Anzac Day: Against the Carnival of Reaction

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On Anzac Day 1967, at the height of New Zealand involvement in the ‘American War’ in Vietnam, with New Zealand troops taking part in the suppression of the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation, members of the Progressive Youth Movement in Christchurch tried to lay a wreath following the dawn service in memory of those killed by imperialism in Vietnam. They were arrested and charged with disorderly behaviour. Feminists a decade later faced down a media-driven public outcry when they laid wreaths to the victims of sexual violence during war.

Lest we forget? It’s more like lest we remember. Anzac Day serves as a carnival of nationalist reaction, a day of public ritual aimed at promoting forgetting: forgetting the real legacy of New Zealand imperialism and militarism in favour of a sentimental nationalism, an anti-political celebration of national unity.

The movement against the Vietnam War – and the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people, led by the forces of the National Liberation Front – discredited Anzac Day for many years. The Returned Services Association were a central part of the media and public opinion world of the stifling, reactionary, conservative New Zealand of the post-war consensus and ‘rugby, racing, and beer.’ Anzac Day, with its drunken veterans’ parades and ranting Cold War RSA spokesmen standing for all that was wrong with New Zealand’s stability, lost relevance through the 1970s. Numbers attending services declined; anti-war activism and the new social movements vigorously contested the RSA view of the world; left-wing ideas challenged the nationalist myth that New Zealand involvement in World War One was anything worth celebrating.

But, in the last twenty years, Anzac Day has undergone a sustained and emotional revival. It enjoys, in the words of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s New Zealand History Online page, “unusual reverence in a country where emotional public rituals are otherwise absent. The day still has a traditional commemorative function, but for more people it is also becoming an opportunity to talk about what it may mean to be a New Zealander.” The overtly militaristic parts of the day have been re-framed to try and present the ceremony as to do with memory and reflection: children may now wear their grandparents’ medals, and, as the number of living veterans gets fewer each year, a sombre mood is encouraged. According to the government’s official site, “we recognise Anzac Day as a central marker of our nationhood.”

This serves entirely reactionary ends. The New Zealand military – rightly discredited in the years following Vietnam – has, from its part in the imperialist intervention with Australia in East Timor in 1999 onwards – been able to rehabilitate its public image as a ‘peacekeeping’ part of the ‘international community.’ Anzac Day – ostensibly disconnected from militarism but run by the armed forces across the country – played a key ideological role in this. New Zealand troops served in the US-led devastation of Afghanistan for over twice as many years as any fighting in World War One, and yet this passed with little significant public protest or opposition. Jerry Mateparae, as a military leader, was involved in authorising New Zealand troops in Afghanistan handing over innocents to US forces for torture. Now he is the head of state, and can pontificate at Anzac Day on “the commitment, courage, comradeship and spirit of all our service men and women, who exemplify the true Anzac spirit.”

Whatever personal memories participants may treasure of grandparents, this is a wholly political day, serving political ends. Socialists have no interest in “our nationhood” – we are for internationalism, for unity between workers across borders and for the maximum possible disunity and division between those whose system lives off war and empire – the ruling class – and those with the power to challenge it, the workers of the world. This political tradition is, in Aotearoa at the moment, marginal; its revival requires outright hostility to the myths of Anzac.

Whose freedom?

Governor General Jerry Mateparae’s 2014 Anzac Day statement calls on people to “remember not only those who served during the First World War but also the service men and women who have answered the call to defend our freedoms and those of others since, often very far from home.”

What freedoms have been defended over the last century? The pointlessness, waste and slaughter of the fighting at Anzac Cove – in which the Australian and New Zealand forces were aggressors, after all – has always provided difficulties for nationalist myth-making. As Marilyn Lake puts it in the important book What’s Wrong With Anzac?, ‘Anzac Day is our day, so the legend now asserts, because Australians fought there for ‘freedom and democracy’ – even though the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli to assist our great ally and the world’s greatest autocracy, Russia. The diggers did not invade Turkey to defend democracy.’

New Zealand military adventures have never been about defending democracy, however. Working-class men and women have been sent abroad to fight and die for the needs of the New Zealand ruling class’s sub-imperialist ambitions.

