Sunday, July 14, 2013
We were headed for the battlefields of Gallipoli, site of the attempted invasion by England and France, site of Ataturk’s great battle success. We’d been on the bus for hours getting here, and to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been to battlefields before, Vicksburg and whathaveyou, but I had no idea of what was awaiting us.
Gallipoli is not just a battlefield. It is also a graveyard to the thousands upon thousands of young men who never left there.
We saw the pillbox machine gun nests first. These smallish grey concrete boxes clinging to the hillside and the beach seemed terribly incongruous with the deep aquamarine of the ocean below. Several of them had tumbled from their supports and were slowly being eroded by the waves.
Next came the first cemetery at Anzac Cove. Just before we entered the graveyard, we stopped to read Ataturk’s words on a huge sculpture nearby. Of Gallipoli, he said:
"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."
By the time I got through reading it, I had tears in my eyes. How many world leaders have had the grace and the basic humanity to say something like this about an enemy that had tried to kill them personally? The magnitude of understanding and compassion in this inscription is something we could use today, the ability to recognize that the things that divide us don’t have to demonize the other side.
In addition to the absolute heart-break of the ages is the fact that almost every one has an additional
inscription. Many are the repetitive stock phrases we employ as epitaph. Some are wrenchingly personal – a message telling the departed that his sisters will miss him, a phrase somehow managing to express pride and endless grief at the same time. Some people have traveled great distances to lay crudely fashioned crosses against the base of the markers. Others have stuck silk “buddy poppies” in the crevasses of the massive stone walls of names beside the one their family lost in the battle.
I could feel the weight of the place like a physical hand on my back. We stopped once more to see the trenches in which this bloody bit of history had happened. Now, they look so innocuous. It’s hard to imagine anything more complex than a child’s game of hide and seek happening in the shallow timber-reinforced structures. The moment that it sinks in that this is the ground that ran red and that this is the place where Ataturk told his men, “I’m not commanding you to fight. I am commanding you to die,” it can never be seen as a playful place again.
Surreally, as we wound our way down the recently repaved roads, we began to pass picnicking families, men who had strung up hammocks between the trees near the beach. Little children were splashing and dunking one another within sight of one of the crumbling pillboxes. A brightly-colored kiosk selling cotton candy and ice cream beckoned. I could not resolve these things in my mind, the stark rows of stones marching across the hill and the red and white flowered beach umbrella.
Perhaps, in the end, the children and the ice cream were actually always a part of it. Both sides surely thought they were doing what was necessary, right, and good to allow safety for all things, even children at play. History tells us that without the Turkish victory at Gallipoli, the modern nation I am in right now would not exist in this form. Maybe after all, all of those who laid down their lives on those shores, so many of them really just kids themselves, would be proud to see that the grim grey pillboxes are not all of the story.