Anzac Day : Identity Politics, With Guns

There’s a void in our sense of nationhood, and Anzac Day is a key way we’re choosing to fill it
by Anne Russell

To most people in their twenties and younger living in New Zealand, the commemoration of Anzac Day has always been a significant event on the public calendar. Contemporary Red Poppy Day collections draw almost $2 million in donations to the RSA, dwarfing the annual collections of almost any other charity in New Zealand. Tens of thousands of people around the country attend Dawn Ceremonies to pay their respects to fallen soldiers, with a variety of music, art, and community events leading up to April 25th. The atmosphere around Anzac Day is set to reach fever pitch next year with the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign; the government has allocated $17.2 million towards projects commemorating WWI, including a war memorial park that is currently under construction around the Carillon in Wellington. To many, it appears that Anzac Day is and will remain a permanent fixture in New Zealanders’ cultural and political lives from here on.

Dominant culture is vigilant about the need to remember the events of Gallipoli, and over the years has collated a vast array of research and art on the topic, including the minutiae of soldiers’ meals in the trenches, letters home, war diaries and so forth. This forms a contrast with how discourses around Anzac Day largely remain silent about the day’s own history as a commemorative event. In a world of increasingly fragmented media, it is difficult to keep track of Anzac Day’s cultural evolution from year to year, let alone decade to decade. However, even cursory research into media reports from the past forty years reveals a cultural shift in the commemoration of Anzac Day. Among other things, turnout at Dawn services has increased significantly in recent decades. Contemporary numbers are estimated at 3,000-4,000 in Wellington, and 10,000-15,000 in Auckland. Newspaper reports from the 1970s and 80s estimated Wellington turnouts at 300-800, and Auckland at anywhere from 600 to 4,000.

Some themes have remained a constant in mainstream Anzac Day media reports over the past forty years. The Queen’s message printed in the Evening Post in 1973 praised “those, who by countless deeds of courage and sacrifice, gave so much during two world wars”, a sentence which could easily have been printed last year. However, Dawn Ceremonies themselves are somewhat shaped by the political contexts of their time. In 1973, the year after conscription was abolished, the MP for Kapiti Frank O’Flynn, a Catholic and former WWII fighter pilot, said that “very little indeed had ever been achieved by wars” and that “today’s generation, or some of them, questioned the principles by which their fathers and grandfathers had fought.” Similarly, the Catholic Archbishop Tom Williams said the following in an address at the national War Memorial in 1982, the year of the Falklands War:

We are all convinced that war is hell. We all feel that something is tragically wrong…when there are accumulated throughout the world the equivalent of five million Hiroshima bombs; when the ratio of civilians to military casualties in modern warfare is five to one. When millions of refugees water roads and fields and transit camps with their tears. When we have seen committed the ultimate obscenity of military strategists priding themselves in possessing the capacity to employ ‘clean’ bombs which obliterate life but preserve property.

We sense that even if the Falkland Islands issue is resolved without armed conflict, there is still the Middle East, there is still Namibia, there is still Poland and Afghanistan and El Salvador.

This message contrasted sharply with Sir John Marshall’s one in Auckland the same year, which stressed the need for New Zealanders to be vigilant against internal security threats including communism. Nevertheless, Williams’ address represents an explicitly anti-war rhetoric not commonly heard at contemporary Dawn Ceremonies. These ceremonies are more likely to discuss war as a distant reality, with only marginal relevance to most New Zealanders; take Governor-General Silvia Cartwright’s 2006 address at the National War Memorial in Wellington, which ran: “We give thanks to those who are currently serving our country as peacekeepers in areas of conflict. We do so because while we enjoy peace, many people around the world are not as fortunate.” The reframing of military action as peacekeeping operations, which the United Nations dramatically increased after the end of the Cold War, is arguably a reaction to the growing unpopularity of war as a method for conflict resolution. But as the effects of warfare on most New Zealanders’ daily lives diminish, Anzac Day grows ever more culturally prominent.

This remarkable change can be traced through the New Zealand Listener’s commentary on Anzac Day. Given its current incarnation as a magazine for middle-class baby boomers, many younger New Zealanders are not aware of the Listener’s long history as a liberal to leftist magazine. As such, the Listener’s coverage of Anzac Day during the 1970s and 1980s was scanty at best. Some years there were no articles on Anzac at all; other years there might be a one-page piece, or merely an advertisement for Anzac-themed radio programmes.

