Friday, March 11, 2016

Rethinking Anzac Day

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]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott you've mentioned before about supposed Anzacs dying in the Waikato. This just isn't true. The recruitment of these men was on many occasions from theVictorian goldfields . However virtually all of them were foreign born - mainly English and Irish. Australia is a twentieth century phenomenon and the Anzac terminology can only apply from 1915 onwards. The bones of Englishmen , Irishmen, New Zealanders and even New South Welshmen May lie buried in our Waikato soil but definitely no Anzacs

12:55 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

I disagree, anon - and so does Jeff Hopkins-Weiss, whose book Blood Brothers is the lengthiest study of the transtasman nature of the New Zealand Wars. Hopkins-Weiss subtitled his book The Anzac Genesis. Nations and national identities are usually created over time, in complex processes. Whilst Australian federation didn't occur until the 20th century, the concept of Australia was created in the 19th century. Adventures like the Waikato War, the war against the Mahdi in Sudan, the Boer War, and most crucially the war against Australia's indigenes helped to create a national identity. Even so, neither Australians nor New Zealanders necessarily stopped being British when they developed national identities.

6:48 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Here's a quote from the December 29th, 1863 edition of the Wellington Independent:

'The protection of Auckland, which it has been part of the plan of the natives to surprise, is committed to the citizens, and the arrangements are said to be excellent. In the meantime, the Australians are energetic in support of the sister colony. Except six drill instructors, every British soldier on that vast territory has been sent off to- New Zealand, and the local duties will be performed by Volunteers. Besides this, the Australians have supplied the New Zealand settlers with arms and stores, and a considerable number of Volunteers are likely to follow. On the whole, the temper of the people is such that we can have no fear of the result. Roused by the treachery of the natives, they are now determined to carry on a war which shall settle the question of English or native supremacy for ever.'

I think this sort of language was widespread in 1863 and '64.

6:54 pm  
Blogger Anon said...

Would still suggest you're drawing a long bow Scott. "Australia" has kind of had a use as a geographic term since early in the nineteenth century and it seems to me that is its sense in the examples you quote - much like someone might refer to"British" megaliths like Stonehenge . Secondly the Mahdi business and Boer War were all undertaken by the individual colonies NSW , Victoria etc. No Australia in a political or military sense. I mean there was no Anzac force in South Africa let alone in the Waikato.

8:10 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

I don't think the references to Australia and Australians in the text I quoted were merely geographical, though, anon: Australia was cited as a 'sister colony' of New Zealand. I think a concept of Australia was widespread even in the 1860s, and that this concept was bolstered by the various wars - in the Waikato, in the Sudan, and most importantly in the interior of Australia - that white Australians fought in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Some of the same men who fought in South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century also saw action at Gallipoli. Does it make much sense to argue that they were Aussies in 1915, but not Aussies in 1900? I would argue that the development of national identity is a process, and that the process of the development of both Australian and New Zealand national identity began many decades before the twentieth century.

To separate Gallipoli from the colonial conflicts of the nineteenth century would be to lose any sort of insight into the origins and meaning of the Anzac phenomenon. Even from a strictly military perspective, we need to understand the role of the New Zealand Wars in the development of the armies that fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. The Waikato units that fought in World War One were made in the 1860s.

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