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Saturday, 25 April 2015

ANZAC Day

Let's get this straight. ANZAC Day is not a celebration. Nor is it an extended church service, as my local monument's version often turns out to be. ANZAC Day and the wearing of poppies does not, in any shape or form, glorify war. White poppies are a nonsense: those who wear them need to educate themselves. It is not a day-off work or a period of "time and a half". Mondayisation of ANZAC Day should never have happened, and nor should numerous attempts by business to participate in the inevitable remembrance industry. Both of these are symptomatic of broader issues. So, then, what is ANZAC Day?

ANZAC Day is a commemoration. It is a remembrance of those who have served in our armed forces but especially of those who did not return.

However, ANZAC Day is also a perfect case study of many failings in NZ. It shows, same as Waitangi Day, just how keen NZers are to mythologise. It is a day where, in some sense, a national spirit was forged. The NZ Wars couldn't really do that by the very nature: civil wars aren't typically known for their unifying qualities (although their reconstruction can be). However, ANZAC Day is remembered pretty purely as a "Well, at dawn the ANZACs landed at Gallipoli. They fought for a bit and it was bad." That is also, by the way, the impression that schools will give their pupils of the entire war. It's also wrong. It's actually fairly well known, lately, that it was only the Australians who landed at dawn. We Kiwis followed later. This is, of course, to the extent that it makes sense to talk about these identities: to my mind, many of the ANZAC soldiers would have still felt as though the UK was the homeland. I'm not sure about that, but I would like to mention it is both my impression and a logical (even necessary) implication of the "Baptism by Fire" idea/myth. But the problems are deeper than just who landed.

Here's a dirty little secret: I never really knew much about Gallipoli until I chose, entirely independently, to look into as a topic for a level three history internal. My peers had trouble with this. One of my friends got pretty close to my actual reasons when he said something that meant: "Dat relevance to NZ, tho". In actuality I did it because that internal was happening around this time of year two years ago. Judging by the file date, on the USB stick that now contains it, a month before ANZAC day, in fact. I wanted a topic and it was sort of topical. It was also very easy to see how it was relevant to NZ (compare and contrast the US Civil War, which at least two people tried to do: I don't know how it worked out for them, nor why they wanted to do it). But, despite having done history as a subject for two whole years by this point, despite being in the last year of school, pretty much everything surprised me. Hey, look, there was a major British presence. Wait, what's this? Indians? French? I knew Winston Churchill was involved, it's compared to some of his WWII schemes, but the sorry tale of how their came to be any sort of effort in Gallipoli is just that: although not as sorry as what happened. This is as well known as the landing beach was to those Australians who landed there (i.e. not at all: they ended up in a much worse location). But, it's deeper than just a poor understanding of the campaign that is increasingly all that really gets remembered.

WWI, to this day, still has more than half of NZ's war casualties. Most of those occurred in the Western Front. We get poppies because either they were what grew there or they were the first thing to recover (I cannot recall which version is the best). This, importantly, generated imagery for some war poets. However, ANZAC Day largely rolls right over this. Passchendaele is the one. That's the real big one, the one that we should all know, that should be a household name. It's not. It's pretty unknown. I am probably sounding, right now, more experty, more preachy than I am or I intend to be. I don't have that solid basis. I am far from an expert. However, that doesn't change that we don't "do" ANZAC Day right. Gallipoli is important, of course it is, but the reality is that we have let our commemorations take the shape of further affirming the mythologies around the campaign than is wise. We have let ANZAC Day monopolise WWI. We have a poor understanding of why that was fought, let alone why we were there. We have a somewhat better understanding of other wars and remember them more cautiously. We have a worse understanding of the wars that come first (I assure you, most people will fall into two major camps on the NZ Wars... both will, though, find common ground in the dubious characterisation of Brits, or even the Crown, versus Maori). ANZAC Day is an opportunity to remember these things that we should more clearly. In particular, it should be a day to remember WWI in particular. We have emphasised the right thing in the wrong way for far too long.

And that's all I have to say about that.


Except, it's not really. That's a quote from Forrest Gump, an American film about a man who saw a lot of things but usually didn't understand quite what was going on. It's also a film that we watched in history for the bits in Vietnam. And I echoed that quote because in the same way that Gallipoli is mythologised, Vietnam and its soldiers were vilified. ANZAC Day is also a commemoration of that war's loss, of its cost. It is for all wars, in particular WWI. It is not a day for a single campaign. That is the message I want to get across.

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