The few featured articles were often fairly negative. In a 1973 article on songs of the Anzac troops, WWII veteran Les Cleveland wrote of his military service: “We had our bursts of heroic excitement, but mostly we were bored, miserable, depressed, anxious, and often terrified to the point of nervous collapse.” Cleveland was part of a generation who had suffered the realities of WWII both at home and abroad, and the resultant trauma still sent waves through the next generation even in comparative peacetime. That next generation’s attitudes to war were additionally shaped by growing up in the shadow of the nuclear bomb. These factors perhaps made people more likely to express pronounced anti-war sentiments than many New Zealanders today.

A significant change in the prominence, content and tone of articles on Anzac Day can be seen around the turn of the century. In a cover story in 2000 titled “Lest We Forget: Families of War”, Tim Watkin noted the generational shift in how Anzac Day was being commemorated, writing that “it’s the children who want to know” about their grandparents’ experiences of war. Watkin suggested that the growing popularity of Anzac Day was partly a response to a void in many New Zealanders’ understanding of their cultural identity and history.

His article noted, and also somewhat typified, the shift towards an abstract understanding of Anzac Day – writing that veterans were more inclined to keep quiet about any battlefield violence they had been involved in. “Today, we choose to remember the ANZAC spirit over the ANZAC reality,” Watkin wrote.

Even the nature of outright dissent around Anzac Day has changed. In particular, those involved in present-day student activism and/or various identity politics are less likely to take part in anti-Anzac Day activism than their predecessors. During the 1970s and 80s, the Evening Post newspaper routinely reported on how feminist, anti-racist and gay rights advocates caused controversy around Anzac Day ceremonies. Both feminist and gay rights groups often laid wreaths to acknowledge how women and gay people are killed and raped in war. Feminists spraypainted “Women against male wars” on the war memorial in Brooklyn, Wellington in 1979.

That same year, Anzac Day supporters in Auckland reportedly had “a scuffle” with some Polynesians carrying banners that referred to Maori deaths in “capitalist wars”. In a similar vein, the RSA had a dispute with the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association in 1973 over VUWSA’s wreath that read “To those who have died and are dying in the struggle against imperialism. Victory shall be theirs.” The student union president Peter Wilson was quoted as saying “One does not have to be a radical to recognise that people have died fighting imperialism.” This was a reference to the Vietnam War, in which New Zealand soldiery was then fighting alongside the US.Some VUWSA executives laid a wreath with that same inscription in 2006 and 2007 (though not always on behalf of VUWSA itself), and the union sparked controversy by opting to not lay a wreath at all in 2009.

However subsequent VUWSA executives, along with those of other student unions, have favoured lending active support to Anzac Day. “Some students do not support laying a wreath, but most students do not wish to see ANZAC Day politicised and instead see it as an important day to remember those who lost their lives,” said VUWSA president Max Hardy in 2010; a sentiment echoed by president Bridie Hood in 2012.

Despite its inherently political nature, Anzac Day has thus been effectively portrayed as a neutral institution, to which any opposition is perceived as extraordinary and ideological. Many students and people from minority groups still suffer the consequences of opposing Anzac Day and its associated militarism—an acquaintance of mine was recently punched in the face while putting up an anti-Anzac Day poster at Victoria University. However, these groups as a whole are increasingly less likely to oppose Anzac Day, given that women and queer people are now included within modern militaries. The anti-war spark has particularly been removed from dominant queer politics, now that queer pride parades have an NZDF contingent.

To outsiders, the military thus appears a more inclusive and humane institution than ever before. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Western militaries to argue convincingly that their soldiers are sacrificing themselves to preserve the freedoms of their nation. The Pentagon has recently recognised this in their decision not to grant military medals to drone pilots. Indeed, in a time of drone technology and outsourced militaries, wars led by the United States increasingly entail the detached elimination of the barely glimpsed citizens of distant countries. Tragic as the NZDF deaths in Afghanistan were, eleven deaths over twelve years are not comparable to the hundreds of thousands of Afghanis who were killed, maimed and had their land destroyed during the same period. In contrast, 2,721 New Zealand soldiers really did die at Gallipoli on behalf of the state, regardless of whether individuals think this was a necessary or noble thing to do. Such suffering makes for moving speeches in front of war memorials, despite the tenuous relevance that those wars have in shaping contemporary New Zealand culture, outside of the Anzac discourses.

