ANZAC Day 2009

I wrote this a few years ago. My views haven't changed.

It was ANZAC Day in New Zealand and Australia over the weekend — April 25th — the anniversary of the landing at Anzac Cove on Gallipoli (i.e. an attempted invasion of Turkey) by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in 1915. They were part of a force that included tens of thousands of British and French troops. The plan was to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula and open up a supply route to Russia. It failed and more than 300,000 soldiers were killed or wounded on both sides.

In this part of the world, ANZAC Day is observed publicly in preference to Armistice Day.

On Saturday, people turned out in their thousands to attend the ceremonies as part of a recent resurgence of interest in it. We went along to the service in the village hall run by the local Returned and Services Association (RSA). Traditionally, the services are held outside at a war memorial, but we don’t have one here, so the local hall is the venue. The minister who took the service has a quiet voice — it’s OK in his church, but lost in a hall with 300 people in it. And the old chap who read Laurence Binyon’s famous lines was wearing either the wrong glasses or the wrong teeth and made a real hash of it. A rehearsal wouldn’t have been a waste of time, either. What is normally an emotional moment was a shuffling embarrassment.

But, overall, it was still a moving and meaningful event. However, that’s not my issue with ANZAC Day.

I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. My father was a prisoner of war for three and a half years in the 1939–46 War and devoted much of his later life to the welfare of ex-POWs. (He even got a gong from the Queen for it.) He would always attend both the dawn service and the later morning service. I sometimes went with him. When I was at high school, I was in the Air Training Corps and we were the guard of honour at the cenotaph on several occassions. I always found it moving, particularly Binyon’s poem and the bugle calls. It meant so much to Dad, that it came to mean something to me. And I have no problem with the military aspects — after all, that’s integral to the whole ceremony.

The commemoration fell out of favour in the early 1970s as a result of the opposition to the Vietnam War, with many young people rejecting it as a symbol of war mongering militarism. Then something odd happened a few years ago — people started coming back. Not only in New Zealand, but also at Gallipoli itself. New Zealand and Australia started to send official delegations to ceremonies there. The Turks welcomed the children of their old enemies with open arms, and to spend ANZAC Day at Gallipoli has become part of the overseas experience of many young New Zealanders and Australians. They seem to feel that it is part of being Kiwi or Aussie to commemorate the events there, and will make a special trip to be there.

There has long been a thread of thought among historians that the experience of the ANZACs was the beginning of Australians and New Zealanders developing an independent view of themselves — one that was not so closely tied to mother Britain. But I don’t buy that, at least not in our case. New Zealand was still very closely tied to Britain in 1939 — as our Prime Minister at the time said, "Where Britain goes, we go." And go we did, my father included. No, I think our coming of age came much later, starting sometime in the 1960s.

My issue with ANZAC Day is the way that a growing nationalism has begun to accompany it. My memory of it from when I was young is that it was a day of sombre remembrance, with the nationalism and patriotism a discrete part of events. But it isn’t that hidden any more.

I’ve always been deeply suspicious of nationalism and patriotism. After all, that’s what got New Zealand into the 1914–18 war in the first place (and the 1939–46 war). I despise the way advertisers and the media play on nationalism and patriotism, and I think that is partly what is happening here. Twenty years ago the event was largely ignored by the media, apart from general news stories about the weather and attendances. This year, there was a live TV broadcast from my old home town, which is just a small seaside resort. I wonder what the point of all of this is. I know some will say that it is an expression of our national identity, and that’s true to an extent. But I think it is also partly manufactured through the media, particularly the TV networks, which have powerful commercial incentives for encouraging those emotions. Nationalism and patriotism make money for the media — a lot of money. Look at the amount of money they can make from the TV rights to major sports events involving our national teams.

Perhaps I’m being too precious about this. Perhaps ANZAC Day is joining Waitangi Day as a time where we reflect on what it means to be New Zealanders, and acknowledge our history in all its ugliness and honour. And as the old veterans die off, the style and focus will inevitably change. It means something significant to many people, and who am I to quibble with that?

But still, I can’t help thinking that the new meaning that is entering the event is in danger of taking over from the emotion we can find in the traditional ritual observance.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

From For The Fallen, Laurence Binyon, 1916

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