Lest We Forget

(c) Donnosch (Deviant Art)

On the Eve of Anzac Day I was in our cathedral for a beautiful service. The choir was small but sang well. There were readings and I recounted the inscription from the memorial at Gallipoli, which quotes Kemal Ataturk:

"Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

I find the words of the great hero of Gallipoli unbearably moving but I managed them OK. And as I read I wondered whether, if the situation was reversed, would we have been so generous? If a large army of Muslims had attacked us unprovoked, and if in defending our own land from them we had suffered 250,000 casualties would we, only a decade or two later have extended such forgiveness? Would we, even now, generously host thousands of young Muslims coming each year  the place where the enemy had landed?

I read the words and returned to my seat. In front of me was a long black table set with 371 lit candles. One for each man from Otago or Southland who had died in the Dardanelles campaign. Each candle representing a life lost. Each candle a family which had never come into being. Each candle a testament to the utter futility and waste of the whole sorry episode.

Every year Anzac day gets bigger and bigger. This year  it was, of course the centennial but even so the crowds increase annually as more and more people draw meaning from the commemoration. This interests and puzzles me. Anzac day is fast becoming our most important national celebration and this is at least in part, religious. That is, the commemoration is about explaining our origins and giving us a sense of purpose.

We in the Southern Hemisphere imported from our Northern hemisphere ancestors all the festivals and celebrations which marked their year. But here, few of them really fit. The religious festivals, as they developed in Europe marked certain stages in the Christian narrative and are placed to be congruent with seasons and the flow of a working year. It's only when we visit the North that we truly realise how wrong it is to celebrate Christmas at the height of summer or Easter in the Autumn. Acting from some only half conscious impulse, we here in the South, seem impelled to find our own, more contextually suitable festivals. So we hold mid winter Christmas dinners, and of late have begun to make a big deal of Chinese New year, Matariki, and, especially, Anzac Day. The reason why it is Anzac day rising to preeminence rather than the arguably more suitable Waitangi Day are fourfold:

1. Most people can claim a personal connection with the first World War in general and Gallipoli in particular. Most have a relative who served there and is far enough removed in time to be unknown - and thus to have the aura of a tupuna - but from whom we can claim descent or at least relationship. We mark this by doing something that was unheard of when I was growing up, wearing the medals of the deceased.
2. There is an accessible ritual, the dawn service. Waitangi day has no such shared observation, and the dawn service is just difficult enough (getting up very early) to give a sense of mission and pilgrimage, while remaining easy enough for even children and elderly people to do.
3. There is a recognisable symbol, the poppy, which is distinctive and attractive. Increasingly, the colour red is also gaining symbolic value.
4. The growing mythology of Anzac suits our self perception as a nation.That is, versions of the oft repeated and partially true stories of the bungling British officer class and the noble Anzac soldiers explain something of who we are, and how our national identity emerged.

This latter point is one which is only just beginning to be worked through. The wall to wall documentaries and television programmes shown over the past week or so seldom, if ever glorify war. There has been plenty of accurate analysis of The "Great" War and of the Dardanelles campaign. There has also been a lot of talk about courage and sacrifice. But we are only just bringing these two things together, reluctantly so because the juxtaposition is simply too painful to bear. Those 371 candles burning in our cathedral truly represent sacrifice; but sacrifice for what? The young men who went cheerily from Port Chalmers never to return were going to further the cause the British Empire, which when all is considered, was not something that was worth championing. A reading of the horrific history of the Bengal famines and the Opium Wars shows what it truly was that they were defending.  Our young men poured out their blood for what? To promote this?

And see what their sacrifice achieved. It was certainly not the promotion of freedom and justice. The end result of their efforts was a shattered Europe which fostered the rise of Communism and a peace treaty which made the rise of Fascism inevitable. Their sacrifice served to promote totalitarianism and set us on course for an even bloodier, an even more destructive war. It was, in other words a complete waste. Futile. Stupid. Wicked. And perhaps here is the Genesis of our sense of national identity. Whatever it is that we aspire to be in our new little country, it is not that. 

So I wear my blood red poppy, lest I ever, ever, be tempted to forget.


Alden Smith said…
I completely agree with your sentiments regarding any glorification of our involvement at Gallipoli. New Zealand at that time wasn't much more than a puppet state of British Empire. It is also a historical fact that the way the British dealt with the question of war reparations post WW1 was a factor in the rise of fascism in Germany which lead to WW2.

But any contemporary critique of ANZAC day within our contemporary culture becomes problematic because this day has become to represent not only its original ANZAC origins.

Since the second world war ANZAC day has also been a time when fallen soldiers from World War 2 have also been remembered and honoured for their sacrifice in fighting what I would call a 'just war'.

Many of medal wearers on ANZAC day are wearing the medals of fallen WW2 soldiers or survivors of that war who are now deceased. I feel the stand of remembrance they take in the early morning light on ANZAC day is both legitimate and honourable.

Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

I feel this fact and the true sacrifice of those who fought the Nazi regime needs to be taken into consideration in any critique of ANZAC day.