Gordon Campbell on yesterday’s Anzac Day celebrations

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.