In Japan following the end of World War Two, New Zealand troops were involved in the policing of the occupied country to suppress radicalism, rebellion and dissent from below. The army was involved in the forcible repatriation of Koreans from Japan, taking part in the Cold War divisions of East Asia. The poet Hone Tuwhare was in J-Force and served during these deportations. He remembered it like this:

We didn’t really hurt anybody, but we tried to repatriate the Koreans, whom the Japanese had used as cheap labour for their war industries and so on … But some of them didn’t want to go back! They had higher living standards in Japan and had got quite used to living there and maybe had set up liaisons with the Japanese people. So that was another problem. By law, that was our job, to round ‘em up and put them back to their own country. And some didn’t mind going back – they wanted to see their homeland, of course, which was natural. But there were some – individuals – and I’m talking about a minority. So these were the ones that caused a bit of trouble.

Five years later New Zealand troops would serve as part of the US dismemberment of the Korean Peninsula, backing a dictatorship in the South and turning a local civil war into a still-unfinished tragedy and potentially global conflict.

In the Malayan Emergency New Zealand air force planes and SAS troops took part in strafing, bombing, and rocket attacks against Communist national liberation fighters, backing the British Empire’s last-ditch moves to assert Western control of the peninsula.

And of course 37 New Zealand soldiers were killed and 187 wounded between 1964 and 1972 in Vietnam, backing various US-puppets against popular revolt. The Vietnamese people suffered horrendous losses in their war for independence; the working-class youth signed up into New Zealand’s army were treated as so much fodder by their rulers, too, being exposed to toxic chemicals, including agent orange, during their time in Vietnam and then offered little support on their return home.

Through the last decade New Zealand forces have backed up the corrupt and murderous Karzai regime in Afghanistan.

Closer to this part of the world, military interventions in the Pacific have never been about acting as a neighbour and friend, as politicians of all parties live to present. New Zealand was the colonial ruler of Samoa from World War One, setting up a pattern of bullying and domination that continues to this day. When Samoans, under the leadership of the Mau, demonstrated for freedom and self-determination in 1929 they were massacred by New Zealand police and troops. Labour leader Harry Holland described the situation just before the massacre of “Black Saturday”:

Our government of Samoa constitutes an accumulation of intolerable administrative acts, outrageous injustices against individual Samoans, and the infliction of raw wounds upon Samoan dignity and self-respect which will take long in their healing. These things, added to the proclaimed determination of the New Zealand Government to force its undemocratic will on both the Samoan people and the European residents by means of a senseless dictatorship leaves the situation where—failing the intervention of the League of Nations—anything at all may happen in Western Samoa.

Nearer still, of course, is military history forgotten even more assiduously than Anzac Day is misremembered: 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the siege of Orakau, when 80 Maori men, women, and children were killed by colonial troops for rallying to the banner of Rewi Maniapoto and the Kingitanga movement.

So much for “our freedoms.” What about democracy? Another Kingitanga leader exposed the hypocrisy here. Te Puea Herangi led a campaign of passive resistance against conscription through the Waikato in World War One: “They tell us to fight for king and country,” she said. “Well, that’s all right. We’ve got a king. But we haven’t got a country. That’s been taken off us. Let them give us back our land and then maybe we’ll think about it again.”

War abroad has always been accompanied by attacks on civil rights at home. Labour leaders were jailed in World War One for opposing conscription. Communists, Christian pacifists (and non-political Germans, Italians and Japanese) were interned during World War Two for speaking their minds.

Anzac Day: Against Free Speech

Nowadays, the objection goes, Anzac Day is used to remember war, not to celebrate it. Most people who take part do so to honour family members; what has this to do with politics? Bi-partisan political rhetoric works hard to promote this anti-political view of Anzac Day. Helen Clark, in a speech at Anzac Cove in 2005, concluded with the reflection that “our responsibility” was to “work for a world in which future generations will not face the horror which these brave men faced with bravery and with honour.” A National cabinet minister in 2012 quoted the poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and evoked ideas around whenua when calling Anzac Cove a “sacred space.”

