings of going to war is, like many others, a positive one:

And the band played Waltzing Matilda, as we sailed away from the cay

And amidst all the tears, the shouts and the cheers, we sailed off for Gallipoli.

Bogle quickly counters this uplifting beginning in the following verse:

How well I remember that terrible day, when the blood stained the sand and the water

And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay, we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.

Very few soldiers’ introduction to war conformed with their expectations and, for most, the initial impression was one of harrowing realisation. Within days of battle, combatants became weary and numbed. Bogle expresses this when addressing the disposal of the corpses of the dead.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda as we stopped to bury our slain,

and we buried ours and the Turks buried theirs and it started all over again.

Survivors retrieve the dead at Gallipoli
Survivors retrieve the dead at Gallipoli

This image could easily be applied to the trench warfare on the Western Front where daily attacks were only interrupted by the retrieval of the dead. Such a pattern became an accepted part of the war as the generals and political leaders on both sides failed to find, or neglected to look for, an alternative strategy.

Inevitably, our narrator doesn’t come through the conflict unscathed:

Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over tit

And when I awoke in my hospital bed 

And saw what it had done, Christ I wished I was dead

Never knew there were worse things than dying.

It was not only the dead, those countless millions commemorated on memorials, that lost their lives during WWI. Almost every soldier suffered irreparable physical or psychological damage that changed the paths of their existence. Nor did the people back home necessarily want to know these ‘new’ heroes:

And the band played Waltzing Matilda

As they carried us down the gangway

But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared,

Then turned all their faces away.

Those that walked off the ship were welcomed by silence
Those that walked off the ship were welcomed by silence

Bogle calls the survivors the ‘forgotten heroes of a forgotten war’. Perhaps he is right in a sense; how could people comprehend the sacrifices made by the soldiers of the Great War? Why would they want to remember?

But the war will never be forgotten and battlefield lessons were undoubtedly learned. Thanks to the brilliance of Bogle, the Gallipoli Campaign and the plight of the individual soldier will live long in our memories.