ANZAC Day and Nationalism

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.

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5 Responses to ANZAC Day and Nationalism

  1. alex says:

    This is a wonderful post, and really gets to the heart of what is so unpleasant about rituals of commemoration of war. I went to the 2011 Dawn Service, more to study than participate in it, and found that there was a constant refrain of making people think of soldiers as ordinary people, focusing on conformity and mateship as the reasons to go to war. It really unnerved me how so many buy into the rhetoric of how it is a good man who goes to war, because that is what his mates are doing. I highly doubt Lord Kitchener was mates with any privates.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Thanks for the comment alex.

      Yes, one of the tragedies of the modern world is that it channels perfectly understandable and ‘natural’ motives to quite reprehensible ends.

      You might want to seek out a book called ‘Ordinary Men’ by Christopher Browning. The last chapter is where he sums up his argument and, essentially, argues that the strongest motive that kept the men killing and committing other atrocities was the social psychological processes of loyalty and conformity. Well worth a read.

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  3. Lawrence says:

    I believe you are wrong. By remembering the dreadfulness of war we decrease its chances of happening again. It is the people who want to forget it, who increase its chances of happening again. The true spirit of ANZAC is not nationalism, but of remembrance of the fallen. That’s the predominant feeling at ANZAC Day services. I suggest you go to one or two and see how people come across. Of course there is the odd nationalist there, but increasingly less so. You’re stuck in the 1960s, when people used ANZAC Day to justify the cold war.

    And how dreadful that you couldn’t go to the Christchurch memorial. You are right in a sense. The dead were just there. They had bad luck. It could have been you or me. We’re lucky. They were not, so we should think of them, remember them.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Lawrence,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      As I said in the post, I don’t forget what my father did – or others who fought in various wars. I do remember them, but every day (in my father’s case) not just once a year. My issue with formal remembrance is not that ordinary people make use of it to remember – I think I explicitly acknowledge that in the post; in fact it is part of my ambivalence about not going to such services. But, I find it incredibly difficult to go when politicians – as John Key did that year – use it to make comments about how it was all done in a noble cause, fighting for freedom and our way of life, and thus use it to inculcate the spirit that will ensure that there will be another generation willing to go where they are told to go and fight.

      As it happens – and as another of my posts shows (‘No ordinary day’) – I did go to the memorial service in Hagley Park a year on from the February earthquake. There was the use of it by politicians and other dignitaries to push barrows that had no right to be pushed at such a service but my family and I felt we had to go for our city and for the people who died. I am still, however, very wary of having my emotions recruited for purposes I disagree with so I will probably not go to another formal memorial service for the earthquake victims. I will commemorate them in my own way. I believe there is more dignity in that, for me, than engaging with a process that will grow further and further away from what should be its point and will inevitably come to be used for other purposes over time – just like ANZAC Day.

      I am not trapped in the 1960s. The sentiments I recoil from are those expressed today via the ‘excuse’ of ANZAC Day. The services that day – no matter how ‘true’ to the spirit of remembrance – have been co-opted for nationalism on the wider political stage. I won’t go along with that.

      I realise that these are deeply emotional matters. I have utter respect for the ordinary New Zealanders who go to ANZAC Day services and commemorate those they either knew or whom they now think about with compassion and gratefulness. My issue is with how that thoroughly human response is used.

      Thanks again for your comment. Much appreciated.

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