Month: April 2014

Anzac Day: The lasting Middle East impact

Oped published in the Times of Israel, 25 April 2014

99 years ago today, in the very early hours before dawn, some 1200km from Jerusalem, members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – or ANZACs – landed on the western shore of the Gallipoli Peninsula, in modern-day Turkey, at a place we now call Anzac Cove.

At roughly the same time, British forces landed at the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula, at Cape Helles, whilst French forces went ashore at Kum Kale, on the Turkish mainland just opposite Cape Helles. Indian and Canadian troops later joined the campaign.

This multinational invasion force was to be the spearhead of one of the more audacious and imaginative strategies of the First World War – the Dardanelles Campaign.

With the western front grinding to a protracted stalemate, and with Russia under increasing pressure from German and Ottoman forces in the east, the Allied objective was to capture the heights of the Gallipoli Peninsula, force open the Dardanelles Strait for the British and French navies, and – within a short space of time – seize Constantinople.

If successful, this operation could have taken the Ottoman Empire out of the war, opened a new, southern front against the Austro-Hungarian empire, put considerable pressure on Germany, and re-established communication and supply lines with Russia.

It may well have brought World War One to an early conclusion, vastly altering the world we live in today – including the map and borders of today’s Middle East.

It would have been, in modern-day speak, a game-changer.

But it was not to be.

The Gallipoli landings were ultimately a military failure.

A tenuous Allied foothold was established on the peninsula, but no more.

Despite further reinforcements and offensives, the heights were not captured.

Turkish resistance proved fiercer and more determined and effective than anticipated.

The most successful part of the campaign was in fact the eventual withdrawal of the landing force, in December of that year.

By the time of this evacuation, more than 21,000 British, 10,000 French, 8,000 Australians, 2,700 New Zealanders, 1,300 Indians and 50 Canadians had been killed. Allied wounded totalled over 97,000.

These losses, though, were a mere portent of a World War that would cost all nations very dearly.

Gallipoli: a failed military campaign, and largely a sideshow in the greater sweep of World War One.

It seems, then, an odd event in which to invest much importance. But for Australia, Anzac Day is one of the most important days in our national calendar.

Part of Australia’s national character was forged, our identity constructed, and much of our national myth built, on the western shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

World War One was the first major military action by Australia as a newly federated and independent nation.

Gallipoli was the first battlefield that Australian troops encountered in World War One.

And it was those characteristics Australian troops displayed on that battlefield that have come to define, and benchmark, our national self-conception and character ever since.

These attributes cluster around several values: endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour and, of course, mateship.

They are reflected in the self-sacrifice and self-effacement of the 9 Australians who were awarded our highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, for actions at Gallipoli.

Men such as Lieutenant Leonard Keysor, a Jewish-Australian who enlisted to fight only three months after emigrating to Australia.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery at the Battle of Lone Pine, in retrieving live Turkish grenades from the trenches and throwing them back over no man’s land.

Having survived the horrors of World War One, Keysor volunteered once more for service when World War Two rolled around.

Men such as John Simpson Kirkpatrick, an undecorated Australian stretcher-bearer with a donkey as a companion.

He carried dozens of wounded Australians back from the front lines, saving their lives, before losing his own to a Turkish sniper’s bullet in Monash Gully three weeks after the landing.

I visited the battlefields and cemeteries of Gallipoli just last week, with my family, and Simpson’s headstone was there, along with those of many others.

The inscriptions I saw brought to life another well-known Australian trait, the gift for understatement.

Sparse and simple phrases, such as “Well done Ted” and “Thank you Harry”, are all that adorn the headstones of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in the service of their country.

The official Australian historian of World War One, Charles Bean, summarises the Anzac spirit thus.

“Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat”.

The First World War still casts a long shadow over Australia.

Of the 102,000 total Australian war dead, 60,000 fell in the First World War.

One in five who served overseas were killed in action, including many of the 2300 Jewish Australians who volunteered to fight.

But it also casts a long shadow over the modern Middle East.

Some of those who survived Gallipoli went on to serve in the successful 1917 Palestine campaign, including the liberation of Jerusalem in December that year.

178 Anzacs lie in the graves of the military cemetery at Mount Scopus, a reminder of this history.

The Dardanelles campaign of 1915 was a failure, but the Palestine campaign of 1917 was a resounding success.

Victory in the Battle of Be’ersheva, the liberation of Jerusalem six weeks later, and finally the capture of Damascus and Aleppo.

By liberating much of the Middle East from Ottoman control, these victories helped dictate the shape of the post-war settlement in the Middle East.

