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NZ POLITICS DAILY: Anzac fatigue and dissent

Have we reached “peak poppy” asks Bryce Edwards?.

Fri, 24 Apr 2015

As the nation moves into commemorating the Anzac Day centenary, there are growing signs of WWI overload and fatigue. For many New Zealanders, Anzac Day has an almost sacred or spiritual quality and, for some, it represents a proxy national day. It is considered disrespectful, inappropriate – and down right traitorous, by some – to express dissent about the day. Yet, the nationalism, militarism and even jingoism that accompanies Anzac Day should be challenged, because questions about Gallipoli hype and hysteria raise wider issues about war, national identity, democracy and the dangers of public manipulation. 

Backlash against Anzac Day

On Twitter many are expressing their unease with Anzac Day – see my blog post Top (dissident) tweets about Anzac Day.

But the media is conveying some doubts, too. Journalist Alastair Paulin has written a must-read expression of his own experiences after covering years of Anzac Day services – see: On the brink of WWI overload

Paulin coins the term “peak poppy”, and suggests that the mood of the commemorations has changed in recent years: “My concern is that the steady stream of Anzac coverage is sending us the wrong message. The tidy symbolism and euphemisms of the way we pay homage to the soldiers of WWI risks glorifying and sanitising the reality of war and our focus on the events of 100 years ago blinds us to the realities of war now.  It seems perverse that much more ink has been spilled over Gallipoli than our Government's decision, without any public debate, to send soldiers into the war zone of Iraq this year”.

Instead of blindly respecting the military – which the latest commemorations does seem to promote – Paulin says “The more we honour the military with ceremonies, bugles and ribbons, the less we see it as an institution that deserves just as much critical attention and debate as, say, how to provide affordable housing”. 

For a very in-depth discussion and critique of the changing nature of Anzac Day, read Gordon Campbell’s blog post What’s to Commemorate? He starts out by saying, “We don’t want to (a) glorify war (b) commercialise it (c) politicise it (d) watch our leaders weep crocodile tears over it or (e) do anything that might heighten the chance of something like Gallipoli ever happening again. That may not leave very much left over”.

Campbell points the finger especially at those in politics, business and the media who seek to exploit Gallipoli for their own means. 

Is it only intellectuals and beltway figures growing suspicious of the treatment of Anzac Day? There are actually signs that the wider public is not as enamoured with the centenary as might be assumed. For example, one of the central celebrations planned for this weekend, in Auckland, has had to be cancelled due to lack of interest – see Caleb Harris’ news report, Cancellation of Camp Gallipoli Foundation event leaves veterans' descendants 'gutted'

Writing about Camp Gallipoli, socialist Tom Peters says “organisers ran up against widespread and deep-seated anti-war sentiment among workers and young people” – see: New Zealanders shun Camp Gallipoli WWI celebration. This article highlights the feedback that the organisers received, saying “Many comments expressed revulsion at the event’s glorification of militarism”. Peters concludes “The Camp Gallipoli fiasco reflects widespread, albeit still latent, opposition to this intensifying militarist and nationalist campaign”.

Crass and commercial?

Much Anzac fatigue relates to a perception that the commemorations are being commercialised and exploited, even by the RSA – see Liam Hyslop’s article, The commercialisation of Anzac Day. Companies from Fonterra through to ANZ are partnering with the RSA. 

The RSA itself has a legal monopoly on the commercialisation of all Anzac-related merchandise and marketing. The Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act says that companies can only trade on the Anzac brand in partnership with the RSA – see Simon Maude’s Real estate agent uses Anzac imagery in sales flier.

Of course the RSA also sells its poppies, with trade being especially high this year – see TVNZ’s Poppy sales soar ahead of Anzac centenary.

Other use of Gallipoli-related branding will, however, raise eyebrows. For example, the Auckland Museum and the makers of the Minecraft game have incorporated Gallipoli into the weekend’s activities – see the Herald’s Gallipoli landscape given a Minecraft makeover

In Australia the so-called “Branzac” trend is much more advanced, as explained by Emily Robertson in Why the Anzac legend has always been about branding. She explains that “The flood of kitsch items and events is leaving many Australians wondering what Anzac stands for”.

TV3’s The Nation has looked into this commercialisation – see Tony Wright’s 8-minute item, Australia’s ANZAC obsession

Should New Zealand be apologising for the invasion?

Will John Key “get some guts” and apologise for New Zealand’s invasion 100 years ago? That’s the suggestion made by a former Turkish diplomat, who has been living here since the 1970s. Nejat Kavvas is reported as calling “on the Government to say sorry for the offensive that claimed 86,000 Ottoman lives - almost twice the number of Allied soldiers killed” – see: Kurt Bayer’s Prime Minister John Key won't apologise for Gallipoli invasion. Kavvas is also “critical that some Anzac historians have failed to give a balanced view of the conflict”.

See also, Kurt Bayer’s Gallipoli, the Turkish view: New Zealanders were 'pawns in a very dirty British game'

Should New Zealand be recognising the Armenian genocide?

The second uncomfortable issue for New Zealand at the time of the centenary is the challenge of recognising the Armenian genocide, which is bound up with the invasion of Gallipoli. The must-read item about this is James Robins’ The graves of others: ANZAC and the Armenian Genocide.

This explains how New Zealand is shamefully ignoring the fact that the centenary of the Armenian genocide – which involved the murder of about one million – also occurs this week, and that the two centenaries are intrinsically linked, but with one deliberately ignored. Robins notes that one historian of the genocide says that “the decision to get rid of the Armenians, Assyrians, and Hellenes was a direct result of the attacks on Gallipoli”.

