Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on yesterday’s Anzac Day celebrations

April 26th, 2013

Yesterday’s Anzac Day saw the usual strong turnout at dawn ceremonies, to mark an occasion that is already displacing Waitangi Day – if we can believe the newspaper polls – as the de facto day on which we celebrate our national identity. If that is the case now, how much more so next year – when we will mark the 100th anniversary of the Great War of 1914-1918, and the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II? And the year after that, the Anzac Day of 2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of the landing at Gallipolli, with everything that campaign has come to signify for our sense of nationhood. The next two Anzac Days will be special.

As many commentators have noted, the relatively recent upsurge of support for Anzac Day has been marked by the enthusiastic participation of young people in the commemorative ceremonies. In some respects, that’s welcome. There are not many events on the national calendar that express such respect for the contributions made by previous generations. In contrast, the Labour Day set aside in October to commemorate the struggle by organised labour to win the eight hour working day that is now enjoyed by all New Zealanders has been virtually emptied of its historical meaning. Also, it is worth noting that the young who celebrate Anzac Day and its message of sacrifice for the collective good are the same generation that has been raised on the mother’s milk of Rogernomics. In normal circumstances, they would probably be asking for a cost benefit analysis of Gallipolli before committing themselves to such altruistic folly.

Which raises a related point. If there is any downside to the resurgence of enthusiasm for Anzac Day, it would be the seemingly uncritical nature of that support. If Anzac Day truly was an occasion marked by a critical assessment of the politico-military backdrop for such bravery – which would require an explicit recognition that such bravery and attendant loss of life has often occurred in the service of stupidity and political calculation – then maybe we would be doing an even greater honour to those who served. One can assume that they would not have wanted their loss to become a way of gilding the often vain and politically motivated decisions that cost them so dearly.

Which is to say that a healthy celebration of Anzac Day should inspire feelings of ambivalence, not just a simple glorification of the events and the suffering they entailed. The principles involved are alive and still controversial – as we saw last week, when the conscientious objection that is also part of our Anzac Day story, cropped up again in the debate over same-sex marriage.

I’m not implying that people who turn out for the dawn parade and other Anzac Day ceremonies don’t have mixed feelings about military service, and about the sacrifices it involves. There is hardly a New Zealand family tree that hasn’t lost some relative at Gallipolli or the Somme, at El Alamein, Crete or Cassino. We know this stuff. The point is that the official tone of the day’s events is almost uniformly celebratory – which is arguably not the best or only way of honouring those who died, or those who came home wounded in various ways. In the process the allegedly glorious nature of the human sacrifice involved tends to drown out the consideration of the horrors of war, and the craven nature of many of the decisions that generated them.

The troops in the field certainly felt that ambivalence keenly. As Anthony Hubbard pointed out in an interesting Listener article in the mid 1990s, the Kiwi soldiers often railed against their British commanders:

“The men are horribly bitter against Winston Churchill,” one officer noted in his diary on May 25, 1915. “They say we are sent here with no guns, little ammunition, no aeroplanes and the whole adventure is a betrayal. Their language is blasphemous, but deadly earnest.”

And here’s the same issue, in its modern guise. Can we entirely and separately honour say, the 10 New Zealanders who have died on active service in Afghanistan – and who were prominently invoked in yesterday’s ceremonies – while still separating their loss from being actively critical of the political decisions that put them in harm’s way? It is possible to do, but it isn’t easy. Almost inevitably, the honouring tends to cast a golden glow over the entire context – or worse, the criticism of the politics involved is taken to be disrespectful of those that died. That’s one reason why militarism loves Anzac Day: it’s really good for the brand.

Such issues will become more pointed over the next two years. Right now, and as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Great War in 2014, we definitely seem to be casting our Anzac Day ceremonies more in the spirit of Rupert Brooke than of Wilfrid Owen. Brooke, you’ll recall, was the young poet who at the outset of the war, wrote gloriously about how if he died in the service of his country – which he was soon to do – there would be a corner of some foreign field which would be forever England. By the end of the same war, another young poet called Wilfrid Owen (who died in action a week before the Armistice, at the age of 25) – wrote scathingly about Brooke’s empty-headed kind of patriotism in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Owen directed his final stanza squarely at those who preach to the young about the glories of military sacrifice:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

In other words….Anger deserves to be as much a part of the emotional landscape of Anzac Day, as gratitude.


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    1. 12 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on yesterday’s Anzac Day celebrations”

    2. By Duncan Stuart on Apr 26, 2013 | Reply

      Excellent article Gordon. That sense of ambiguity is certainly there about ANZAC day. I sense in the social media that most comments are about the soldiers who gave their lives – their awful sacrifice – and very little about being pro-war. Perhaps Vietnam marked the turning point; the junction at which we unhitched the engine of commemoration from the baggage car of Colonel Blimp-ism.

