Thoughts on ANZAC Day.

Originally published on the groovefm Facebook page in mid April 2015

With the 100th year commemorations of WWI there comes an outpouring vicarious emotion and jingoistic fervour as both individuals and states alike clamour to align themselves with the myth of righteous sacrifice. There are two phrases that will be repeated endlessly in this part of the Pacific: “Gallipoli: The birth of a Nation” and the “The coming of age”. Both really grate with me. I’ve just been in Australia and witnessed first-hand the exploitation of BRANZAC: clothing, ornaments and trinkets, maps, books and TV docs that all point to the honour and sacrifice made by the ANZACs, a cashing in on the “spirit of the ANZACs. That spirit – “honour, sacrifice, mate-ship” is the unashamed currency both the New Zealand and Australian Prime Minsters recently chose to spend in when justifying their decisions and support for troops to return to the same part of the world where all this started: The Middle East. Granted, Iraq is slightly south on the map but the underlying, unspoken rationale for sending the troops is the a same. Commerce – The same driver as gross commercialisation of the ANZACs, and the same driver that brought any of us to Aotearoa in the first place. Cry all you want that I am pessimistic. But understand this: Able Tasman only found New Zealand and Van Diemen’s Land because he was in search of new Trade Routes; The Wakefields were the first mass scale property developers of the South Pacific and chose to exploit the maps of Cook (who was after all a merchant seaman with an explorer’s drive); early settlers came here for the Seal Trade; Early Settlers, although inspired by the ideals of escaping class infested Britain were still aspiring farmers, shopkeepers, publicans and industrialists. The whole point of the British Empire was commerce. So when New Zealand became a colony, and let’s not forget that we were so until the 1940’s, it was primarily for commercial reasons. We looked back to Britain as our market. This only changed when Britain abandoned us in the 1980’s and joined the EC.

New Zealanders and Australians along with every other Commonwealth country and colony fought alongside Britain to protect the empire. Yet we were never under threat here. Neither, was Britain. The war was to stop the expansion of Germany into Europe, to stop the increase of their empire and the collapse of the fragile Austro-Hungarian Empire, which until recently had been a strong German ally.   Don’t forget Germany was also a new Empire, being the bastard child of a unity of reluctant Germanic duchies cobbled together by Bismarck only 50 year’s prior, and led by a Prussian Prince, whose line of ancestry went back before the Napoleonic wars and would also later infest itself into the British Royal Family.

So all in all, the ANZACs were sold the myth of Empire defence, they were coerced to join the great adventure. If a nation was born it was as a consequence of war – the loss and devastation of an entire generation of men – of ideas, of innovations, of creativity. My grandmother’s generation suffered not once but four times as a consequence of a greedy, stubborn empire failing to assert itself effectively: WW1, The Great Depression, The Flu endemic and WW2 – all direct results of Empire and commerce and it’s failures.   Kiwis signed up to both the first and second world wars, in part because the suffered from an empirical version of ‘little brother’ syndrome and a fear of missing out. It’s likely that Australia felt the same. There has always been a chip on the shoulder and a desire to prove we are equal if not better, and possibly even more ‘English’ than the English. Australia, it seems was quicker to depart from this and quickly established their own cultural identity, but even into the 1990’s New Zealanders were struggling to find a different persona for themselves. The apron strings were as tough as the barbed wire that lined the battlefields of Europe.

In recent years we have observed a resurgence of the ‘ANZAC spirit’, which is meant to be a recognition of above anything else a sacred moral state, to which we can eternally aspire. Let’s break that down, shall we? ‘Honour’: If you mean blindly rushing in to support the idealistic notions of Empire and an even more blind faith in the concept of commerce as the only possible model for life in our land. Throughout my life the clarion cry has always been ‘protect our trade routes, defend our markets, insulate our farmers and nurture our innovators and manufacturers”. Never once, I think, had anyone stopped to question why? Why should we do this? Why should we go to battle so that we could protect the farmers and industrialists? To keep our economy buoyant? To protect our jobs? The jobs that are at the fickle mercy of the capitalists. The greed and devastation of the Great Depression showed how fragile the commercial world is. The recent economic crisis has showed that they have learned little, and yet every time, then and now the commercial barons argue they have little to spare for the workers whilst calling upon them to take up arms whenever their trade routes are in jeopardy. World War 1 was entirely about protection of their Empire. World War 2 was a reaction to the first but could that have been more justified? Was there honour in fighting in that war?

