Why I don’t believe in Anzac Day

Anzac Day is a time to reflect and pay tribute to our Australia New Zealand Army Corps veterans. It is a time to stand together and remember the more than 2700 New Zealanders who lost their lives serving as part of the force that landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.

John Key

I could, if I wanted to, go to a dawn service each ANZAC Day and pay my respects to those men in my family who served in World War One and Two.  There are three of them that I am aware of.  Only one of them survived his war.  The survivor served in World War One.  He is the man standing on the left in the photo below.

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Because I know that he lived the rest of his long life after the war in a shack at the back of his sister’s house in Clinton, and never married or had much to do with anything or anyone, I want to find out a bit more about his service record.  What did he see?  But I also want to know because of the story of how he once walked my father’s sister who was then a young girl down to the shops to buy some shoes and told her there was no God.  It must have been the 1930s.

I’m not really sure what I would be doing at a dawn service in his memory, and although I have no way of knowing I suspect he didn’t go to too many dawn services either.

It is also a day to remember those who have served in conflicts since then. Every day, brave men and women strive to uphold democracy, preserve peace, and provide aid and support to people around the world.

John Key

There are other reasons ANZAC Day irks me.  All of them come to us through the TV and the newspaper.  Each year we hear variations on the same themes:

  1. New Zealand lost its innocence at Gallipoli
  2. New Zealanders nobly sacrificed their lives in war
  3. We shall remember them
  4. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

Let’s deal with each in order.

Innocence: 1. the quality or state of being innocent; freedom from sin or moral wrong. 2. freedom from legal or specific wrong

Apparently New Zealand lost it at Gallipoli.  Innocence that is.  If we follow this “thought” through then it follows that we began our journey towards true nationhood as a consequence of losing our innocence.

The great difficulty with sustaining this narrative – aside from the fact that nations aren’t people – is that it discounts the years from 1840 until 1913 which happen to include the New Zealand Wars and the Boer War.  How any credible historian can say that New Zealand lost its innocence at Gallipoli and not consider the New Zealand Wars is beyond me.

A defense of ignorance can be mounted on behalf of New Zealanders over the Boer War.  South Africa was so far away (actually, it still is) and the war was fought in an age when the media was hamstrung by painfully slow communications and a sort of idea that in war they were in the service of the government and the Empire.  New Zealand’s involvement was also pretty limited, though ceaselessly puffed by imperial lap-dogs like Seddon, and the consequences in the end were mostly elsewhere, or limited to only a handful of people in a handful of places in New Zealand.  New Zealanders, you can argue, remained innocent of the realities of that conflict.

Ignoring the New Zealand Wars is a more troubling omission from the we-lost-our-innocence-in-Gallipoli story.  A lot of despicable things happened in the New Zealand Wars that were to do with grown ups acting in calculated ways to destroy indigenous resistance to resource and sovereignty theft.  If we are saying that this occurred and somehow “New Zealand” (presumably excluding Maori) maintained its innocence, then I think we might need to redefine what innocence means or use a different word.  Arrogance?  Blithe imperial arrogance is probably better.  This sounds more accurate: “In Gallipoli white New Zealand [began to lose] its blithe imperial arrogance”.

We can only say “began to lose” at best, because New Zealand carried on being a bit blithe for many, many more decades to come.  We sent support to the British in Suez and the Falklands well after World War Two.  Hardly the actions of a jaded imperial lover.

So, at best, some people in New Zealand saw that in Gallipoli and the Western Front the idea that the British imperial assumption of superiority in attitudes, achievements and abilities over everyone else on the planet was perhaps not entirely a correct worldview after all.  Which isn’t really the same as New Zealand losing its innocence, and a lot more like white New Zealand waking briefly from a deep slumber with a crick in its neck, and then – unfortunately – falling back to sleep.

Admittedly this is not a good way to do a short media piece on ANZAC Day, but it feels truer.

Sacrifice (noun): 1. an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to a deity.

(verb): 2. give up (something valued) for the sake of other considerations

Both definitions are apt for what happens in war.  The aforementioned deity in the case of World War One was probably Empire, or New Zealand or – for a few people – God (although even the Turks believed in the same God so this was a bit complicated).  In World War Two the deities to be sacrificed to were roughly the same although abstract verbs like Freedom and Democracy had begun to crop up a bit more.

The idea of sacrifice though leads to problems.

The definitions above imply that you can either be a willing sacrifice or an unwilling one.  Given the fact of conscription and the dreadful pressure exerted on those who didn’t want to conform and enlist I think we can say that plenty of people were unwilling sacrifices.  The best definition for them then is the one about the act of slaughtering as an offering to a deity.  The government offered them up to be slaughtered.  We are not, presumably, being asked to celebrate their unwilling slaughter to a cause they didn’t believe in, or – at least  – didn’t wish to support militarily.

Then we have the people, the majority, who volunteered.  They fit the second definition of sacrifice – they were willing to give up something for the sake of other considerations.  There are two problems with this.

