When, like me, you’ve spent several years trying to share narratives about ANZAC day that don’t match up with the officially sanctioned ones, you begin after a while to hear certain phrases repeated back at you. One which I hear quite often from otherwise quite reasonable people is that the ceremonies are a commemoration rather than a celebration, and thus do not glorify war, as we claim that they do. While this is not entirely false, it misses the point, which is that the way in which the ceremonies are carried out is carefully crafted so as to present an image of our history that does glorify war. In short, it’s not what’s said at the ceremony, it’s what the ceremony says.
It’s worth noting to start with that New Zealand, as with most colonial countries, has a pathological level of apathy towards the study of history. The majority of people are woefully ignorant about what happened in their own country over the last few hundred years, never mind events that took place further back and further afield. This vulnerability is compounded by the fact that people have very short memories: despite what they might claim the average person on the street is unlikely to remember the debacle of the Vietnam war, and even memories of the Iraq War might well be fading in the general population. The combination of these two traits makes it very easy to create narratives of the past in this country that are convenient for one group of people or another, even if they don’t necessarily correspond to what actually happened (I do not wish to claim that history as a discipline is objective or free from interpretation, but a reasonably rigorous approach to the study of the past is still preferable to half – remembered doggerels passed down at the Cenotaph). So, with this in mind, what does an ANZAC day commemoration communicate to the average onlooker?
The first point to be noted is that the ceremony remembers primarily the soldiers on our side of any given conflict who died. Civilians are not mentioned, and enemy soldiers only in passing. This sends two messages: firstly, it privileges the deaths of soldiers over the deaths of people who just wanted to get on with their lives in peace. The implicit message is clear: there is an innate nobility in the soldier that does not exist in any other person. Secondly, the fact that only our soldiers are remembered suggests that the soldiers on the other side were somehow morally inferior and that their deaths were thus less tragic than our deaths. In turn, this suggests a level of moral superiority on the part of our soldiers which really isn’t deserved. So just by looking at who is and isn’t mentioned in the formal ceremony, we can see that the ceremony as such constructs an image of a noble army fighting for a righteous cause: brave soldiers fighting in the service of the state, whatever that state’s morality may be. This is an image irreconcilable with the historical reality of what happened, but nevertheless one that takes root in the collective understanding of what ANZAC day was about very quickly.
The second idea of interest can be deduced from comparing the relative magnitudes of the commemorations of New Zealand’s days of national interest. We have two of real importance: Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day (I hope that the commemoration of the land wars becomes one of these, but at present it’s too recent to be included in this discussion). Waitangi Day is somewhat of a conflicted day for the country: it reminds us that we are a state built on stolen land, and that there are still people in this country that demand justice. You will notice that commemorations of the day are wracked with tension and that many people (particularly those of european extraction) are distinctly ambivalent about the event. ANZAC Day, by contrast, is celebrated on a massive scale: parades in every city, a delegation to Gallipoli, the works. Now, what does this suggest? It suggests that on some level, the majority of people feel good or virtuous about the commemoration, and that is unlikely to be correlated with a deep understanding of why we were in Gallipoli or the things we did while we were there. It means that people feel justified in our army fighting wars of imperialism overseas, and by implication, at home. ANZAC Day is an opiate: it allows us to form a national identity based around some misremembered tales of heroism and forget all of the uncomfortable and shameful things done to create this country. Is it not likely that such an opiate might well portray an image of our military and our wars that is more glorious than the truth?
Finally, let us examine who attends and runs these services. Guess what: the contemporary armed forces usually play an important role in the services. Now, given that we’ve created an environment where our wars, our armies and our leaders are seen as noble, righteous and justified, the presence of people who are currently soldiers in our army will create certain links in the popular imagination. So, in sum: we’ve constructed an image of a noble army fighting righteous and justified wars overseas, used it as an opiate to cover over our rather ignoble past and then brought our modern armies and pillars of society into close physical and symbolic proximity to these synthetic heroes. This is going to create the impression that our past wars, and by extension our present wars, are right and just. And if that’s not a glorification of war, what is?
I’ve done my best to be objective and fairly reasoned in this note: however, sometimes you have to get subjective to see the real truth of the matter. And looking at ANZAC Day through subjective eyes, the fact that it’s a glorification of war is blindingly obvious. If it isn’t glorifying war, why was the Saudi Delegation laying a wreath rather than being tarred and feathered? Why does the Raglan War Memorial have a cross attached to a sword prominently displayed on it (a blasphemy if ever there was one)? Why is it that whenever we bring up civilians or conscientious objectors we get labelled as unpatriotic, traitors or worse? Why is it that the cause and purpose of all these wars is never mentioned? The sheer mendacity of those who can see all this and still say that it isn’t a glorification never ceases to astound me.