Two very different ANZAC commemorations took place around mid-morning at the Auckland Domain. Alex Braae went to both of them.
I arrived in time for the wreath laying. There were still hundreds, if not thousands of people surrounding the cenotaph, a huge contingent on the hill in front of the looming War Memorial Museum.
As I approached the fence around the cenotaph, justice minister Andrew Little was standing up to lay a wreath on behalf of the government. Next was East Coast Bays MP Erica Stanford, representing Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. A wreath layer representing the Australian government followed, then representatives of the courts, the police. Various veterans organisations, cultural groups, pillars of the community. The long silences were punctuated only by seagulls perched on top of the cenotaph, and impatient children.
Then more countries laid wreaths, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Belgium, South Korea, Great Britain, Canada. Jarringly, a representative of Saudi Arabia laid a wreath, on behalf of a country which is currently enthusiastically committing war crimes in Yemen. Our friends and allies RSVPed to the invitation, for what has become a proxy national day for large swathes of New Zealand.
ANZAC Day commemorations are overwhelmingly marked by institutions of the state, or those that align themselves closely with the state. The military, the police, schools, Scouts, the Salvation Army, politicians. SkyCity, so intimately connected with the political and business establishment, had sponsorship on the drums that kept the marching beat.
It would be wrong to call official ANZAC Day commemorations a glorification of war. The sadness expressed at the loss of life during war is real, as is the concern expressed for the well-being of those in the military today. A representative of the Salvation Army summed up the dichotomy during a prayer, which both called upon god to “strengthen and protect the armed forces of our Queen,” but also mourned those who lost their lives, families and homes through war, no matter who they are. But they would already know all about looking after people destroyed by the policies of the state.
And the respect for those in uniform, carried by those who attend ANZAC commemorations, is real too. Nobody is coercing attendance at commemorations, or bussing people in and slapping a red poppy on them. The revival of large scale ANZAC Day services has been largely an organic phenomenon, and people attend to honour their relatives and ancestors in uniform. The stories that people tell each other around ANZAC Day, about grandfathers mown down on the beach at Gallipoli, uncles who came back from Vietnam not the same as when they left, of friends who didn’t come back at all, those stories are all real too.
After a desultory rendition of How Great Thou Art and a more rousing version of the national anthem, it was time to head down the hill to the other commemoration taking place. Around Auckland Domain Band rotunda, Auckland Peace Action had hung banners and bunting to mourn the victims of war, and celebrate those who stood against it. They wore white poppies, and had a table with free soup.
It was all in stark contrast to the discipline and clipped timings of the ceremony up the hill. Picnic blankets were laid out, people came and went as they pleased. Speakers roamed across subjects and threads, sometimes breaking off halfway through a speech to let someone else say something, and then coming back and doing the second half later. I was having a yarn to Sam, one of the organisers of the event, and mentioned the SkyCity sponsorship on the drums up the hill. Next time he went up to speak he announced it to the group, and then thanked Countdown for sponsoring the food for the peace picnic, by leaving their dumpsters unsecured.
Around 100 people were at the band rotunda, and most were veterans of a sort as well. Veterans of protests against wars, against globalisation and the oil industry, against police brutality, against unjust occupations overseas, against public indifference to the suffering of others. Veterans of long campaigns of trying to say their piece, and being sneered at, mocked, or worse in response. There were frequent references to how people were marking ANZAC “over there,” pointing up the hill. If the references betrayed any bitterness towards the officialdom being represented at the Cenotaph, who could blame them? Years, decades of shouting into the void, and seeing war continue nonetheless will have that effect.
Valerie Morse, an activist who once provoked a storm of fury and hatred by burning a New Zealand flag at an ANZAC commemoration, spoke about the conscientious objectors of New Zealand during the first world war. Not only the unfortunate fourteen who were shipped to France to be tortured on the front lines, but the hundreds who were imprisoned, and stripped of the right to vote for refusing to fight. Conscription was introduced as a response to rapidly diminishing enthusiasm to volunteer for the worst war ever seen in human history. The state decided that war must continue, and most of the major institutions of the establishment lined up in support.
Perhaps that should form more of the legacy of ANZAC Day, and the way it is marked. Of the long list of conflicts New Zealanders have fought in, the vast majority have been wars of choice. None have been fought entirely honourably – no war in the history of humanity has, and ours are no different. Our soldiers have been sent to fight in wars we had no need to be part of, and should never have had any part of.
Lest we forget that our military history has been linked with wars of aggression, crimes against humanity, and the death and displacement of civilians. That is not to cast aspersions on those individuals who wear the uniform, their families and descendants. But the option to fight another war like the first world war, like Vietnam or Afghanistan, like Korea or the Boer War, may come again. If both the state and the public absorbs the lessons of ANZACs sent to die futile deaths on the beaches of Gallipoli, we may choose peace instead.
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