Firstly, New Zealand wasn’t in charge of its own sacrificial offerings.  In Gallipoli we were used to invade Turkey.  In this case soldiers were offering up their lives/health/sanity in order to – essentially – subjugate a people in their own country under the orders of someone else.  Of course the Ottoman Empire eventually did succumb to the pressures of World War One, and perhaps we contributed to that, but what was that?  Looked at with hindsight it was the blithe, arrogant, imperial carve up of the Middle East that has caused now almost a full century of violent discord and resource exploitation in that region.  Which is the second problem.  After we gave up control of our sacrifice to someone else (the British) our sacrifice was done for dubious reasons.

In World War Two we were sacrificed in order to reclaim the imperial possessions of the European powers on our side in North Africa, and the Pacific.  Our efforts (sacrifices) helped, indirectly or directly, France – for example – to regain places like Vietnam or Tunisia.  The fact that Germany (and later Japan) wanted a piece of the world pie but came late to the party was the cause of both wars.  Pictures of Parisians crying as the Nazis rolled into town are moving symbols of freedom’s light and sovereignty being extinguished until you consider, say, the French occupation of Algeria.

Which is something we should take time to consider in New Zealand, and makes the Maori contribution to the World Wars complicated.  Maori assisting in British battles to reconquer lost or threatened imperial possessions in order to gain some political leverage in their own country is a very complicated story.  At worst it reads like supporting the continued domination of indigenous peoples in other countries in order to gain more power for your own suppressed indigenous people.  Which turned out to be yet another con anyway.  But that is simplistic, especially when you stop talking about Maori in general and start talking about iwi participation or non-participation specifically, or even just remember the previous point about being under someone else’s command.  That’s a very complicated kind of sacrifice.

But, again, media don’t do complicated.

So I suppose we are left with something like: some New Zealanders were sacrificed involuntarily for wars, and some volunteered although the field of sacrifice was almost always determined by another country and was often in pursuit of ignoble, imperialist ends.

We will remember them.

Public remembering is political.  A few months ago now some designers for a proposed New Zealand conflict museum went around some Wellington schools and asked the Social Studies teachers to look at and comment on their ideas for this new museum.  I was the wrong person to ask.  I disliked the whole idea, but what mainly bothered me was that New Zealand conflict, according to this concept, started with World War One.  Surely the defining conflict in New Zealand’s nationhood will always be the New Zealand Wars?  Surely this civil war is what has shaped us more than any other conflict?

Them.  We will remember “them”.  Who is them?  Who decides who they are?  Are they Hone Heke and Kawiti?  Volkner and Governor Grey?  I can almost hear the nervous tooth sucking at the very idea.  Or how about people who didn’t serve but lost their spouses, fiances, boyfriends, friends, sons and daughters?  Shall we remember them?  People like my mother’s grandparents who lost two of their three sons in World War Two.

One of them was killed after he was evacuated from Greece.  His hospital ship was sunk.  This is of course against the rules of war – the sinking of hospital ships – but isn’t the phrase “rules of war” an oxymoron anyway?  Still, at a dawn service what is the appropriate thought, other than – you know – it sucks that he died?  The Germans were horrible stinkers?  No one wins in wars?  Meh.

The other son who died flew on bombers over Germany.


The Germans of course bombed England so they couldn’t expect anything less than a return policy.  To be honest though the thought of it makes me feel deeply uneasy.  In another age in another place he would have been remotely piloting drones over Afghanistan.

On the other hand, he was a nice man.

Which is the trouble with it all.  People are involved.  Regular people are the “them” and there are an awful lot of them.  Although one of my great uncles was on bombers over Germany I have read his letters and know a little of his youthful enthusiasm and wonder, and how much his fiance loved him.  His death and the death of the German civilians, and the Londoners, were all tragedies.  Not sacrifices, not remembered – not really, not on a personal level by governments – and have nothing whatsoever to do with the innocence and experience of nations.

All of this is a nonsense in the face of a specific death.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

In this final media message we are encouraged to view historical wars as an education, but I feel the quote above is inaccurate.  Bastion Point did not occur because government forgot about the New Zealand Wars (although it did).  The more perceptive quote goes like this: “Those who cannot change the power structures are condemned to perpetuate them as victim or oppressor”.  The VC of Apiata or Upham is window dressing and teach no lesson.  The men of the beach on Gallipoli teach no lesson.  In both cases the power structure was being perpetuated in the larger theatre of those conflicts.  We may be distracted by the little cameos of Apiata or Upham, but the dramatic themes remain those of imperial contests played out for economic interests.  We – the white we – are on the side of the Anglo-American empire and its power struggles enmesh us.

And so we end up in Korea and Vietnam and Afghanistan at the service again of someone else’s agenda.  At least there was no Iraq for us.  This time.  Although I imagine this is of no interest to the Iraqis who have died in their thousands as a consequence of the Anglo-American imperial actions to which we belong.  Nothing can be learnt from war that is not evident before the first shot is fired.

