Anzac Day commemorations have been at the forefront of the public discourse for the last few years. For the most part these have focused on the soldiers involved, with discussion taking a distinct pro–army, pro–government, pro–war slant. This dishonours the memory of the dead, who died in considerable hardship and pain in a wasteful, nihilistic conflict that they were callously thrown into by an imperialist government, and continuing to celebrate Anzac Day as we do consists a particularly cynical and callous exploitation of the deaths of several tens of thousands of young men who made a foolish mistake and enlisted, as well as several more tens of thousands who were forced into this war via conscription.
The foremost problem inherent in current celebrations is the complete whitewashing of the atrocities that the New Zealand Armed forces committed in the conduct of the war. Consider this: in order to help the British Empire in the conduct of a completely pointless war fought largely so that the great powers could preserve their colonial holdings, the New Zealand government sent tens of thousands of young men into a slaughter in an attempt to invade a foreign country that had not previously attacked New Zealand. On the way there, they occupied Western Samoa, imposing a racist regime there for forty years, brutally suppressing their independence movement and first imprisoning then killing their leader. A large proportion of those sent over were killed, maimed or permanently damaged psychologically, to say nothing of the Turkish soldiers that those young men killed. Furthermore, after turning most of the Dardanelles into a charnel house, the troops had to withdraw. Nothing was achieved; all that the attack did was create a self–destructive orgy of pain, death and suffering. And yet a hundred years later we desperately try to pretend that their death and suffering was worth something. Make no mistake, there was no value whatsoever in those deaths, and the New Zealand government and army killed those men as surely as if they had placed a gun to their heads and pulled the trigger. Furthermore, the government did not learn from the experience, but rather compounded their culpability as the war progressed. Not content with convincing idealistic young men to die for no reason, they instituted conscription in order to force those that didn’t buy the propaganda to kill and die in turn. They then proceeded to arrest and imprison those that spoke out against the mass murder that the government was perpetuating, and tortured those men who bravely refused to fight. The appropriate response to this is deep mourning, grief and repentance. This does not happen.
And the dead were not permitted to rest. Instead they were recast as heroes who fought for our freedom and cynically used to forge a national identity for New Zealand that conveniently avoided our long history of colonialism, racism, theft of land and cultural genocide. We cynically honour the “heroes” of the First World War in an attempt to obliterate the “divisive” memories of the Land Wars and the conquest of New Zealand by the British Empire. The people who fought and died were not heroes. They did not die to defend our freedoms. They were young men who foolishly believed the imperial propaganda they were exposed to by our government and suffered agonizing deaths from shrapnel, gangrene, mustard gas and dysentery because of that mistake. Our government callously exploited their enthusiasm and goodwill for their own political purposes and murdered or maimed them in order to ingratiate themselves with the great powers. And now they exploit their deaths in order to obliterate the memories of colonial oppression and paper over the deep divisions in our society, pretending that we can all come together to honour those who “made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation”.
With all this in mind, this is the position we find ourselves in: Instead of the mourning for the dead that would be the appropriate response, we laud the heroes that made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. We pretend that their deaths meant something. We pretend that there is a cause for an emotional response other than utter despair, and finally, in focussing on the soldiers over all, we do profound disrespect to the civilian victims of war and especially to those who fought against the war and for peace, who were and still are reviled as traitors. Furthermore, we use this false narrative in order to allow ourselves to forget the massive injustices that have been perpetrated in this country and that it is our duty to remember and redress. In this, we have done an excellent job of ignoring precisely the lessons that we should have learned from the First World War. We allow those responsible to feign remorse while repeatedly sending each new generation off to die in some new hell of snipers and shrapnel, we still laud and praise those who join the army, we still repeat nationalist, imperialist propaganda to each other on a regular basis and we still have an army. The last point bears repeating: we still have an army. Had we learned anything from the nihilistic carnival of death and pain that we created, we would not still be training people to obey orders, kill people, suppress civil unrest and destroy cities. That we still have an army shows that we have learned nothing.
We grieve for the dead. We grieve deeply, we grieve honestly, and we grieve for all who died, not just those who happened to be “on our side”. To whitewash the nature of the war as one of self–defence dishonours the dead, as does forgetting those aspects of our history which Anzac day has been used to conceal. The only way we can honour those who died is to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. We must struggle relentlessly for peace, justice and freedom. We must beat every last weapon we own into a ploughshare. In short, we must demilitarise.
Auckland Peace Action is holding these events in the week of ANZAC Day 2017:
Prayers for Peace: Honouring the victims of war by praying for peace.
Tuesday 25 April 11am at the Auckland Domain band rotunda.
This ANZAC day join together with people of different faiths as we unite over the hope for peace in our lifetime. Bring your family, friends and neighbours and join us for a gathering which will include speeches, music, singing and prayers. Bring a picnic to have afterwards if the weather is good.
Organised in association with the Church in Progress. Facebook event here.
Disrupting the Narrative: Challenging ideas about New Zealand in WWI
A free exhibition at the Auckland Central Library, Lorne Street.
Anarchist Performance Art
Wednesday 26 April 8pm at Wine Cellar, Karangahape Road.
Facebook event here.