A time to reflect

BY MATTHEW WRIGHT
Last updated 05:00 25/04/2010
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Photo: NZ Defence Force
Anzac Day has become our de facto national day, when our sense of nationhood was born on a Gallipoli battlefield.

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IN THE cool darkness of Anzac Day morning in 2007, I stood with a crowd of at least 5000 others outside the Wellington cenotaph, remembering the 200,000 or so Kiwis who have fought overseas since 1900 – and the 32,000 of them who were killed.

It was a solemn moment. And then a small group of protesters decided to blow trumpets and burn a New Zealand flag. There was a lot of screeching, and the police bundled them away.

Apparently, arriving at a dawn parade and burning a symbol of what our grandparents died fighting for was not meant to show disrespect to their memory, or to their families who had gathered that morning. But to me, standing in quiet remembrance, that wasn't obvious at all.

Later I discovered I wasn't the only one who had been left with that impression.

The incident underscored just how the Anzac spirit has changed of late. It's been a slow evolution, creeping up on us with the change of generations. Today's revival began in the 1990s, when generation-Xers realised that New Zealand had a history after all. We were not just reflections of an idealised Britain. And by numbers, spectacle and memory, much of that history was defined by our military past.

The increasing use of Waitangi Day as a focus for protest and racial disunity has also played a part. Ordinary Pakeha swiftly tired of being made to feel guilty for being born here. By the turn of the millennium, Anzac Day had become our de facto national day instead – the moment when our sense of nationhood, so the mythology goes, was born on the battlefields of Gallipoli. A solemn time to mark the fact that both Maori and Pakeha had died for New Zealand. For us.

Which says quite a bit, when you think about it.

So, should we see ourselves as a nation born out of and then moulded by war?

With the cool viewpoint of history, we can see today how the two world wars shaped the lives, views and culture of two generations of New Zealanders. Indeed, how could these terrible conflicts do anything else?

Yet we didn't do it out of choice – like many nations, we were swept up in the tide of warfare that engulfed the world during the 20th century. It remains one of the most violent centuries in the last millennium.

The impact was huge. World War I alone absorbed half of all our young men of that generation – and more than half of those became casualties. World War II, a generation later, did not provoke such a toll – but it engulfed every New Zealander in new ways.

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Afterwards, the young men who had fought and survived World War II went out of their way to make sure they and their families got the safe, secure and caring world that so much had been sacrificed for.

For them, Anzac Day was the moment for personal reflection – to remember their friends lying as dust in the war cemeteries. To imagine what might have been.

Both they and the wider public also saw the day as a keystone in New Zealand's own history – the beginning, in many ways, of its journey from colony to nation. It was here, our mid-20th century parents and grandparents felt, that New Zealand's individual identity had been born.

It was also a symbol of close links to Australia, which grew during the twentieth century. Gallipoli, in particular, had shown a generation of young New Zealand men just who lived across the Tasman – the "larrikins", men whose enthusiasms were as strong as New Zealand's, who were friends in the strange lands of Egypt and Europe in ways that even the British were not.

For an historian, of course, there is only one problem with these views of the Anzac spirit – they weren't entirely true. Every generation views their own past not as it was, but as they imagine it to be – filtered through the priorities of their present.

Our modern view of where our nationhood was born – and what the Anzac spirit means – has been shaped by the mythologies of Gallipoli and by the events since, as much as by the realities of the day.

That mythology includes the belief that we punch above our weight – and the belief that our nation first "found" itself on that rugged Turkish beach. There is also the myth that Anzac means full trans-Tasman co-operation. Not a view, I discover, shared in Australia – where the "NZ" part of "Anzac" is essentially non-existent. Equally mythic is the idea that New Zealanders are natural soldiers.

None of these ideas are true historically, though, as always, we can find grains of truth in them – parts of a more complex and mixed historical reality.

IF WE GO back to those heady days of World War I and poke around for the reality, we discover a very different New Zealand. We were a self-styled, Pakeha-dominated "Maoriland" whose people had rejected union with Australia. We had become a schizophrenic colony that had emerged from the ruin of the 1880s with its dreams of building a greater Britain destroyed.

Half a decade ago I wrote a general history of New Zealand, where I argued that the answer to the dilemma was a reassuring and rather heavily militarised rush to mother. We became British first, New Zealanders second. Trans-Tasman thinking was a distant third in this world.

We were, this militarist mythology went, also the best of Britain's children. We were, it seemed, a better kind of Briton after all – albeit always in second place. But to compensate we developed huge ambitions of Pacific imperialism and a school system built around a fantasised and idealised army life.

By the turn of the twentieth century a Seddonised, imperialised, militarised New Zealand had become Britain's most enthusiastic colony – the self-styled "Prussia of the Pacific" and an embarrassment to the Foreign Office, back in London.

