There is an ANZAC Day we could have, that occasionally peaks through the one we do have. It’s a day where pithy remarks like ‘Lest We Forget’ and ‘A Day of Remembrance’ have a meaning beyond uncritically elevating the soldiers of past conflicts to faceless saints, there for reverence only and never for genuine thought. As put by the Brisbane Times’ John Birmingham, ANZAC Day is now an effective secular holy day – complete with moronic holy crusades against those insufficiently on board for the righteous cause.
Though written for an Australian readership, the same rings true here for anyone who remembers last years absurd fit in the national media over Peace Action Wellington’s laying a wreath to civilians killed in war. Likewise, the same is true going further back to the flag burnings in the late 2000s at the very tail end of the anti-war movement; Gordon Campbell providing a good analysis of the annoyingly torturous legal proceedings that followed away back in 2010. National outrage over the slightest perceived slight to the great national myth can be traced right back to the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era, now some fifty years ago. Oddly the hysteria such acts might incur now was far more muted at the time, an inversion of what some growing up in the ’90s and ’00s might expect given the closer proximity at the time to the two world wars. Campbell again, writing in 2014, covered the changing nature of ANZAC Day well. It has shifted toward a more abstract nationalism in the past couple decades, it’s worth noting that this has occurred just as the war generations have begun to passed on.
New Zealand, likely owing to respective size more than anything, is not quite at the level of the mind-boggling expenditure on glossy war grandeur that Australia manages. Without falling into the tired trope of New Zealand being just fine by comparison to its larger sibling, Australian expenditure on the centenary peaks at $700 million thus far. As rightly pointed out by Ben Brooker for Overland, this is well beyond an order of magnitude greater than a comparable country like Canada (spending $31 million on its own commemorations). New Zealand’s own spending still handily outstrips Canada several times over, the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington alone having $120 million sunk into it by its completion in 2015.
Expenditure alone doesn’t necessarily mean much, some grant money making its way to the ANZAC Day that could be I referred to at the start of this piece. The visually striking Field Punishment No. 1 had a budget of $2.7 million to tell the story of conscientious objectors during the Great War, while Wellington radicals secured $5,000~ for an exhibition under the moniker Disrupting the Narrative around the same time. It was a pleasant surprise to see a piece detailing the little remembered Etaples mutiny in Stuff today, perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen the words ‘class consciousness’ used in a New Zealand newspaper.
The day that could be does, therefore, flicker into life from time to time. But the hysterics of the last few years mentioned above should temper hopes somewhat. Key’s bumbling dedication of military redeployment in Iraq to the ANZACs a few years ago, or his claim New Zealand was the only colony peacefully settled without conflict, serve as stark reminder that on a whole ANZAC day remains the concentrated spectacle of national myth. The day of introspection and commemoration not of brave soldiers who went to fight for their country and die for king & empire, but who were crushed in the gears of imperial war machine, is one that still could be not one that is. The gaudy debacle of Camp Gallipoli a few years past hovers just outside of memory as something closer to what we actually have. You, too, can sleep under the stars, get treated to a Shannon Noel gig, buy a $349 branded swag, and get dog tags stamped with the ID of actual fallen soldiers, just like the ANZACs! Today is still not one for a critical reevaluation of what this country’s surprisingly long military history actually means, so much as it is a reaffirmation that whatever it was – it was good and necessary to create New Zealand.
It is still too uncomfortable to note that the first time Australian and New Zealand troops fought together was in the Waikato. Still taboo to note that war hero Lt Gen Freyberg was borderline incompetent at Monte Cassino and served as a leader of Massey’s Cossacks in 1913. Still unnerving to mention wartime atrocities like the riots in Cairo in 1915 or the role utterly inadequate NZ colonial governing played in a fifth of Samoa’s population succumbing to Spanish Flu. Above all, it is still unacceptable to make public display the simple statement that the vast majority of conflicts NZ participated in were fruitless slaughter of working people on a truly titanic scale. The grueling, corpse littered rocks of Gallipoli; the model apocalypse at that five mile strip of poisoned mud in Passchendaele; not patriotic bravery but the primal heroism of mere survival.
Commemoration void of the call that war is little more than a massacre played out on the largest possible scale. Void of the promise that the nightmare visited upon the world over 1914-1918 will not happen again, will be resisted at any possible cost. Void of the painful clarity that a phrase like ‘Lest We Forget’ necessitates. That is a commemoration that amounts to little more than saluting the dead while pissing on their graves.