I'm not sure what to make of ANZAC day commemorations. I have been to a number over the years, as a way of paying my posthumous respects to old guys I have met in New Zealand who fought and suffered in WWII. I also go to pay respects to my own family members who died, fighting on the other side, and to pay respects to all those women and men who have suffered in war and reflect on the terrible things they have seen and done and had done to them. I pray I never have to experience such things.
I guess my ambivalence about the public ceremonies is because I am not sure what the message of ANZAC day is. I like the idea that we are all getting together to say “never again”, but I am not sure that is true. I would be happy with “only in the direst of need” but I'm not even sure I can rely on that. Many of the VIPS at these events look like they would be only too happy to send soldiers off to kill if it would enhance their vote
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the New Zealand Army. I think our armed forces are pretty good, as far as armies go. I've been told that New Zealand has a reputation for being able to get the job done with the minimum of fuss and without the need for excessive amounts of expensive gear. I've been told we have a reputation for developing good community relations, and that our soldiers are noted for being as quick to whip out a guitar as a gun (maybe the New Zealand Police could learn something here). Having a high proportion of Maori is probably helpful in Pacific peace keeping operations, where most of our army's work is done. My problem is with the ambiguous symbolism of ANZAC Day.
I heard someone from the RSA commenting on National Radio that one of the reasons for the increasing attendance at ANZAC Day events is the coverage it gets from Maori TV. MTS has led the way in giving in-depth and extensive coverage to events of national importance such as ANZAC Day and Waitangi Day. I guess it's no surprise that Maori have a particular regard for ANZAC Day – the 28th (Maori) Battalion was internationally reknowned for its fierce bravery and the number of its soldiers who were decorated. Fighting in war, said Apirana Ngata, was the price of citizenship. As if the loss of lands and political independence was not price enough.
Even so, many young Maori came home from war, sometimes physically maimed, often psychologically scarred, to find their lands under the ownership of Pakeha farmers and their people still being treated as second class citizens. Perhaps that broken promise is one reason why it is so important for many Maori communities to remember and reaffirm that sacrifice, and why the mean-spirited racism that remains so wide spread in New Zealand society rankles so.
ANZAC Day is important for us all though, not just for Maori. In particular it is a day to reflect on the sacrifices of those who go to war on our behalf, and those they kill and maim in our name. This seems particularly important today, when New Zealand has soldiers serving in two imperial wars – in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It is vitally important that we continue to ask why they are there. We owe it to the soldiers who serve there, and to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan who may be dying as you read this.
In particular we cannot allow the claim of security to prevent us from continuing to ask what our troops are up to. The Prime Minister, and the Army, are happy to trot out Willie Apiata as propaganda but they continue to stonewall on the real questions about what our troops are up to over there. We know that US troops have been involved in numerous cases of atrocities in Iraq, from prison torture to the murder of civilians. We know of these because the stories have been leaked. I am not saying that New Zealand troops have ever been involved in such atrocities, but simply that we would probably never know if they had.
Western armies learned a huge lesson from the invasion of Vietnam: that controlling the media needs to be made a high priority in any military operation. That the lesson has been learned is readily apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the media has been bought off with the trinkets that come from collaboration. Here in Aotearoa , for example, the media seems largely content as long as it is fed with nice photos every once in a while. It has become a domesticated dog.
Apart from the most obvious one, however, the lesson that has NOT been learned from Vietnam is the self-defeating nature of working with drug-funded war lords. Professor Peter Dale Scott has written an excellent analysis of CIA involvement with the Afghani opium trade – a trade almost destroyed by the Taliban but enjoying a massive resurgence under the Northern Alliance (Hat tip Rob Ueberfeldt). As in Vietnam and South America, the CIA has not been actively involved in the drug trade so much as protecting the shipments of key allies in order to secure their cooperation. It is a dangerous game and fuels further instability in the region.
In the end, I think ANZAC Day is important for us as a nation. I hope it is a way to avoid the kind of militaristic jingoism that seems so apparent in the USA. Whether people chose to attend or not attend the public ceremonies, let us make it a day for us all to remember those who fought, to reflect on the terrible things that people do to each other in war and to reaffirm our commitment as a nation to working to decrease its likelihood.