In memoriam: The ties that ‘bind’

A Brief Reflection

When it comes to ANZAC Day I’m always in a bind.

The deaths, the maimings and the huge disruptions to ordinary people’s lives should never be forgotten; but to ‘honour’ that suffering in ways that, ultimately, may help to justify that same suffering is deeply abhorrent to me.

For this reason I probably never feel as morally uncomfortable as I do on ANZAC Day.

I have never considered myself a pacifist but the strange thing is that when I discount all conflicts that are unjust, performed primarily in the service of elite interests or just God-awful messes that should never have happened I find few examples where going to war can be supported.

Worse still is that I know that with every ANZAC service – no matter what the intention of participants – the likelihood of popular support for, or compliance with, a future war increases rather than decreases.

And in this way I fear that the intergenerational cycle that created the suffering and sacrifice we commemorate is in danger of being reproduced yet again.

I’d love to think that these services made it less likely for people to support whatever war is promoted next. But I really can’t be sure of that. There’s a reason why there is widespread elite support for the construction of war memorials and enactment of memorial services – and that reason sends shivers down my spine.

In almost all cultures, the warrior spirit is honoured and, most often, encouraged. In fact, simply by elevating the practice of memorialising the deaths of the ‘fallen warriors’ the role of warrior becomes itself elevated in a self-reinforcing circle. In that dynamic, to criticise a warrior – or even to criticise the fighting they have performed – is to walk through a social minefield in which the threat of explosions of public antipathy and vitriol are ever-present dangers.

Militarism is closely related to the social status of the idea (or ideal) of the warrior. It is for this reason that empires have always prioritised and thrived on the commemoration of ‘campaigns’ – whether successful or not. They build statues to heroic military leaders, they commission paintings of battles and military heroism, they name streets and boulevards after the same.

Triumphalist arches, for example, are not just commemorations of metaphorical or abstract triumphs but of battles that established and entrenched geopolitical realities. By contrast, there will be no ‘Arch de Triomphe’ built at the conclusion of the War on Poverty – should it ever be ‘won’.

In small, traditional or even hunter-gatherer societies that self-reinforcing circle that elevated the warrior class was probably necessary to ensure the defence of the small group of homogeneous souls against other groups. But, today, nation states are hardly small groups of homogeneous souls. They are constructions, often forced upon diverse groups which have as much conflict of interest between them as they have interests in common. And, tellingly, armies are always disproportionately unrepresentative of those diverse groups (e.g., African Americans and poor whites dominate the US forces).

So how do I pay tribute to both of the ties that bind me, and put me in a bind? How do I reconcile my respect for those ordinary people who have suffered with my abhorrence at the power interests that generate the wars that have created the suffering?

Until I can work out an answer to that question I will not attend ANZAC Day services.

And whether or not others have attended such services today my one hope is that, at least, they feel the same ‘bind’, the same moral discomfort that I do.

Keeping true to that discomfort may in fact be the best way to ‘honour the fallen’.

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6 Responses to In memoriam: The ties that ‘bind’

  1. Simon Barnard says:

    That the world remains at war, that governments continue to spend disproportionately for war and make excuses for war, 100 years after the War to end all Wars makes clear how shallow our commitment to peace really is.

    Perhaps if the military and government leaders stepped away from the ANZAC services and turned it over to the peace groups the sacrifices made by so many could actually be honored.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Simon,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment – really appreciated.

      I’ve thought myself about how to have different remembrance services that, as you argue, could honour people without being entangled in militarism and nationalism. Many more of the men and women who fought (and supported them) in the wars of the last century were volunteers and/or ordinary citizens rather than members of the regular forces and I think this is often overlooked in the ANZAC Day services. I imagine that in many smaller communities some military or political element is simply included as a ‘default setting’ – the sense that ‘this is how a war memorial service is done’.