Since the end of the Cold War, Western countries have had a difficult time finding an external force to rally their nations against. Since 9/11, terrorism has largely taken communism’s place as a shadowy threat to dominant New Zealand culture, but its amorphous nature and rarity in this part of the world make it difficult to project as a tangible enemy in Anzac Day rhetoric. However, sabre-rattling does occasionally make it into media commentary. Take for example the Listener cover story in 2006 by Denis Welch called “Doves of War: The Disarming of New Zealand”, which called for honouring the ANZAC troops’ legacy via increased defence spending (although it is worth noting that Budget 2005 had already added $451.4 million to defence and outlined a ten-year plan for further increases). Welch’s fairly emotive article praised the idea of fighting for the “yet-to-be-born”. “And to do it—to not just fight, but be prepared to fight—means striking warlike postures in times of peace, even when no threat looms,” he wrote. To keep peace, one must endlessly prepare for an unspecified war.

Again, these highly ideological stances are framed as pragmatism, lending them a legitimacy rarely granted to emotive display. For the most part, society tells those who suffer trauma to suck it up and move on from their past. This is, of course, a difficult task if and when trauma stems from ongoing poverty, racism, gender oppression, and other forms of social violence; and when, not coincidentally, mainstream society has little sympathy for these traumas. This “suck it up” attitude is particularly noticeable around Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s other big nation-building exercise. Frequently, mainstream newspapers contain opinion pieces by white men such as Sir Paul Holmes and Sir Bob Jones about how the day should be abolished, as colonisation is supposedly no longer a part of New Zealand identity to be acknowledged or dealt with.

Anzac Day, on the other hand, represents a culturally-mandated re-opening of trauma, one that is regarded as seemingly impossible and even undesirable for the nation to move beyond. On hearing the wounded reactions to critiques of Anzac Day from those deeply invested in the event, one sometimes wonders if this is the first time that such people have ever been told that their cultural pain is un-important. To suggest ways in which New Zealand as a culture might move on from the horrors of Gallipoli is verboten, and questioning whether the Anzac story should continue to shape narratives of the nation-state is cast as insensitive and unseemly.

Nation-building exercises often work in this manner; New Zealand is not unique in building a national identity upon a pile of corpses. Nation-building exercises cannot permit the fundamental question—is it worth building or maintaining a governmental system that requires its citizens to kill and be killed? The nobility automatically conferred upon troops is less about their humanity—and indeed, their individual motives for serving in the military—and more about the essential role of troops in the maintenance of the state. To meaningfully question how and why countries sent and still send their citizens to war is thus virtually impossible without calling the nation-state itself into question.

Can we reject warfare and nationalism while still acknowledging the painful experiences of soldiers, their families and friends? Many think that such a critique is a vital part of ensuring that people are not employed to die and kill on behalf of a military-industrial complex. However, it is hard to believe that the primary directors of Anzac Day—the NZDF, including Veterans’ Affairs, and the RSA—have much interest in remembering war as a horrific event to be avoided at all costs. Around the time of Anzac Day last year, the NZDF was actively looking for new jobs for its soldiers as their service in Afghanistan drew to a close; this despite a recently-leaked report that showed morale and mental health within the Defence Force was at a record low.

While Anzac Day is meant to be an occasion to reflect on New Zealand’s history, the actions of conscientious objectors, protesters against conscription, and those Maori people, women, queer people, leftists and Christian pacifists who have opposed militarism are almost always cast aside by Anzac Day discourses. It becomes unclear what freedoms the battle at Gallipoli managed to protect when those who oppose the Anzac Day are beaten up in public, and when those who burn the New Zealand flag are threatened with legal action.

In many quarters, Anzac Day has achieved the ultimate victory of an ideology by casting itself as an immutable fact of New Zealand life, an idea that forever was and forever will remain integral to the national consciousness. However, it is worth remembering that in 1915, New Zealand had only recently moved away from being a colony, becoming a Dominion within the British Empire as recently as 1907. Even now, that state’s legitimacy is still called into question by virtue of its colonialist foundation, particularly by groups like Tuhoe who never signed the Treaty of Waitangi. The refusal to acknowledge these critiques on April 25th means that the reflection so often called for on Anzac Day merely asks dominant culture to gaze at the surface image of itself, ignoring the troubled depths in the waters beneath it. Pacifists and anti-militarists may yet find success by looking elsewhere in Aotearoa for ways to honour the war dead, in order to ensure that war never happens again.