Robins explains that New Zealand has an implicit policy of not mentioning the genocide, in order to buy the favour of the Turkish Government. 

Political scientist Grant Duncan condemns New Zealand’s silence: “How long will this hypocrisy go on? Presumably it will go on for as long as New Zealanders wish to live out a retrospective fantasy of 'national identity' and 'honour and sacrifice' every 25 April. While they remember 2,779 New Zealanders lost at Gallipoli, will they spare a thought for 1.5 million Armenians who were murdered in mass graves or marched through deserts to their deaths? No, they won't. They certainly won't like to think that the Allied invasion of April 1915 played a part in the events that led to the genocide” – see: New Zealand's official silence on the Armenian genocide .

Tim McKinnel has also written about the issue in the latest North and South, condemning New Zealand’s diplomatic measures, and makes a plea that this weekend we “turn our thoughts to another small country hollowed out by an unprecedented slaughter”. 

See also, Maria Armoudian’s Honour all victims of Turkish brutality.

What about the New Zealand Wars?

While many millions of dollars are being spent on Anzac-related memorials and activities, some are questioning if there is a major imbalance. According to historian Vincent O’Malley, we are failing to give comparative resources and attention to domestic conflicts of importance – see: Historical amnesia over New Zealand's own wars.

Why would this be? O’Malley explains: One obvious answer is that they do not rouse nationalist pride. According to the legend, our nation was born at Gallipoli not Orakau or Gate Pa. Who wants troubling introspection when we can have heart-warming patriotism instead?”

Malley has elaborated on these issues in a 9-minute interview for TVNZ’s Q+A programme – see: We must also commemorate those who fell on NZ soil

What about those who opposed the war?

Soldiers weren’t the only victims of the World War I. Historian Paul Moon makes the case for remembering the 2600 conscientious objectors, and the 400 men “imprisoned for refusing to serve in the armed forces” – see: No Anzac Parade for lifelong stigma of 'conchies'.

Moon outlines how they were punished, and how these degrading episodes weakened society and law. 

One “lifelong conscientious objector” will be celebrating this weekend. Steve Oxley “was born the day the first Anzacs landed at Gallipoli”, and therefore turns 100 tomorrow – see Brittany Mann’s Conscientious objector to celebrate 100th birthday on Anzac centenary.

Is Anzac Day changing?

It’s not only radicals who are complaining about the new version of Anzac Day. For example Rosemary McLeod writes this week, War was hell and hardship, not guts and glory.

Russell Brown also has some thoughtful observations on the changing day in his blog post, This Anzac Day

Certainly the way Anzac Day is being officially sold is changing. For example the latest centenary projects in Wellington are controversial. Academic blogger Dougal McNeill has described the launch of Peter Jackson’s new museum exhibit as “Leni Riefenstahl meeting the Feebles” – see: ANZAC: they'll remember it for us wholesale. Reflecting on the launch, he says: “this morning something deeper seemed at work – full fantasy, full consumption, ANZAC as video game and branding exercise and empty spectacle”.

For an even stronger critique and condemnation, see John Braddock and Tom Peters’ New Zealand’s WWI exhibitions falsify history and glorify war for a new generation.

Stephanie Rodgers says that she has witnessed the changing mood, too. She argues that previously there was more focus on the lessons and futility of what happened in 1915: “But this year, that undertone is definitely gone. In the wall-to-wall coverage of every ceremony and visit and exhibition, I’ve yet to see a single person acknowledge the archaic imperial motives of WWI, that the Gallipoli campaign was a pointless slaughter, or the simple fact that at Gallipoli, we were the invaders and we lost – see: The decontextualisation of ANZAC Day

Likewise, Mandy Hager says “Most years I feel somewhat ambivalent about ANZAC day, preferring the ‘white poppy’ of peace approach rather than what I view as the traditional glorification of wars past.  This year, with the increasing hype around the WWI commemorations as well, I feel even more conflicted – see: Not Peace But War for 34 Countries

Hager says, “it feels like we’ve reached a whole new level of Disneyfication and hyperbole – and that there is a huge, bloody elephant in the room that we are ignoring at our peril. ‘Lest we forget’ has become a hollow slogan, given the cold hard truth is that we have forgotten”. 

So what was the Gallipoli invasion and World War I all about? According to the Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, talking on Q+A last week, it was to fight “a great evil”. Chris Trotter takes issues with this, saying, “History refutes him. The First World War was a war between rival empires. The “great evil” was Imperialism. And New Zealand’s sons were fighting for it – not against it” – see: What Were The ANZACs Fighting For?

Interestingly, in Australia there seems to be greater Anzac fatigue. For some dissenting commentary on the issues in that country, see Germaine Greer’s At the centenary of Gallipoli, Germaine Greer interrogates the myth of Australian nationhood, Kate Aubusson’s Why my generation grew up thinking it was un-Australian to question Anzac, Greg Barns’s Anzac Day should not take prime spot on our national calendar, Jenna Price’s How I fell for Anzac Day, and why I'm over it, and Paul Daley’s 100 years of Anzac: beyond memorials, what have we really learned? and Anzac Day should be quarantined from politicians – a solemn moment to reflect on the agony of war

Finally, TVNZ news presenter Peter Williams makes the case that This song should be compulsory Anzac Day listening. He’s talking about the Eric Bogle song, The Band played Waltzing Matilda. And the best version of this Anzac-antidote is by the Pogues: The band Played Waltzing Matilda

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NZ POLITICS DAILY: Anzac fatigue and dissent