Monday, April 27, 2009

The changing meaning of Anzac Day

The large turnouts for Saturday's dawn ceremonies have confirmed the growing popularity of Anzac Day amongst younger generations of New Zealanders. The veterans of the First World War have departed, and the survivors of the Second are quickly following, yet more and more people with no first-hand experience of war are getting up before dawn on 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.


Blogger Dave Brown said...

Nah. Its the opposite.
Gallipolli has been commoditised courtesy green capitalism, Canterbury and Katmandu.

1:13 pm  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Nice Post man. I think there is the draw of unassailable alterity at work here, and foggy ideas of 'duty' ... what worries me is precisely this erasure of history, and the unquestioned statements that our involvement in one of the greatest blunders of military history, where our troops were sent in as cannon-fodder by our colonial masters to attack an enemy that posed no threat either to us or to England somehow "cemented our national identity". I don't get it.

1:43 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The whole thing is stupid - I have never been interested in ANZAC day - but for some it seems very important.
It is as if NZrs grasp pathetically for something to prove that they are now a "nation" - whatever that means.

True - there is nobility (of a kind) in the idea of ideals (but also a kind of savagery) - I think that humans have a capacity to abstract and thus sacrifice there lives for higher ideas - dubious as those are.

The Second World War was different in many ways - we certainly had to defeat fascism of Japan and Germany.

But who creates wars? It is those who pull the triggers...the soldiers themselves. The killers in fact. They are often very young and have no idea of what war is before they go to it...
They are effectively stupid - their ignorance kills.

A lot of the ANZAC stuff is tied up with militarist propaganda of the worst kind. History, as usual, has waves of emotive drivel... and stupid ceremonies and poppies. I never buy them - the RSA I have always hated.

There are also the victims of all the Imperialist Wars we should remember - of Vietnam and Korea and India and many other nations throughout the world where European, British, or US Imperialists have slaughtered millions of people or caused massive poverty by the exploitation of labour and the export of capital.

And also the civilian - Maori and Pakeha victims of the NZ Land wars...
what of our own wars?

NZ should keep out of Imperialist wars such as Iraq or Afghanistan, and out of Fiji and Indonesia ... soldiers who get involved in such barbarous wars should not be heralded. We need to protest against their involvement - make them feel bad so they might start to question things - even perhaps to think...

2:25 am  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

I take the point about ANZAC day offering a glimpse of "something larger than themselves" to the younger generations of NZers who growing up in an atomised society have never known what it is to be part of a collective social movement, whether progressive or reactionary.

However, I also agree with Dave that ANZAC nowdays is very much a commodity - whether in the "HIST 101: Birth of the New Zealand Nation" way in which it is marketed in the universities, or the cringe-inducing OE package tours which now incorporate a stopover at Gallipoli as a "rite of passage" which every young Kiwi ought apparently to undergo.

In some ways I would almost prefer it if the thousands of people from my generation flocking to attend ANZAC day dawn services were actually doing so out of enthusiasm for NZ imperialism - at least that would show they had some political ideas in their heads! But instead all we have is this banal, unthinking vacuousness...

3:52 pm  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

at least it's not the rampant (and really very scary) Nationalism that one sees over in Australia... Now there's an example of the erasure of history

4:11 pm  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Have you seen this? It is, I think, Pertinent.

8:13 pm  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

Thanks for drawing that to my attention Ross - I wasn't aware of the VUWSA development which is positive.

However I think we can only interpret this as testimony to the existence of a handful of radical leftists (mostly Workers Party members) on the VUWSA 2009 exec, not proof of any mass anti-imperialist sentiment among the student body, since students association (like trade union) politics mostly occurs in a vaccuum these days.

Still, I guess there's always the hope that a stand like this could actually politicise some people - although I´m not holding my breath...

8:51 pm  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Yeah I know - if you look at the salient website's comment thread the mass of feedback is profoundly negative, and Freya Eng seems to be backing down (or covering her arse). I think I'm the only one whose voicing support for the decision.

8:59 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Ross I made a comment on the Salient Blog in support of the refusal by the Students involved to lay a wreath.

For me that shows more courage than going to war.

War is obscenity - we can read books on the subject (the Diary of Anne Frank: there are millions of books and films - "Born on the Fourth of July" to name one)) - ANZAC day for me is a trap: a day for a lot of hype and cliches and sentiment - who are they remembering?? - I have always hated RSA people and military and others - I really hate the bastards.

They are war mongers.

They are always so stupid and cow like ... they mostly don't really know fuck all about history.

My uncle - from Bedford, England was in the RAF - my Grandfather (his father) was English and in both wars but that doesn't make me want to commemorate war - to hell with that sentimental crap!

Most of these RSA bastards wouldn't take part in an actual war - but they would gladly send someone else their while they keep their cushy army desk jobs or whatever...usually they send someone else's sons - as Michael Moore makes the point to O'Reilly the right wing nut on Fox News.

11:09 pm  
Anonymous keri h said...

