Rowan Light

By Rowan Light - 24/04/2020

Rowan Light

By Rowan Light -

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Disruption – more than consensus – has been key to Anzac Day and its history

For the second year in a row, Anzac Day is essentially cancelled. In 2019, security concerns following the March 15 attacks reduced the number of services around the country. Now, public commemoration has been scrapped entirely, the latest casualty in the blurring of our rhythms of life during lockdown. Many New Zealanders are feeling a kind of grief at the compounding loss of familiar rituals – attending a dawn service; laying a wreath at a local war memorial; or sharing kai with family and friends at the local RSA.

It’s a big deal, because Anzac Day is one of the last remaining public rituals that is able to command our national attention. Although shifting over the years, the commemoration of the Anzacs retains central themes of sacrifice, integrity, duty, and service on behalf of others. The Prime Minister, in her announcement this week, used the Anzacs as an analogy for our response to Covid-19: “[War] was a very, very different battle from the one we’re in now but the character of our country remains the same.” Remembrance provides a shared story: if the Anzacs fought at Gallipoli, we can endure another week of lockdown.

Many New Zealanders are feeling a kind of grief at the compounding loss of familiar rituals

Importantly, public commemorations aren’t just about warm-feelings or imagining national unity and familiarity. They’re also crucial moments of mana, where a large number of us are listening and watching, where people can speak and be heard. In a generation that has embraced the personalised algorithmic segmentation of internet delivered entertainment, our moments of common attention are rarer than ever. When we lose these spaces of memory, these public declarations of what we remember and what we believe to be important, we also lose the chance to disagree and debate those statements about who we are and the “character” we believe will stand us in good stead to weather future crises.

The disruption of our usual Anzac Day services points to how we cherish annual gatherings attached to time and place and, equally, how quickly we can lose the momentum behind memory. Disruption reveals what is important as well as what’s open to change. In fact, 2019 and 2020 are far from being the only troubled years in Anzac Day’s history. Disruption has been part and parcel of why this day has proven such a potent space to negotiate and debate what it means to be a member of New Zealand society.

When we lose these spaces of memory, these public declarations of what we remember and what we believe to be important

New Zealanders developed Anzac Day as a distinct set of rituals, places, and language of grief in order to make sense of the mass death and vast dislocation of the First World War. Commemoration provided a space to negotiate what the war meant and who could claim authority over this meaning. New community networks like the RSA asserted the importance of ex-servicemen as citizen-soldiers. Women were excluded until groups were able to position mothers and widows as special mourners within the rubric of commemoration. Between the wars, Anzac Day was something of a cross between a funeral and a wake, intended to mark the war dead while impressing on future generations the value of their sacrifice: as my local war memorial in Devonport reads, “Remembering the dead let the living be humbled.”

These early renditions of Anzac Day were framed, above all, by a dominant story of empire. Māori and Pākehā fought together, it was thought, in a shared imperial citizenship. This glorious defence of empire papered over the widening divisions in New Zealand society, and obscured alternative experiences of New Zealand history. Remembering required forgetting.

Remembering required forgetting.

If empire sustained this early form of Anzac Day, then the end of empire provoked a profound crisis in its meaning. In the lead up to the 50th anniversary of Anzac Day in 1965, for example, the dying off of the old soldiers who served in the war rendered the commemoration, for many, defunct.

As this cultural narrative increasingly fell apart, Anzac Day shifted from a site of unity to a site of protest. During the Vietnam War, the peace movement demonstrated on Anzac Day as a way to critique New Zealand’s involvement in the conflict. The Marxist-inspired Progressive Youth Movement launched anti-fascist protests across the country, dramatically scuffling with the Mayor of Christchurch at the citizen’s memorial in 1972. Feminist collectives, active up to 1987, drew on the tradition of female mourners to critique the perceived patriarchal language of war commemoration: “In memory of women raped in war”, as one protest wreath read. By the 1980s, Pasifika and Māori groups joined the fray, clashing with RSA members to protest against white imperialism.

