As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, which Australians and New Zealanders commemorate as Anzac Day, I try to explain how examining the past can help us shape the future.
As commemorations go, Anzac Day is an interesting anomaly. Very few nations, with perhaps the exception of Israel, take care to remember defeats in the same way as we do every 25th April. There are several theories about why this is, one prominent proposition being that it was our first major battle after federation and therefore our baptism of fire as a nation.
Another, put forward by military historian Professor Peter Stanley from the University of New South Wales in Canberra, speculates that our commemoration isn’t really about the battle. “It’s the deaths of those who served and the fact of sacrifice,” he surmises. “That’s probably better than celebrating a great victory because it focuses on the human.” From this defeat we’ve built our national identity on the core values of courage, endurance, sacrifice and mateship.
There are parallels here. Those who’ve visited Hiroshima will know that the museums and memorials there have less to do with depicting World War II than they do commemorating the lives of ordinary Japanese people affected by the dropping of the atomic bomb.
What do we learn from history? I pondered this question in light of the forthcoming anniversary in combination with the recent launch of the Australian Institute of Project Management’s History of PM in Australia site.
Raphael Israeli, author of Defeat, Trauma, Lesson: Israel Between Life and Extinction, writes that commemorating calamities is sometimes used “to avoid falling into the trap of hubris”. In many cases it’s true that failure is a great teacher.
But history can’t just be about lessons learnt. Perhaps it is also about how we deal with both victory and defeat and how we build resilience from our experience to serve our future. We avoid reinventing the wheel and instead begin to reinvent ourselves.