I’ve never been to an ANZAC Day dawn service. I’ve often tried to work out why. I think I now know.
I’m like my father. He never went to war memorial days. Yet, he fought in World War II and his father fought in the Sudan under Kitchener. He (dad) was in the Pacific Fleet in the Royal Navy, returned home (to the UK) on compassionate leave and then returned to service just in time to be involved in the Normandy landings.
Like most servicemen, he hated war. Unlike some, he knew why. He gleaned his knowledge from slow reading (he was probably dyslexic) of political tomes and war histories. He also gained it from being politically active at a local level and getting a clear sense of how the cynical and brutal world of power and politics worked. Not bad for someone who left school at 14.
Yes, the utter tragedy of people (soldiers and civilians) dying in such huge numbers and in horrible circumstances was a big part of it. But my father also knew that wars were not for the defence of freedom, democracy, ‘our way of life’, ‘our values’. He knew that those things were constantly put aside and attacked in peace time by the very ‘leaders’ who claimed that’s what wars were in defence of.
He fought for very human reasons. Primarily to be loyal to his mates around him. He hated fascism but knew that the reason Hitler wasn’t stopped in the thirties was that too many of Britain’s, Europe’s and the US’s elites thought a resurgent Germany was good for their business interests.
My father wouldn’t have put it like this but it’s what he understood both in his gut and from his reading and thinking: there are necessary and sufficient conditions for war and concerns over ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘our way of life’, etc. are not amongst those conditions (either necessary or sufficient). That so few people seem to accept this is astonishing. That the Prime Minister would reiterate these claims in the context of visiting a graveyard for those who died in the ‘Great War’ (WWI) of all wars is, perhaps, sadly predictable:
They are not just names, they are sons of New Zealand families that never returned and that is the ultimate sacrifice that you pay for your country, freedom and democracy.
He also used to say that, no matter what anyone who attended liked to think, memorial services were always about glorifying war and making it acceptable. They’re also about getting people used to hierarchies, absolute authority and the notion that ‘duty’ is about doing what those authorities command.
The idea that ‘duty’ might involve opposing those very authorities is never given a look in at these services. Claiming that the noblest, bravest and most self-sacrificing thing one can do for your fellow countrymen and women might be to expose the calculations and motives of those who demand us to go to war is so politically incorrect – in the true sense of that phrase – that you risk public vilification and shaming.
At its worst, this kind of reaction grows into full-blown nationalism – the readiness, even eagerness, to sacrifice your fellow citizens in some notional act of ‘national self-defence’. Nationalism is an invitation to glory in that sentiment. For me, ANZAC Day has clearly crossed this line. Media outlets and commentators routinely talk about Gallipoli giving birth to our nation. Think about that for a moment.
The notion that a nation is born out of a pointless sacrificial offering establishes the idea that citizenship is gained and maintained through the willingness to make similar pointless sacrificial offerings. Far better if it had been born out of the emphatic repudiation of the world that had led to such a catastrophe.
Yet, having said all of that …
I’ve always found it difficult reconciling my feelings about commemorations like ANZAC Day. On the one hand are the feelings of all the families and friends of those who died in war (although, usually it’s only the fighting people rather than the civilians, bystanders, etc. who get mentioned). I can understand why they might want some collective commemoration. I also realise that they may not think that they are glorifying war.
On the other hand, as I’ve mentioned, are all the obvious institutions of the state, the elite and systems of power in society that co-opt these occasions and these emotions in order to perpetuate the very social conditions, traditions and values that lead to wars being waged and to ordinary peoples’ lives being destroyed by them.
The only way I can think of this disjunction between individual motives and structural co-option without getting stomach cramps is to remember a phenomenon known by economists and popularised in Thomas Schelling’s famous book ‘Micromotives and Macrobehavior‘. The basic idea is that each individual person can act on a motive that results, at the macrolevel, in something that is almost the opposite of the motives of the individuals involved. It depends on the nature of the social structures within which those motives are expressed.
People who go to Dawn Services, compose ANZAC Day radio programmes, etc. are, no doubt, responding to some positive human motives (concern for those ordinary people who did go and fight, upending or simply ending their lives in the process; a sense that we shouldn’t forget what they did, and the like). But, then they seem to buy into the rhetoric – ‘they died for our country’, ‘they died defending freedom and democracy’, ‘they gave the ultimate sacrifice defending our way of life’, etc.. – a rhetoric composed by power and for the justification of power (the state, the elite, etc.). (It is for similar reasons that I could not attend the memorial service in Christchurch after the earthquake.)
In a quite horrific, ghastly way, each individual who goes to a Dawn Service unintentionally increases the likelihood that, in future, others will also have to end up going to such services. It’s a hideous macro-level consequence of some very fine micro-level motives.
There should be a better way of remembering and honouring those who went to war, those who died fighting it, those who were killed, maimed and whose lives were in other ways destroyed as a consequence of it. A way that doesn’t help recreate the conditions for it to happen again.
I’ve never been to a Dawn Service. I now know why. I’m my father’s son. The son of a young man who went to war. And I remember him every day. That’s all I need.