Each year there’s a sweet commemoration in Blackball, with the army, the mayor, the local service people and the church attending. The war memorial is in the school grounds and crosses are placed for each of the Blackball men killed in battle. As part of the wreath laying, children put posies on each cross. There used to be a rifle salute and the sound echoing around the hills was a powerful symbol. That’s been stopped for some reason. But the flag is lowered and the last post played. A crowd of around hundred is normal.
I go as part of the St John presence, but the problem remains: what is this really about? I suspect the problem is felt by others for the speeches subtlely change year by year. It is no longer the simple slogan: These men died fighting for the freedom which we now enjoy. With regard to WW1 the knowledge that this was a slaughtering of working class men because of a European capitalist squabble over markets, colonies and resources is generally accepted, if not articulated quite as bluntly. And the Gallipoli campaign is acknowledged as the military cock up and disaster that it was. It is okay to commemorate men killed by a botchup of the bosses, to feel the mix of anger, sadness and regret that accompanies the realisation of wasted lives – Pike is like that. There is often at least a nod in this direction at Anzac services of late.
But with Gallipoli there is an additional current; that this was the coming of age of the colonial nations of Australia and New Zealand; that it gave birth to a sense of nationhood and pride. It wasn’t that the families involved were aware of the botchup and demanded a thorough investigation and for heads to roll as has happened with Pike, the families thereby coming of age as a group and asserting their need for justice. It would be interesting if this had occurred, after all the Russian revolution had this as one of its inspirations. But in the Anzac tradition there is no national judgement of the Pommy leaders, it is more that the warrior culture came of age, that Kiwis and Aussies proved themselves as warriors as they showed courage, bravery and resilience on the battlefield.
But that in turn cannot be simply stated and celebrated, for the warrior culture is a little suspect after being mediated by feminism. Common sense judges the culture for the damage it has caused and continues to cause – think Sarajevo, think ethnic cleansing – so this impulse has to exist as sub text.
Of course the scope of Anzac widens to include WW11 (more explicable the fight against fascism), except that WW11 evolved from WW1. And then there is Korea and Vietnam, problematic battles against Communism, and certainly in the case of Vietnam a botchup by a new batch of foreign masters.
This year, the army representative introduced a new theme, that of soldiers serving to uphold a fragile world order as embodied by the United Nations and its covenants. This can require participating in a conflict but more often involves restricting conflict by playing a peacekeeping followed by a development role – still dangerous work and sometimes fatal. This ‘line’, this point of view is attractive but if it reaches back to encompass Vietnam and even the two world wars, it begins to be a rewriting of history.
Last year the Turks were brought into it, they were after all also fighting for nationhood and the theme could then be one or reconciliation through mutual national suffering. Another ‘line’.
I would love someone to speak of these ideological problems as part of the service.
There are of course increasing numbers of young people turning out for Anzac Day ceremonies, participating in the solemn performance, exploring their family links with these wars. What does it mean for them? Another coming of age ritual?
I was perhaps the only one there bothered by this complexity. For the rest the military ritual sufficed, a sort of solemn sharing of ‘something’ before the routine of meeting mates over a beer.