The Dadaist protests at Te Tii marae on February the 6th prompted many conservative Kiwis to once again demand that Waitangi Day be junked, and April the 25th be made into New Zealand's national day. 'If Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it', former Act MP Muriel Newman proclaimed, as she condemned Maori radicals and other dildo-throwers and called for John Key to make his boycott of Te Tii permanent.
A post at The Standard also counterposed Waitangi Day to Anzac Day, but argued that February the 6th was a more auspicious date than April the 25th. Many of the The Standard's readers used the comments thread under the post to attack Anzac Day as a glorification of war and misogyny, and to suggest that it should be ignored rather than celebrated. Here's a comment I made at The Standard:
I think some of the commenters here underestimate how much variety and contradiction there has been within Anzac Day commemorative activities, and overestimate how much external opposition there has been to Anzac services.
One commenter claims that ‘Anzac Day used to be full of protests’. In the 1930s left-wing opponents of fascism sometimes leafleted Anzac services at the Domain. Decades later a few members of Nga Tamatoa also intervened in services, laying wreaths for the Maori victims of the New Zealand Wars. Early in the twenty-first century tiny groups of opponents of New Zealand deployments in Afghanistan, Timor Leste and the Solomons disrupted some Anzac Day services in Wellington. It would be hard to claim that there has been a continuous or strong tradition of protest on Anzac Day.
Within the Returned Services Association and other groups connected to Anzac Day, though, there has been much more conflict over how to view war than is sometimes suspected. In the aftermath of World War One, when decisions about how best to remember the war’s dead were being made, the RSA and other groups were riven with arguments between those who wanted a Christian theme for remembrance and those in favour of secularism at ceremonies. Significant disputes also took place between veterans inclined towards pacifism and those who were ardent imperialists and militarists. These conflicts are reflected in the widely varying styles of our early war memorials (some use crosses, many use pagan symbols like the obelisk) and the many different texts on these memorials (some are very jingoistic, others focus on the tragedy of war). Maureen Sharpe described some of these disputes in an essay for New Zealand Journal of History.
There was a very strong movement immediately after World War Two amongst veterans of that conflict to support the Labour government and its wartime nationalisations of key industries. In 1945 left-wingers inside the Returned Services Association helped organise a monster rally against fascism and for the nationalisation of the means of production outside parliament.
Although the Returned Services Association had a well-deserved reputation for reactionary attitudes in the decades after World War Two, it nevertheless contained many members and even some leaders with anti-war and anti-imperialist views. The Papatoetoe branch of the RSA, for example, was led for some time by Steve Hieatt, a communist trade unionist who had led the Mangakino power workers off the job during the 1951 Waterfront Lockout and who helped found Auckland’s movement against the Vietnam War a decade and a half later. Hieatt volunteered for and fought in World War Two, because he saw the necessity of defeating Hitler, but he nevertheless took part in a rank and file mutiny during his basic training, in protest at the conditions he and his comrades were kept in. (I knew Hieatt at the end of his life, when we were both members of the Anti Imperialist Coalition formed to protest the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.)
It is simplistic to say that Anzac Day has become nothing more than a celebration of violence. Anzac Day ceremonies vary greatly from place to place, and sometimes have militarist overtones. More often, though, they show the influence of a strange sort of pacifism. In the post-Vietnam, post-Anzus era New Zealand governments have only been able to justify sending troops abroad by making arguments that cynically invoke pacifism and peacemaking. When our troops intervened help overturn Timor Leste's elected president and to support one set of Iraqi theocrats against another our leaders talked about honouring New Zealand's history of playing the peacemaker, and about our duty to make the world safer. The sort of bellicose, Anglomaniacal rhetoric that William Massey deployed when he sent troops off to die in Turkey is no longer saleable. Most of the young people who attend Anzac commemorations would never think of themselves as militarists.
Perhaps we should try to reform Anzac Day, so that it becomes a day for remembering and discussing history, rather than an exercise in myth-making? A good place to start would be insisting that on the 25th of April we remember that the first Anzacs died in the Waikato, helping conquer the territory of an independent Maori state. When the right tries to glorify Willie Apiata, we should talk about left-wing war heroes like John Mulgan and Steve Hieatt.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]