Now that another years’ concentrated spectacle is a month or so passed, I thought I’d throw up a short reflection on ANZAC Day while I work on other projects. This year was the first I didn’t go to any services, bar perhaps a couple here or there while I was in school. In my last year of highschool I heard about the white poppy peace service, and for my undergraduate years at university attended those. Like a sizable number of those on the ‘radical left’ my deeply critical stance on the New Zealand military and its history does not actually predispose me to literally hating all soldiers. Beyond which I’ve thought a fair amount, recently, on my own great grandfather, a WWII veteran and prisoner of war. He was captured in the early stages of the North African campaign by Italian forces, and spent the better part of half a decade moving from camp to camp until eventually swapping hands. When he was finally liberated he’d been moved all the way to southern Germany, much of it on his own feet. It’s an important part of the family history, one I’d appreciate more of a chance to think about and discuss.
The decidedly depressing video of James Broome-Isa, 12 year old kid of NZ First’s chief of staff, berating peace activists for laying a wreath to the Afghani civilians killed in an SAS operation drove home my misgivings about the day. Misgivings that I’ve come to realise have been with me since long before I developed any considered opinions on the military. I think, specifically, it’s the line “This isn’t civilians, this is ANZAC!” that set my thoughts on the matter. ANZAC has ceased to really mean anything to do with serious military history or even those who fought in the various wars New Zealand fought over the last century or more. What in name is a day to commemorate fallen soldiers, and in theory is a fairly straightforward nation building exercise (with all that entails), in practice is almost something else again. If this is ANZAC, not civilians, where on Earth are the soldiers being drawn from? I know that’s facetious, but I do think Broome-Isa inadvertently touched on something a great many adults feel too. Soldiers are disembodied concepts more than people who endured terrible conditions for whatever reasons they went. They’re images of some frail national will projected into the void, unable to fully get purchase or form. Who are these soldiers but overwhelmingly working people? They leave behind work, families, communities, and the social situation is inevitably changed by their return, alive or dead. War never exists in the abstract, it exists out of the material conditions that give rise to them. Whether a war is formally fought for land, capital, money, political power or ideology. Why a war is fought, how it’s fought, where it’s fought, who is harmed the most and how much effort is expended to heal them, all impact not only the location of the war but all involved in it. It is certainly the case that the legacy of imperial intervention and our penchant to ‘crawl back into the womb of Empire’ in WWI, and that of fascism in WWII has shaped my own thinking over 70 years after my great grandfather was liberated.
It would seem, of all days, ANZAC Day is the one best suited for discussing the military history of New Zealand, whether you view it for good or ill. But where I usually get a glassy expression and general disinterest when I bring up local history, on military history – and especially at ANZAC Day – I get a palpable discomfort. As much as folk talk in vague yet solemn tones about the terrible conditions on the Turkish coast, French countryside, or Italian mountain ranges, they likewise become tight lipped and want to change the subject when a detailed discussion of those campaigns comes about. Even the basic mainstream overview of war is subject to awkward silence. An experience I had at the Gallipoli: Scale Of Our War exhibition illustrated this all rather well. Putting aside my view of the overall exhibit, one small section is of particular interest. There’s a rack in one of the larger rooms where visitors can leave behind messages written on replicas of the card available to soldiers at Gallipoli. Despite the supposed ‘gritty realism’ of the overall exhibition, the mood underlying the people viewing it (at least on the day I was there) was revealed in the messages left behind by visitors. Many of them declared the ANZACs defenders of democracy and the Ottomans an existential threat to New Zealand. Some took the chance to lash out horizontally against critics of the New Zealand military, declaring them ungrateful traitors. One in particular sticks in my mind: “Thank you for life, and loving me. I apologise for my failings. Please forgive me.” Soldiers are not soldiers, or workers, or even in an abstract way New Zealanders. They are reified, sacred figures; arbiters of that which is New Zealand.
The centenary of the Blackest Day is coming up this year, on October 12th. On that day in 1917 at Passchendaele, in northern France, some 845 New Zealanders were killed in an ill-fated assault on German lines in a matter of hours. Only eight days earlier over 300 had been killed in a successful but costly assault nearby. It remains the highest casualty disaster in New Zealand history, and it entirely comes down to the nonexistent value placed on the lives of those drawn into the Great War by their generals and leaders. It all seems terribly insulting when the history is considered. Those who fought, whether they wanted to or not, were workers on all sides. They’re effectively erased by the tendency to retrospectively force their newfound role as icons of a cynical nation building exercise. The actual ANZACs vanish before the spectacle of ANZAC, posters of handsome men charging along cliff faces take place of the broken heroes who genuinely returned. I feel, increasingly, as though ‘commemoration’ has become a byword for pissing on their graves. I’ll end here with a segment from an old Howard Zinn article that got his column in the Boston Globe cancelled, written for Memorial Day 1976, entitled Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?
It will also be celebrated by the display of flags, the sound of bugles and drums, by parades and speeches and unthinking applause.
It will be celebrated by giant corporations, which make guns, bombs, fighter planes, aircraft carriers and an endless assortment of military junk and which await the $100 billion in contracts to be approved soon by Congress and the President.
There was a young woman in New Hampshire who refused to allow her husband, killed in Vietnam, to be given a military burial. She rejected the hollow ceremony ordered by those who sent him and 50,000 others to their deaths. Her courage should be cherished on Memorial Day. There were the B52 pilots who refused to fly those last vicious raids of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s war. Have any of the great universities, so quick to give honorary degrees to God-knows-whom, thought to honor those men at this Commencement time, on this Memorial Day?
No politician who voted funds for war, no business contractor for the military, no general who ordered young men into battle, no FBI man who spied on anti-war activities, should be invited to public ceremonies on this sacred day. Let the dead of past wars be honored. Let those who live pledge themselves never to embark on mass slaughter again.
EDIT: The day after I posted this, a rather good article on this very subject was published on the online journal Public History Weekly. I’ve decided to link it here for those who might take interest.