The number of people attending Anzac Day celebrations is increasing and this shows the importance New Zealanders attach to our history, and the respect we continue to have for such occasions. 

John Key

So I don’t go to, and probably never will attend, the dawn service on ANZAC Day.  None of the messages make sense, and I can think of the dead without the bugle, or the poem, or platitudes carved on stone memorials in the cold morning air.  The bomber bursting in flame in the night sky over Europe, the hospital ship listing in the Mediterranean, or the little godless shack out the back of a house in Clinton.  All of these tell me about war, and it is a sad, sad tale.

National is building a safer New Zealand with a comprehensive programme of reforms which over the past four years have seen recorded crime drop 20 per cent. 

Latest data shows that since our new alcohol laws around trading hours and Police powers came in at the end of last year, they’ve had an immediate effect.

John Key

ANZAC Day is a political set piece as old as Pericles.  Pericles surprisingly doesn’t mention new alcohol laws around trading hours in his oration, but the message is the same: it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.

When it comes to the notion of killing other people the wiser course is to never trust power.


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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

11 thoughts on “Why I don’t believe in Anzac Day”

  1. Great piece of writing John-Paul. There was a man in my family who also lived an isolated life after the war, just like your man in Clinton. Another survived and his comment on the whole thing was “…I hated it.”. The attitudes promoted in ANZAC Day make me so angry, least of all the way it is forgotten how veterans of the Great War (even that’s a sick title for a war) rejected all kinds of government, moral and religious authority and direction from there forward, because those things had exposed their illegitimacy during the war. Your anecdote of “…there is no god…” both sums it up and is just the tip of what happened next. To see the totality of ANZAC Day selectively appropriated by the war-mongers of our day, so that it becomes a celebration of willful hate and ignorance, it is too much to bear. The quote you picked out, that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, has a new dire irony coming from the same mouth that recently screamed in parliament that we should “get some guts and get on the right side” when it came to America’s wars. No wonder we’re so eager to send the message that those who’ll die will be remembered. It’s a Western version of the stereotype of a suicide bomber winning a hundred virgins in heaven, that we’re encouraged via the media, to sneer out at every opportunity. It just makes me all too angry. Anyway, excellent writing and I agree with your thoughts. The radio, internet and TV will be off in my house during this year’s “celebrations”.

  2. I apologise as sincerely as you choose to imagine (not very much is a good starting point).

  3. This is a powerful statement. Thank you for taking the time to put it here. Unfortunately I think that we might be in for quite a bit of media nonsense over the next four years as we wend our way through many, many hundred year anniversaries. What happens after that will be interesting.

  4. Since I stopped reading Stuff (my only New Year’s resolution) I have become much better informed. Blogs and things like blogs do an amazing job. Just last night I was thanking the internet for telling me in detail about the situation for school children in Nigeria. On our networks this is the kind of thing that is just not covered.

    What I meant to say was: thanks. I will do my wildly inconsistent best.

  5. Thank you for some honest thoughts about ANZAC Day. I haved played the bagpipes at dawn services and events throughout the last 7 years, but it dawned on me finally this year that ANZAC Day , in the main, is used by media and government as a curtain behind which we’re asked to hide our indifference to our country’s continued involvement in the invasion and destruction of others under the guise of such rhetoric as national security, treaty alliances , the carriage of democracy or other thinly-veiled cover for resource theft or otherwise nefarious persuits so far removed from what is right and just, as to beggar belief. I will no longer be attending ANZAC Day services because by attending I feel I would only be supporting the popular ritual of once each year, remembering the dead, and then for yet another 364 days, ignoring the reason why they died, and why we still allow them to die , and kill, while ANZAC Day itself invites absolutely no discourse on how to avoid making the mistakes of the past, or any discussion of accountability of those who wage war. I’m not anti-war, if it can ever be ‘justified’, but I am pro-truth, and ANZAC Day to me, has become a great barrier to the truth.

  6. I regularly read your blog and find my thinking very closely aligns with yours, yet you are able to clarify and express your thoughts so much more clearly than I ever could. I am also a teacher for my sins, but much nearer retirement than you, don’t be jealous now! The “sound bite world” that we now live in is responsible for much of the dumbing down of commentary, news, and thought that surrounds us. I rejoice everyday in the blogosphere as it provides much needed alternative, insightful place to read and reflect. Don’t stop writing and posting.

  7. I think so too. My mother went this year. It’s just fine to go but not – I think – personally for me. It feels uncomfortable, and the people I mention in this piece who are in my family and fought I never knew directly.

  8. I can’t disagree with this. Nicely written and a concise argument that tidies up my untidy thinking on the subject. I attend ANZAC day services not to celebrate New Zealand’s involvement in ‘other people’s wars’ nor to remember the deaths of two great-uncles ( one at Gallipoli and the other in France). I guess I use it as a vehicle to remember my father who served in WW2 and who took me to Dawn Services when I was a child. I think that a lot of people use it for this reason and not for sabre-rattling ( politicians excepted).

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