In a quirky symmetry of history, the day the Battle of Be’ersheva was being waged and won – 31 October 1917 – was the very day the British War Cabinet approved the text for the Balfour Declaration.

Both events were critical enablers for realising Zionist aspirations, and set the stage for the eventual creation of the State of Israel.

As we approach the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, we should continue to honour and remember our dead and fallen. But we should also reflect and be thankful for the enduring legacy of their sacrifice.

Lest we forget.

Edited version of remarks at Anzac Day ceremony, 25 April 2014, Mt Scopus War Cemetry, Jerusalem.

Why House of Cards is a good cure for political cynicism

Like a lot of Israelis, I am a big fan of US culture. And like a lot of people who work in my field, US politics is an abiding interest and passion.

Put the two together, and the result is a vaguely unhealthy obsession.

The latest incarnation of this obsession is House of Cards, the made-for- Netflix political thriller starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. Underwood starts life as Majority Whip in the US Congress and rises, by the end of season two, to the cusp of the presidency.

Underwood is Machiavelli on steroids. Everything is pure political calculation. And everything is on the table if it furthers Underwood’s ambition.

Morality plays absolutely no role in Underwood’s life. Sentimentality and loyalty get only short shrift. Laws are there only to be skirted. It is pure pragmatism all the way. It is a bracing view of political life, but one which is refreshingly honest. And it is fast becoming a cultural reference point.

I’m amazed at how many conversations I have in Israel where House of Cards comes up. Increasingly it is finding its way into the opinion pages of newspapers, where Israeli ministers and politicians are measured up against the benchmark of Frank Underwood – and usually found wanting. Kurt Campbell, writing in The Financial Times earlier this month, noted the show has a huge following among the senior Chinese leadership in Beijing.

Apparently, the show confirms the suspicion and cynicism of many about how Washington actually works.

Even at home, my wife and I often ask one another – sometimes in jest, sometimes in earnest – “What would Frank Underwood do?” The House of Cards phenomenon seems to be part of a growing zeitgeist in how we view and analyze politics.

Only 10 years ago, our view of US politics was that enshrined by The West Wing and the biennial Bob Woodward books which documented the intrigues inside the US administration of the day.

These were dramas populated by larger-than-life figures and colossal policy struggles or questions of right and wrong. While sizeable egos were abundant, the ultimate story line was one of public service, not private ambition. It was about people striving to improve their country and the welfare of the citizenry. It was policy first, politics and personal advancement second.

But these days, the story line is very much about politics and personal advancement first, with policy a distant second. Mark Leibovich captured this mood with his bitingly cynical account of political life in Washington, DC, This Town. The HBO comedy Veep is the farcical – but deeply plausible – account of an ambitious vice-president struggling for relevance and advancement.

House of Cards lacks the comedy or light touch which infuses these other two, but it exceeds them both in portraying the dark arts of politics at an entirely new level of professionalism.

One cannot help but grudgingly admire the grand strategy and sheer cunning Frank Underwood brings to politics.

Commentators and politicians tend to bemoan the growing public disenchantment with politics, and the mistrust with which they view their political class. This is a trend just as evident in Australia as it is in Israel or the United States. And many will decry House of Cards for further fueling such cynicism.

But I question whether such a trend is in fact malignant. Too often public disapproval of politicians stems from unrealistic expectations about how much power and freedom elected politicians actually enjoy. People vote for an individual or party expecting them to implement their ambitious mandate and deliver on their (usually inflated) promises.

But once in office, politicians find themselves hemmed in from all sides – by their colleagues, their opponents, the checks and balances built into the system, pressure groups, continual polling and a relentless and probing media on a 24-hour news cycle.

Getting anything done proves difficult, never mind implementing your grandiose promises. Nasty compromises, unholy alliances and unpalatable trade-offs are the stock in trade if you want to make progress. Public disappointment and disillusionment invariably follow. My suspicion, though, is that politics is not getting any worse – but that what has changed is the level of realism by which we judge politicians. We tend to delude ourselves that there was a time when elected officials put country first and base political motives played no part.

But it has never been thus, even during times of war or existential crisis.

Anyone who has read Quintus Cicero’s advice to his older brother, Marcus, about how to run for Roman Consul in the elections of 64 BCE, will know that cynicism in politics is one of the few givens.

House of Cards gives people a taste of politics as it really is, rather than the highly idealized West Wing version of how we might wish politics to be. In that sense it may be, counterintuitively, one of the best cures for public disenchantment with politics.