Why I won’t be wearing a red poppy

02:06, Apr 23 2010

I won't be wearing a red poppy this Anzac Day. It's not that I don't respect New Zealand soldiers who fought and died in battles overseas and neither is it because I don't respect the welfare work of the Returned Services Association, which is funded in part from poppy sales.

And neither is it because Veterans Affairs Minister Judith Collins made nasty gratuitous comments attacking peace activists for selling white peace poppies in association with Anzac Day.

My concern is that the red poppy and Anzac Day itself has become associated so closely with World War I. The Gallipoli landing on April 25, 1915, marks the day and almost 100 years on we are still encouraged to see this war as an honourable battle of blood, death and sacrifice. We will once more be lectured on Anzac Day with predictable speeches from our political leaders who will tell us that those whose lives were lost "died for the freedoms we enjoy today".

It's not true. This is the Great Lie from the Great War. It's a phrase which has meaning for World War II but has nothing to do with the mindless, jingoistic madness which led a generation of young New Zealanders to be decimated on the far side of the world. World War I was a clash of empires where war fever was whipped up by the political elites on both sides and young men in their millions fought to the death.

New Zealand did the madness better than most. Per head of population we sent more people to fight than any other country. Nowhere in human history has a greater number of soldiers travelled a greater distance to fight a war. It could be something to be proud of if it related to the fight against fascism in World War II but not when it is applied to the imperialist battles on the beaches of Gallipoli and the trenches in Belgium and northern France.

Two of my great-uncles died in the Great War on the battlefields of Europe and I think it's deeply disrespectful to them to say, as we do each Anzac Day, that their deaths were for some greater good.

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I recall when the last British veteran from World War I died a few years back he commented to the effect that the war was wrong and the lives of those who fought and died were wasted. He was right.

Anzac Day should not be a day to glorify the deaths of those whose lives were thrown away by "patriotic" politicians and incompetent officers. We owe it to those who died to teach young New Zealanders that, in the words of one British politician, "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". George Bush and Tony Blair are just the last in a long line of politicians who lied and used patriotic sentiment to whip up war fever on behalf of their big corporates.

We won't be hearing that at Anzac Day. Somehow the impact of the Great War was so profound here that even 100 years on we still need the comfort of the Great Lie.

It seems it's also still too soon for this country to honour those who campaigned and struggled to prevent New Zealanders wasting their lives in that conflict. When New Zealand schoolchildren know the name Archibald Baxter as well as they know the name Gallipoli then we will know we have done our fallen soldiers their greatest honour.

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