      Yet it makes more sense to me – in many contexts – simply to have a community gathering without institutional representatives from the military and political establishment present (at least in those formal roles). It’s not clear to me that the day should be dominated by uniforms, medals and bugles when so many who went were far better defined in terms of their families, their workplaces, their friendships and their role in local communities. These were their lives – not the years they spent at war; even if in some cases those were their last years.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      Puddle glum

    • sunilwilliams says:

      I’ve had a similar thought myself:

      If Anzac Day is really an “Anti War” event, then it has failed and should be replaced with something else.

  2. janinechch says:

    Yes so very true. ANZAC day and all that goes with it fills me with revulsion. The idea of indoctrinating children into this memorializing (almost to the point of celebration) of these imperial wars horrifies me.
    And yet ….
    and yet.
    I come from a long line of soldiers from the Peninsula war, to the Crimea, to the Land wars, to the Boer war, WW1 and WW2 my male ancestors and relatives were there. As were at least three of my female ancestors in the days when women and children lived and travelled with the troops.

    My Stepfather was a tank captain in WW2, he was at Cassino. He went to the RSA and ANZAC day for the memory of the dead he fought with. He believed that our troops were paragons of virtue doing nothing wrong or cruel and yet… by the end of his life he was drinking beer for breakfast.

    My father was conscripted and was in WW2 in the Pacific. He loathed war and would never set foot in the RSA building or attend an ANZAC day. To him war was the greatest of human follies epitomized in the story he told me of how on the very day after that war was declared men were already lining up outside the post office to volunteer for it. And yet … his gr gr uncle won both the Victoria Cross and Distinguished Conduct Medal. He was the son, grandson and great grandson of soldiers.

    I too feel a strange unease on these war celebration days because I feel great sorrow at the suffering and horror of war and I long for it to never happen again. And yet… war and man go together ( in almost every case). Two peas in a pod.

    I look forward to the day when greater New Zealand begins to feel this unease. That day will be when we are finally honest about our very own war. The war where we ethnically cleansed parts of the north Island and took the best of the land for our ( pakeha) selves. How will we ‘celebrate’ that I wonder????

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi janinechch,

      It’s details like your family history and involvement in wars – and the different reactions to it within your family – that make me realise what is so often forgotten on these days of ‘remembrance’. While some who fought would no doubt have been proud to be honoured by the dawn services and the presence of high-ranking military and political figures for many others that would have been the last thing they would have wanted.

      Like your father and mine, there were untold people who rejected those memorial services. Yet how does our society honour those people? How does it commemorate – or even simply acknowledge – their sacrifice and their view of the wars they fought in? Where is their voice at the Dawn Services?

      Thanks so much for your family’s story and for your comment.

      Much appreciated.


  3. Its tough too as its branded a ‘national day’, Waitangi day is too fraught, Queens Birthday is negligible, Labour Day could be a doozy, but the last mass turnout was for film workers marching on Labour Day for WORSE employment conditions! Whats the collective noun for Hobbits? A subsidy of Hobbits, hee hee.
    Partly the void created by no progressive wins in the last 30 years has moved predictably into the proto-fascist nationalism and jingoistic militarism we now experience for Anzac day. Imagine a dawn chorus for Hiroshima in August? The Homosexual reform bill/act, the apartheid tours, the hikoi’s. All of that was ages ago, another generation, now the masses on the streets have just had loss after loss, and the small crew who protested the Weapons Conference in wgtn last Nov are facing court rigmarole.
    No wins on Student Fees, no wins on mass sell offs, no wins for Christchurch, dead miners, climate apocalypse, decriminalisation, euthanasia etc etc.
    The ‘Left’ have lost consistently for so long that now only things from the ‘right’ can win in public expression, yacht races and mining companies and water for farmers and Gerry Brownlee saying its only about socks for soldiers when Lockheed -Martin is re-fitting those frigates for half a billion.
    Anzac day includes the volunteer firemen too…how gross, such civic responsible people being militarised into the ‘uniformed’ non-‘civvies’.
    Public space and emotional expression has become so grossly constricted by hierarchy and conformism.
    Anzac day…100 years after the British Empire declared war, they sent their first Divisions into Basra into what would become Iraq, not Belgium, not Serbia, Basra. 100 years later we’ve sent troops back.
    Lest we Remember.
    Here’s a little known WW1 spin:

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