The ‘ANZAC Spirit’ also edifices ‘Sacrifice’. The word, itself implies a religious connection and a noble offering to the gods. Or to God, him/herself! Indeed all denominations of the spoke the rhetoric of ‘God’s Cause’, a language of the crusades, Christians vs. Moslems, either directly or indirectly, over their Sunday pulpits. The war was God’s righteous action and justified in the eyes of the church. Peace through violence was entirely sanctified. And so, even at Chunuk Bair, the most northern ground attained on Gallipoli, imbedded clergy were with the troops, to offer moral hope, assurances of righteous ness and inevitable a service of the last rights. Indeed, in this light, in this Holy Battle of the right Empire against the Wrong Empire: sacrifice was most appropriate. But our relatives, whether they believed in god or any deity, would never have signed on, had they known this. We all know they were simply cannon fodder, lambs slaughtered due to the incompetence of their leaders and the mighty will of the Turks to, understandably protect their lands. And we all know that the ‘great adventure’ and the swelling of patriotic mysticism were the tickets sold. These men did not die for their country, because there wasn’t one. They didn’t die under a New Zealand Flag. They died under a British Union Jack, one that barely acknowledged the small Colony from the South. We know that a sacrifice is often a willing subject, who can lay down life under the full belief that their actions are moral, right and beneficial. I’m not convinced that our troops really believed that once they were in play. Much of their heroic deeds were performed out of necessity and innovation, not for some greater noble cause. Close hand to hand action becomes far more primal in these situations – survival knows no borders or country to the individual.  

The final is ‘Mateship’. And there I will agree. In trying times all humans will look to one another for support. It’s a common held belief that Kiwis and Aussies are friendly and willing in nature. This is out of necessity. That same little brother’s chip refuses to allow us to be arrogant, or to brush off any potential mates that we happen across. We always need friends, especially those bigger than us. After all the ANZUS debate, the Four Eyes Debate, a seat on the UN Security Council: these have all been solid arguments for mates who rate.

‘Mateship’ was a quality that saw the ANZACs through very tough times on both the peninsular and later in Europe. Oddly, even in the RSAs and RSL’s they spoke, only in whisper of what they endured (but never to the civvies or family). We know little of their ordeal. The close fraternity that was assembled on the battlefield was, as you’d expect, unique to the times and the place. The ANZAC hospitality was grown on the battlefields of WW1 as a legend, like many of the times, because our laidback attitude and egalitarianism clashed so violently with the cold snobbery of the British Upper Class. WW1 was to be demarcation between the old world order and the rise of Socialism and Fascism. In a way World Ward 2 was also the reeling against that trend, albeit because of the inevitable destruction it was to lead to – racial and religious persecution, absolutism and fanatical devotion, all at the cost of liberalistic idealism and personal choice. One thing that Aussies and Kiwis have managed to salvage from the ordeal is our resolute belief in common sense and the common man. This has been eternally tested,   

 What drives the need for an ‘ANZAC Spirit’ is the desire to easily hang one’s hat on a catchphrase that summarises, at least in this country, our own national identity. The ‘ANZAC Spirit’ is best personified as a ‘smiling, ready-and-able soldier in a ‘Lemon Squeezer’ (note these weren’t issued in the first world war); a digger prepared to lay life on the line for country and religion (perhaps not so much of that now) and go into lands far and wide in the pursuit of the defence of democracy and individual freedom. We built our colony on the principles of freedom – from religious persecution, from ethnic persecution and from class persecution. Yet we are as guilty as any other in the British Empire of blundering through with righteous fervour, with commerce and profit at the forefronts of our minds, armed with a complete arrogance that God and morality our English inventions and therefore incorruptible truths. The reality is something we’ve only just come to realise, given our own short and bloody history. Our own internal race relations, especially with Asian immigrants and tanga whenua have not always been particularly honourable. Of course we are addressing this. The Waitangi Tribunal rulings, Maori Language Councils and language awareness programmes, Maoritanga and culture in schools, workplaces, even in the All Blacks. We include all ethnic groups in many festivals and in commercial arrangements, in fact we do everything possible to be egalitarian and equal where we can. And if we are not, someone will flag this up and it is considered and dealt with. If anything the ‘ANZAC Spirit’ should not be born of war but of the learning’s we made after the wars – with new immigrations from war ravaged lands we increase our cultural wealth, with new opportunities to trade outside Britain we made new trading partners and we became more interdependent, and more like citizens of the world.  Commerce is still a major driver of wars and of conflict. Nationalism clouds the rationale for entering a war. Patriotism further masks the reasons and hides the truth. We should always be wary when the ‘ANZAC Spirit’ is invoked as a flag in which to rally behind – Especially when a politician wants to justify a decision to go to war.

 This year we commemorate those who served, and those who fell in the Great War and every war since. And if we’ve learned anything, it’s to question and debate why we should every follow blindly into such predicaments again. All those people were caught up in the selfish, arrogant, and deluded actions of a small group. A hundred years on have we the courage to challenge the leaders of today? Why is violence still the only final solution? Are we not better than this?

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