Hard News by Russell Brown


This Anzac Day

It is inevitable and fitting that this Anzac Day, marking a hundred years since the disastrous invasion of Gallipoli, should be a particularly significant one. I think it's also true that the official messaging of 2015 has smoothed out the century since into something far less complex than it really was.

The wars and the remembrance movement – with its remarkable and surprising iconography, which literally made its mark on the landscape – have shaped us in many ways. But the phenomenon of the past 20 years, where young people and families have flocked to Dawn Parades has almost created an ahistorical past. In the 1970s, it didn't happen. We bought poppies to raise money for old soldiers, but there were fewer grand speeches from politicians. Big, greedy companies didn't try and get a piece of the action. It wasn't a stage for politicians.

The Returned Services Association was still at that time a part of the social fabric, especially in provincial New Zealand, where every town had a memorial hall. Unlike the organisation of 2015, the RSA could operate, politically and socially, as a powerful conservative force. If you're over the age of 45, you may remember them that way. They weren't always the good guys. (And I say that having been a member of my local RSA, where everything stops, daily, for The Ode.) Our relationship with the RSA has become less complex as it has become a less important part of the national life.

There were also men, many of them, who didn't want to remember what they had seen. Their experience, the trauma they silently lived with, shaped our society as much as the sense of nationhood we are said to have found on foreign fields.

We tend, further, to forget the complexity of Maori participation in the first world war. The legend of the courage and ferocity of Maori soldiers persists today. The Native Contigent suffered awfully at Gallipoli. But there were also iwi, disposessed of their land, their populations already ravaged, who wanted no part of the Empire's war, and Maori who absconded from conscription for the same reason.

This not to say people should not remember their near ancestors and the sacrifices they have made. But amid all the commemoration, I think an opportunity has been missed for a genuine and important social history. We've accepted a history located safely on foreign battlefields with familiar names, when so much of what actually shaped us happened at home.

Imagine the story of of the hundred years since, with everything in it: the tensions, the triumphs, the trauma, the objectors, the protestors, the evolving understandings of what it all meant, the extent to which the former order was left behind by the changes of the 1980s, the way that created space for the new and current interpretation of the day. Imagine not a distant, virtuous history of long-gone men, but one that is still with us and about us.

NB: I'm told that many of the things I've written about here are touched on Sam Neill's documentary Anzac: Tides of Blood, which screens on Maori Television at 7.00am and 8.00pm tomorrow.

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