The Texans still remember the Alamo, the Land Down Under annually commemorates getting pointlessly slaughtered in Turkey, and not long ago in the cinemas we got to relive once again that amazing day when the Brits got kicked out of Europe by Nazis. Why are we so fixated by military defeats?
Who wants to be known for how brilliantly you can lose?
Turns out plenty of people do, and for some very good reasons.
If the war’s still raging, or if you live on one of those eternally strife-torn patches of dirt which planet Earth has in such great abundance, then obsessing over defeats is a great way to rile people up for some vengeful defeat-inflicting of their own. Everybody joins the army in a panic, then goes off shouting “Remember the Alamo!” as they mow down fleeing Mexicans. A similar thing can be said for the shocking defeats that linger in the mind long after the hatreds are forgotten. “Never again!” we say each time we hear the story of Pearl Harbor, “Never again!” A good defeat is a propaganda victory.
And an heroic defeat is a source of national pride.
Imagine a high-roller in a casino joking about that time he lost a million dollars on a bad bet. He isn’t pointing out his lack of judgement. He’s bragging about the fact he had a million dollars to lose in the first place. Same deal with the army. Look at the kinds of defeat we celebrate. They are never about that time we all ran away like cowards. They are always brilliant, like Dunkirk – an entire nation’s worth of amateurs in boats coming together to rescue their boys from the jaws of the Evil Empire. They are the kinds of defeats that you have to be kick-assingly amazing to pull off, like the Light Brigade suicidally charging the guns because that’s what they thought they’d been ordered to do, and by God they were going to do it!
Many of these sorts of defeats are self-inflicted (or ally-inflicted). The cause of failure therefore, is never truly the enemy. We failed. But we were not beaten. We were lions led by donkeys. Our pride, our sense of superiority, remains intact.
These defeats also tend to be set in the context of a wider victory. Dunkirk has its winning-twin in Normandy. If Dunkirk had merely been the prelude to a successful Nazi invasion of Britain, then Dunkirk would simply be too tragic to dwell on. But we won, so Hurrah!
So why celebrate the heroic defeat at all, rather than the more straightforward heroic victory?
Ask the Spartans.
Faced with an overwhelming Persian army, faced with certain defeat, he and his 300 Spartans and their Greek allies choose to stay and fight to the death. They fought till their spears shattered. They fought till all their leaders were dead. They fought till all they had were their hands, and their teeth. They fought till thousands of Persians lay dead around them. They fought until they themselves had been annihilated. They fought and they were defeated. But the way they fought made them immortal.
Defeats push people to the limits.
How long one holds out against overwhelming odds is the true test of one’s abilities. Winning is easy. Victory never reaches the true limits of endurance – otherwise you wouldn’t have won. Only in defeat are the limits of a fighting force discovered. Only in the heroic defeat, when the troops keep fighting beyond all hope, fighting to the very last man, do the men show that they have no limits, none except mortality itself.
In spirit they are undefeated.
In spirit they are victorious.
The event comes to transcend reality and enters myth.
Which brings us to the two nations who mythologize more about a military defeat than any other peoples on Earth: Australia and New Zealand. Their founding military myth, indeed one of the core founding myths of their national identities, is the story of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. This British led invasion of Turkey during the First World War was a disaster. A pointless waste. Nothing was achieved except slaughter. Yet in it the ANZACs earned themselves a reputation that would be inscribed forever on the soul of the nation. Each year the ANZACs are still remembered with dawn services and wreaths.
So why did Australia and New Zealand become so fixated on a tragedy when they would come to have plenty of more uplifting military stories to choose from? While many factors went into making Gallipoli sacred, a tragedy allows a far more complex response to war than a simple victory, or even a heroic defeat. War is tragic. Yet war is heroic. The celebration of heroic tragedy allows a people to express both the pride and pain of war.
Victory cannot handle this full range of emotions. Victory cannot handle the full depth of what war is. Victory is jingoistic, jubilant, glorious. Victory slides easy into self-glorification, and from there to foolishness and barbarism. The same degradation can befall a heroic tragedy as time passes and the tragic side is forgotten, yet even after a century that lingering dirge-call remains. The mind is brought back to the sorrow. War, heroism, and tears.
It says a lot about a people.
A nation’s preference for remembering loss over victory is a measure of a nation’s soul.
Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:
Read more on Wikipedia about the defeats mentioned …