All of this, however, promotes a very particular political position. The government’s own ANZAC website is surprisingly frank: “Anzac Day now promotes a sense of unity, perhaps more effectively than any other day on the national calendar. People whose politics, beliefs and aspirations are widely different can nevertheless share a genuine sorrow at the loss of so many lives in war, and a real respect for those who have endured warfare on behalf of the country we live in.”

A “sense of unity” is what is needed if workers in New Zealand are to associate their interests with those of their rulers, and to see “us” as a coherent group. It separates off militarism, nationalism and the “national interest” from “politics, beliefs and aspirations.” No wonder both Labour and National follow the same lines here: Clark committed over $2.6 million for the updated War Memorial in Wellington, and Key can’t wait to see it finished.

This idea of a “sacred” occasion is ideological through-and-through. It would not work so effectively were it more openly partisan and political. It is, rather, in the emotional aspects of the day – and the way it is connected in public rituals to private memories of family members and their suffering – that Anzac does its political work. Ideology is about how we are ‘hailed’ by ideas, how we respond to identities (as ‘New Zealanders’ and so on) when they call to us, how the ‘imagined community’ of the nation can be created. For that process to work effectively it needs to communicate to the heart and the guts as much as to the head. Anzac Day serves that purpose perfectly. (I write this with some experience of the feeling, having attended dawn services as a teenager, and having been moved by the sense of community and collectivity they summon. These feelings are the more dangerous for being effective).

Another Tradition: Don’t Be a Soldier of Capitalism

Talk of Anzac Day as something sacred and special is nothing new. On Anzac Day 1928 members of the Communist Party in Dunedin distributed a leaflet at the dawn service calling on veterans: “don’t be a soldier of capitalism”! Capitalism, the leaflet argued, is “the system which makes war a glorious thing for bankers and the profiteers, but a hell for workers.”

“The capitalists make profit out of wars,” the Dunedin communists went on, “and that is why they try to glorify war by means of Anzac Day parades.” The Evening Post the next day described this leaflet as a “desecration”, and quoted one clergyman as saying that “the broadcasting of such propaganda on Anzac Day is one of the most despicable things ever perpetrated on the public of Dunedin.”

In Christchurch four years later, when Communist C. F. Riley tried to make an anti-militarist speech after the Anzac Day parade had passed he was arrested, with the Auckland Star for 26th April 1932 gloating over the crowd that had surged around him getting ready to give Riley a beating.

An anti-imperialist and internationalist current exists in the history of the New Zealand labour movement: anti-fascists such as Napier’s Tom Spiller who, having fought in Spain against Franco, was barred from Anzac Day marches by the Cold War RSA. The anti-conscription conference of trade unionists held in Wellington in January 1916. The mill-workers’ wives who assaulted and harassed the pro-war “White Feather League” of jingoist middle-class women in Christchurch during World War One. Te Puea Herangi, and her rich legacy. The soldiers stationed in Cairo during World War Two who took part in the (swiftly suppressed) soldiers’ parliament, voting in left-wing measures and tossing out the Tories. Those who protested the war in Vietnam. The syndicalists, anarchists, socialists and communists of the anti-New Zealand, migrant and native-born, Maori and Pakeha, veteran and civilian, united by their political hostility to nationalism and the New Zealand state.

The workers “have no country,” in the words of the Communist Manifesto. This is still our slogan: we have more in common with those struggling in Turkey than with those like Clark or Key who celebrate ‘our nation’ in the history of invasions of Turkey.

The struggle for a clear revolutionary programme in Aotearoa involves, then, the struggle to shatter this myth of Anzac Day, and the myth of the ‘community’ that it represents. That means hard lines, and new ways of thinking our identity. I want to end with an example of one of those, from the late, great Alasdair Hulett’s song of the anti-war revolutionary John McLean. McLean was jailed in Scotland in World War One for organising against the war. In Hulett’s song he says this:

‘A bayonet that’s a weapon with a working man at either end,
Betray your country, serve your class.
Don’t sign up for war my friend.’

Betray your country; serve your class. Break with the myths of Anzac Day.

Further Reading
The long-term militant and writer James Robb has an excellent piece on Anzac Myths on his blog Convincing Reasons. Kyla Cassels article on the disputed celebration of Anzac Day and the 8 Hours Day in Melbourne gives a sense of the political battle that has always gone on around this day (PDF).