Anzac Day, far from shrivelling away as a vestige of empire, took on new importance in this face-to-face patriotism.

Protests made the public more attentive to Anzac Day and increasingly invested in its orthodoxies, paradoxically highlighting what New Zealanders rejected rather than supported – the profane actions of a Marxist laying a wreath to the Viet Cong as well as the militarism of older generations. Protest made Anzac Day public property, at a time when the old custodians of the commemoration like the RSA were declining. Over the 1980s, Waitangi Day joined Anzac as a site of protest – a corrective to the earlier imperial celebrations, evinced in the old dominant version of the Anzac story, exploded as racist and monocultural.

Anzac Day, far from shrivelling away as a vestige of empire, took on new importance in this face-to-face patriotism. Over the 2000s, the Clark Labour Government, in particular, made war commemoration part of an agenda of “cultural recovery,” looking to the solemn rituals and narratives of wartime unity to help heal the wounds of the past. This process was exemplified in the repatriation of the Unknown Warrior in 2004, who, exhumed from the battlefields of France, was “called again to serve his country,” buried at Pukeahu and enclosed in a tomb that displayed a mix of Māori and English language and iconography. Māori Television’s Anzac Day broadcast offered a re-thought relationship between Māori and Pākehā through increased promotion of the service of Māori soldiers in both world wars. As the 2016 broadcast suggested, this was nō tatou te toto (“the blood we share) as New Zealanders.

Far from being a threat to commemoration, protest was a source of creative destruction, forcing New Zealanders to evaluate and attend to public values—when we believe something we value might change, we tend to pay closer attention, not just as individuals or households, but as a society.

They also, crucially, lack the mass gathering and moments of common attention that public commemoration needs to retain its power.

In light of the lockdown, the rare “public square” moment offered by Anzac Day is even more pressing at a time when we want to be reinforcing our sense of solidarity as New Zealanders. Although some communities have been coming up with creative ways of marking Anzac Day in a time of lockdown and social distancing, these grassroots ideas lack the emotional and historical heft of our generational traditions. They also, crucially, lack the mass gathering and moments of common attention that public commemoration needs to retain its power.

In the aftermath of March 15, we saw debate and discussion around whether Anzac Day was an appropriate time to remember the victims of the terror attacks. As some argued, what better way to prove that the minority victims “are us” than identifying them in the same hallowed moment as the fallen soldiers we venerate over a hundred years later? However, others objected to an official inclusion as a drift away from the purpose of the commemoration, saying Anzac Day should be left solely to commemorate “the New Zealanders and Australians who fought in Gallipoli.”

As a historian, a year after March 15, I think it’s sad that the loss of public gatherings means we’ve not had the chance to see how New Zealanders want to respond to this debate, using and adapting commemoration in new ways – or not.

Above all, we need a new appreciation for our practices of remembrance and the need to pay due diligence to not only what unites us, but also what we disagree on.

Today, just as Anzac Day offers narrative claims about us as New Zealanders, so too should New Zealanders make claims about Anzac Day. While the lockdown lasts, this might be limited to the conversations we have in our bubble, or on an online Facebook group, but we must recognise that with disruption comes the opportunity of change. What kind of Anzac Day do we want to pass onto to future generations? A commemoration that once buttressed empire now, after March 15, could be used to condemn violence and white supremacism—though we must acknowledge that as long as institutions like the military, for example, are still important norm-makers in commemoration, it’s unlikely that civilian victims of terrorism, or perhaps even of pandemic, could be included.

The disruption of what has been a constant in our lifetimes is a chance to reflect on what is precious and useful to making sense of our shared lives together: perhaps pushing for commemoration that is multicultural as well as bicultural nor limited to just military experience. Above all, we need a new appreciation for our practices of remembrance and the need to pay due diligence to not only what unites us, but also what we disagree on.

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Rowan Light

By Rowan Light -

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