    3. By Andrew P Nichols on Apr 26, 2013 | Reply

      The best and only way to honour the fallen service men and women (and the all the dead and maimed of war) is to find some way to prevent our politicians joining more wars….On the eve of yet another orchestrated war against Syria as a stage on the road to the bigger conflict with Iran…how can we stop them?

    4. By Frankie on Apr 26, 2013 | Reply

      Pat Barker’s Regeneration is about Owen and Sassoon meeting at Craiglockhart, Owen for shellshock and Sassoon for his critique of the war. It’s worth reading

    5. By Carolyn Lahikainen on Apr 26, 2013 | Reply

      I agree Gordon. My father fought in WWII and carried the grief and anger to his grave.

    6. By keef on Apr 26, 2013 | Reply

      thanks gordon – i keep seeing the phrase “lest we forget” in the papers etc., but no-one seems to remember what it is that we shouldn’t forget!

    7. By Joe Blow on Apr 26, 2013 | Reply

      “empty-headed patriotism” (i.e. nationalism). I guess it’s about viewing ourselves on the international stage as a nation. Unlike with Waitangi Day which represents the birth of our nation – a domestic event. Labour Day focuses on a particular class and like Waitangi Day celebrates a domestic event… I can’t think of another celebration we have that celebrates us as a nation on the international stage.

      My grandfather was a conscientious objector so we never celebrated ANZAC Day in my neck of the woods.

      I know, we should celebrate the day we became nuclear free or something like that… the day we caught the French terrorists day… Rainbow Warrior Day? Springbok Tour Protest Day?

    8. By Elyse on Apr 27, 2013 | Reply

      Thanks you for a balanced point of view on this, Gordon.

      WW1 adversely affected generations of kiwi families, my own included. Luckily there is now a place for conscientious objection, thanks to the true sacrifices of men like Archibald Baxter, father of James K and the author of ‘We Will Not Cease” his book (well worth reading) about his experience of objecting during WW1. He was sent to the front where he was tied to a stake within firing range. Called a coward by the brass, he was lauded by ordinary soldiers who supported him and recognised his bravery.
      I doubt that those caught in the current fervour for militarism and ANZAC Day are aware that our pinnacle of NZ manhood and bravery, Ed Hillary, was also a pacifist.

    9. By Joe Blow on Apr 27, 2013 | Reply

      I’ve got it! ANZUS Crisis Day!

    10. By Paul on Apr 27, 2013 | Reply

      My father served in the RNZAF during WW2 in the Solomon Islands. His oldest brother also was in the Solomon Islands with the 3rd NZ Division fighting inthe jungle. Out of all of them he had the worse experience of the lot and never got over it. I had three uncles in the 2nd NZ Division in North Africa and Italy. Another uncle served as part of the RNZAF contingent in the RAF in Europe. All of them never talked about their experiences except to their mates who had worn the uniform. I spent just over 11 years in uniform for this country and very proud of every minute of it. When I was accepted my father and my uncles explained to me in no uncertain terms what I was getting myself into. The first thing I was told was that I could be sent to war and be killed or have to kill. That was the risk I had to accept before I signed up. So I knew what I was signing up for. One other thing the taught me was this: Politicians create the mess, start the wars and its poor buggers like us who have to go and clean up the mess by dying and bleeding. Some of us come home; some of us don’t.

      I notice comments here about militarism but any fool can yap about the glory of war or the glory of pacificism. Ask a combat veteran about the futility of war and you might get an answer that is close to the truth. Sure as hell don’t ask a politician because all they do is talk the talk and very few walk the walk. Out of all our present politicians I probably could count on one hand those who would have the guts to face the enemy in combat or have the courage to stand by their convictions like Arcibald Baxter did. I can admire a man like Baxter because of his courage. How many of you who comment on this can honestly say you could do one or the other?

    11. By david on Apr 29, 2013 | Reply

      If people were really remembering those who died for our freedom, why aren’t they getting more upset that it is being taken away.

      It’s just becoming a trojan horse for attacking Waitangi Day. I can’t stand among a bunch of people in front of a cenotaph when I feel at least some of them are buying into the neo-fascist arguments against Waitangi Day.

    12. By Ian on Apr 30, 2013 | Reply

      Whether its ANZAC Day in this part of the world or Armistice Day in the UK and elsewhere, I always find the message a bit muddled. But how can it be otherwise? World War One was an utterly senseless, pointless bloodbath. All we can do about it is mourn the horrendous loss of life. But World War Two, with its equally horrendous loss of life, was, nevertheless, a necessary war. Any chance that any of us have had of living a half-decent life in a half-decent world,we owe to those who fell in that terrible conflict. And so gratitude gets mixed up with the mourning. And maybe it’s permissible for a little pride to creep in. Personally, I wear a poppy out of respect for the memory of my late father, who volunteered for the RAF in early 1940. He wasn’t an air ace but a guy on the ground with overalls and a screwdriver, who helped keep the planes flying. He’s still my idea of of a hero and the finest person I ever met.

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