It was a classic inferiority complex. And when World War I broke out, young men flocked to join up – not for New Zealand, but for the empire. To be heroic, to wreath themselves in glory. To see the world. To show Britain that New Zealand was capable after all. To go to the heart of it all – what one soldier called "mighty London".

Fate sent them elsewhere first. The chance entry of Turkey into World War I diverted the first big Australasian troop convoy to Egypt. That put the Kiwis in the hot spot when a British government, frustrated by a stalemate in Europe, looked to the Dardanelles as a soft option to puncture the central powers.

And so in April 1915, after a lot of what can be described only as high-level blundering, New Zealanders followed the Australians ashore at Gallipoli. They were eager to fight, excited, keen as mustard to do their part for the empire. It did not take long for Turkish shrapnel and bullets to blow that out of them. One Kiwi soldier summed it all up a few days after the landing. "I've seen sad sights here," he wrote, "held a few dying hands & I'm satisfied war is no good."

New Zealand was stricken with shock; most families knew someone at Gallipoli, and, as the news filtered back, a wave of horror swept the land. Pre-war mythologies had been exploded, but the people found succour in those old myths – in the notion that their children had done their part for the empire and died gloriously.

This was why the people, almost spontaneously, attended the first Anzac Day services in 1916. Yet Gallipoli was only the aperitif. It was followed by the Western Front, where we lost more than a third of all our war dead in history. Over 1200 of them were killed on one day alone, during the disastrous battles for Passchendaele in 1917. And that impact was compounded by the streams of broken men who poured back to the hospitals and rehabilitation wards.

When World War I ended, New Zealand – like the world – was prostrate with grief. A generation had been shattered. Broken young men were still dying in the hospitals. A stroll through just about any New Zealand cemetery today reveals a tragic procession of death into the 1920s, mostly a legacy of gas.

Still we held on to those images of empire. Anzac Day parades were triumphs not only of New Zealand, but of Greater Britain – "our nation". Entwined with it was the memory of Australian friends and field cameraderie; a largely military tradition that reinforced older historical links across the Tasman.

But it came second to the British connection. Writings in the 1920s extolled sacrifice for Britain, "boys' own" ideas that assuaged the loss of loved ones with words of heroic comfort, nationalism and duty. And it was duty not to New Zealand alone, but to the greater empire of which New Zealand was a part.

That thinking was shortly overtaken by horror stories as former servicemen penned memoirs that revealed the darkest side of human nature. Robin Hyde's Passport to Hell was even presented as a novel – because the truth was too awful to recount any other way.

Nobody wanted a repeat of World War I. But by 1939, western democracies were being eclipsed by a totalitarian new order. A second generation of young Kiwi men went out to fight – and as John Mulgan put it, they "marched into history".

That war entrenched Anzac Day even further into our hearts and minds. Afterwards, buoyed on the back of the Canberra Pact, Gallipoli and Anzac became cornerstones of trans-Tasman co-operation for a generation, part of a complex mix of connections and ties with Australia. This gave Anzac a quite different meaning for New Zealanders of the mid-twentieth century from that of their parents, 25 years before. The Anzac spirit, in this pavlova world, very much meant Australasia.

THEN CAME the reaction. Wartime generations had a realistic perspective of war – after all, they had been there. Anzac Day was personal. But a new generation in the 1970s and early 1980s had never seen war. Instead they rejected the world of their parents and demonised war in emotional ways. Anzac Day became divisive.

Vietnam-era protesters joined remembrance services and laid wreaths, but the dissonance between their view of war and that of their parents could scarcely be hidden. There were punch-ups, even arrests.

That lasted into the 1970s and 1980s, melding into a politically correct youth-view that demonised everything from colonialism to war, all at the cost of reason and balance.

Historians were swept up in that intellectual vacuum. At a time when analysis was confused with advocacy, those who had an abstract interest in our military past were ostracised, held to be advocates of what the trendy set imagined war to be. I thought at the time that this behaviour had more to do with earning in-crowd status than with finding new ways of understanding ourselves. Real insights were not going to emerge from such a charged and narrowly prescribed intellectual environment.

Anzac Day was swept up in that ideological juggernaut. Dawn parade attendances dropped sharply – matching, in many ways, the wilting ranks of the old soldiers.

And then everything changed again. By the 1990s a new generation was prepared to accept the past – not deny it.

For these people, the Anzac spirit was principally New Zealand – it was personal, a memory for family, an expression of New Zealand's own identity. The Australian side dwindled.

In the process, New Zealanders finally understood the true depth of the sacrifices their grandparents and great-grandparents had made. And today, as we flock to the dawn services, we quietly remember those who died in our wars – as they wanted us to.

Historian Matthew Wright's Shattered Glory: New Zealanders at Gallipoli and the Western Front will be published by Penguin later this year. Visit his blog at http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com

- Sunday Star Times

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