The changing meaning of Anzac Day
The increased popularity of Anzac ceremonies has puzzled and worried some observers on the left. Ever since it was founded in the aftermath of the 'war to end all wars', the Returned Servicemen's Association has been one of the most fiercely conservative organisations in New Zealand, an apparently unthinking defender of all sorts of mouldy traditions. Leftist scholar and politician Bruce Jesson remembered how he and many of his Republican friends became the target of violent assaults from RSA members every time they went to the cinema in the 1960s, simply because they refused to stand when 'God Save the Queen' was played before the film they had paid to see began. The RSA took a hardline stance on military conscription, on conflicts like the Vietnam War, and on nuclear ship visits.
It is not entirely surprising, then, that the increased attendances at the Anzac Day ceremonies the RSA runs have created some concern on the left. Is the new generation embracing militarist or ultra-nationalist ideas? Have they forgotten the RSA's lamentable political record?
I don't think that the large crowds turning out for dawn ceremonies are inspired by nationalism, or by an affinity with the politics the RSA has traditionally represented. I suspect that it is the very distance of the World Wars from the experience of young New Zealanders that has inspired a deep fascination with the conflicts. As the wars move out of the domain of memory and into the territory of myth and history, they have begun to inspire a sort of awe which is quite alien to the typical jingoist.
Twenty-first century New Zealand is a society where impassioned political debate about either domestic or foreign issues is rare. The major political parties offer very similar policy prescriptions, whether they are dealing with the economy or with international affairs. The forces which might prompt debate about fundamental features of New Zealand society are weak: the union movement has still not recovered properly from the defeats of the '90s, and Maori nationalism has been defanged for the moment by compromising leaders.
Political horizons have been lowered, and a generation has grown up without learning the concepts with which they might make a critique of their society. Yet there is much that can be criticised in that society. The same neo-liberal 'reforms' which devastated the labour movement also atomised New Zealand, breaking up old communities based on shared values and creating a much more geographically mobile population united by a culture of consumption rather than a common vew of the world.
In this environment, the history which Anzac Day commemorates seems both distant and strange. It is not only the epic events of Cassino or El Alamein that seem ungraspable - the society from which the New Zealand troops who fought at those places emerged also seems profoundly different from the one we inhabit now. The tight - sometimes suffocatingly tight - social ties and shared set of values of this society seem things of the past. So does the willingness of men and women to put their lives at risk in the name of a place and an ideology.
Many of the young people who turn out for the dawn ceremonies have little interest in the actual historical events of the first half of the twentieth century. They do not care about the earnest historiographical debates over the causes of the First World War, or the reasons why the Allies were able to defeat Hitler. They don't care about whether New Zealand was justified in launching its tragicomic invasion of Turkey in 1915, or whether the bombing of Hiroshima represented a war crime or not.
The essential irrelevance of the historical meaning of events like Gallipoli is shown by the lack of malice towards New Zealand's old enemies that the young attendees at dawn ceremonies show. The young Kiwis who travel to Turkey for the dawn ceremony at Anzac Cove, for instance, will happily sit down for a beer with Turks of their own age before and after the ceremony. Informal surveys by journalists in Turkey suggest that few of the tourists who go to Anzac Cove even know what the Ottoman Empire was, let alone the role it played in World War One.
What draws young people to Anzac Day is a set of images which represent an implicit contrast to the world which they inhabit. They are captivated by the self-sacrifice of the soldiers who went ashore at Gallipoli - by the dissolution of the individual human ego in the midst of the great tide of nationalism and social solidarity which World War One at first created. The fact that the sacrifices of Gallipoli were pointless is of little import: the solidarity of the soldiers and their devotion to something larger than themselves has the power to bewitch a generation which has grown up being told that the purpose of life is the accumulation of consumer goods. The young people who attend Anzac Day commemorations are making an inchoate and implicit critique of the New Zealand of today.