ANZAC Day: The very essence of NZ?

Radio NZ news this morning played a speaker at a dawn ANZAC ceremony saying that ANZAC day represents “the spirit and the very essence” of New Zealand, or similar.

Apparently, a lot of people agree. In a poll of 501 NZers reported yesterday, 38 per cent responded positively when asked, “Although New Zealand’s official ‘National Day’ is Waitangi Day, do you feel that Anzac Day would be a more appropriate choice?

I am all for honouring those who lost their lives or their limbs, or endured the horror of war, in their country’s service. But a brief pause for reflection is apposite.

In this morning’s DomPost, Chris Trotter writes of the “truly terrible truth” about WW1 that “Official New Zealand” could never acknowledge; that the conservative government of the day sought to ingratiate itself to its imperial masters by outdoing the other dominions in support of the war efforts. And we did. In all 19.4 per cent of all NZ males were sent to fight, compared to 13.5 per cent of Australian and Canadian males. We cannot rule out fondness for the Old Country, or a belief that we might somehow suffer if Britain lost, as contributing to this zeal, but there is plenty of evidence that NZ’s political masters hoped for a “higher reward” at war’s end, than Australia and Canada.

Trotter argues that to hide this hideous secret, Massey’s government fostered the veneration of the “young men, needlessly killed” as “semi-mystical ‘fallen’” and the “mass public ritual” that evolved into the ANZAC ceremonials of today.

Whether the rise of the ANZAC Day tradition was quite so deliberate is not clear. Belich seems to treat the rise of what he calls the “cult of 18,000 Kiwi Christs” – with the RSA as its “monks” — as almost an instinctual reaction to the awful suspicion that the sacrifice might have been for little (Paradise Reforged, p. 116).

So, to what extent was our national identity forged at Gallipoli? Undoubtedly, it was a signal moment, particularly due to the role that the ineptitude of the British command played in the ANZAC casualties. But there is scant evidence of a sudden swelling of nationalist sentiment back home. Belich cites a study of the imagery on the war memorials that proliferated in every NZ town after WW1. Imperial and classical images were common – including fasces on my old school’s memorial – but flags, kiwis, ferns and the like rare.

Nation-building is a long and involved process, and most certainly was not completed in the years immediately following Gallipoli.

Further study of the evolution of ANZAC Day in NZ is needed.

My own recollections of the generation that fought and that lost loved ones are anecdotal, but I recall a great deal of ambivalence about the sacrifices in both wars, even from elderly, conservative farming relatives. Nor did my own generation make the ANZAC Day trip to Gallipoli a mandatory pilgrimage, when doing their OE. And I might be wrong, but I don’t recall ANZAC Day getting the blanket coverage in the media that it does today.

Although support for Anzac Day as our “most appropriate national day” was highest amongst 15 to 29 year-olds, it seems a very backward-looking idea to me. It does not obviously resonate with the New Zealand of our new immigrants, that is increasingly part of the Asia Pacific region and that now confronts the fast-changing challenges of the globalised world. Waitangi Day might yet fill that role, but ANZAC Day, when all is said and done, is a day of remembrance.

Nor would we really be honouring those New Zealanders who in times past sacrificed so much were we to make ANZAC Day into a national day without attempting to come to terms with what it means and what it has meant over the past ninety years.

Postscript: We should not forget those brave people who acted as their consciences bade them, here.

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