How many of you have talked/been with the 15-25 age group about Anzac Day?
I have quite a few siblings' children within this group and
a)they know their history
b)they like the *rituals* (there are very few other publc rituals around - we're south, and Maori, so there are bagpipes, karaka, and a kind of formal acknowledgment of death)
c)it makes a point about life/death - one of my grand-neices said- We're talking about the dead but it's all about us.

Alive. Free.Being, here-

12:39 am  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I Myself am in that age bracket, and wha worries me is the assertions of "NZ Identity" formation regarding the Gallipoli campaign, as I have stated earlier, and the ritualisation with overtly militaristic overtones. There is a lot of rhetoric regarding the commemorations being about memory, honouring the dead, etc; but at the end of the day the overt militarism (involvement of the armed forces in their official capacity - uniforms etc) undercuts this argument. It perpetuates the power imbalace inherent in any armed conflict, reifying the troops with little regard for the civilians who died, and mythologising the conflicts by perpetuation the official discourse on millitary history. One of our VC "heroes" fought in the boer war. We had no buisness kowtowing to england and being involved in WWI. Whithout minimising the atrocities commited by the Axis forces, The Allies committed war crimes in WWII as well - the US use of Atomic weapons was unneccesary and simply a show of power against the Soviets, and the RAF and USAF at Strategic Bomber Command's decision to bomb Dresden was a crime against humanity, as were their callous targeting of civilian food supplies.

Nothing is ever as simple as it is made out to be.

12:02 pm  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Ive collated my opinions here:

5:41 pm  
Anonymous Cameron said...

I hate it how many official speeches on ANZAC Day say that the men who landed at Gallipoli were fighting for "our freedom". John Key this year said that the ANZACs "were there for us" and safeguarded "our standard of living".

This is a-historical nonsense that whitewashes the fact that WWI was a brutal imperialist war fought solely in the interests of European aristocrats, industrialists and arms makers, who wanted to make lots of money.

5:52 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Cameron - this is the point - they massively simplify the issue - why not debate about war on ANZAC day - what does laying wreaths do? All the old soldiers always say - "It was terrible "and indeed my uncle who was in the RAF said the same. (But he still went as did German soldiers and combatants!)" [So when do these individuals actually say no to military and ultimately bring about the end of war by refusing to be sucked into the rhetoric and hogwash?] (More than 80% of combatants and even those not actually in action but just in back up roles suffer severe mental problems after a war is finished). Sure he wanted to stop Hitler etc but I wouldn't be laying a wreath for him had he died - I also argued with him that when he left the RAF and went to New Guinea from England he was participating in British Imperialism of that place (I am also am aware that there are many other Imperialist countries beside Britain!) - which he denied then he said it was true...but this doesn't mean I disrespect soldiers - I citicise them - ask them to think about war -their motives - we need new ways of thinking about all this - ANZAC day has become another of those hollow rituals whose effects is to dull us to the realities of war...the complexities of that we area- we don't really as young men - go off to fight for "freedom" - in the First World War democracy was a new idea -many people didn't hold with it - they still went to fight - there is an impulse in us that makes us at once to want war /and simultaneously to fear and hate it - this has been found by studies - it is an important area that requires more understanding - of course there is a catch 22 - when Hitler and the Japanese were threatening to overrun a lot of the world - what were we to do - the obvious answer is we need to fight (in the immediate instance - or someone does - - but say I did - I wouldn't want anyone to commemorate me -I would want them to think about how war starts (a young man of 18 or even 20 has no idea of what he is dong except in rare exceptions - so he slaughter or is slaughtered - or he endures he doesn't question) - and so I see the answer coming from those who refuse to fight whatever ultimately war is created by soldiers and others who enable war - not by Imperialists - this is a seeming paradox - these are subtle issues...but in essence your sentiment is right - the rhetoric of ANZAC day and RSA aficionados (most of whom are pro a standing army) - to put it simply - is as dangerous as megaton bombs...

We have to see war as killing - murder licensed by the state and the heroes - who are mostly disliked by "regular" soldiers in battle BTW as they endanger others and draw fire etc - are often near psycho -

At one stage a lot of soldiers in fact refused to return to the front from leave... a whole company or something; they found the reality of war pretty awful - I don't blame them...and many Maori didn't want to fight for the British considering what happened in the NZ Land wars.

Of course many people (and organisations and big corporations) have a vested interest in keeping armies and war material flowing and going...the military as a job is pretty cushy and pays quite is easy to become a soldier or whatever and not think (and not to be disapproved of) than to be a strong protester against war and think... and be unpopular.

By a process that is not obvious the ANZAC hysteria and the dark military ceremonies and rituals and stupid slobbering sentimental gush about "remembering" all deeply help to perpetuate war and killing.

2:18 am  
Anonymous Graeme C said...

I agree with keri h - the young are not all vacuous. Many simply haven't yet been tainted by our generation's left-right dogmatism. I'm more disturbed by Richard Taylor not being deeply ashamed of his openly stated hatred - to me, that is the real obscenity. Pause for breath and think about it, Richard - hysteria is not confined to the war-mongers & jingoists. Not all war is murder - the Cambodians were only saved from Pol Pot's genocidal mania by Vietnam's intervention.

9:29 am  
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