ANZAC Day should not be our national day

I was disappointed to read the Dominion Post editorial saying ANZAC Day should be our national day.

Disappointed because I thought I’d seen the last of that moral weakness in the Travesty of Waitangi era.

The idea does have some superficial appeal.  It avoids the protests and controversy of Waitangi Day.  People are united.  The meaning is simple and easy to define.

However the idea of making it our national day is fundamentally flawed.  By shirking and trying to avoid the tough issues that Waitangi Day poses about our colonial past and national development, we step towards a dangerous cultural blindness.

Let me examine the issues in turn.

If we allow ANZAC Day to be our national day, that asserts that we are a martial nation.  I would hope that the problem with this is immediately apparent.  We are a people who pride ourselves on our peacefulness – from our stance against nuclear weapons to our record in peacekeeping.  Our current intervention in Iraq is controversial precisely because it grates against our national aversion to military intervention.

Prior to WW1 New Zealand had compulsory military training, and boys were trained for war through the school cadet system from the age of just twelve.  There was widespread concern over whether our youth would be physically developed enough to be able to serve the Empire.  These martial concerns defined our nationhood then.  They do not define our nationhood today.

It is often asserted that our national identity was forged at Gallipoli.  But this contains a great deal of mythmaking.  For a start, the New Zealanders already had a sense of self before they arrived.  The very name ANZAC was a result of army concerns that the originally proposed name – the Australasian Corps – did not adequately reflect the identity of the mixed-nationality unit.

The myth that we broke free of Britain at Gallipoli is also rather illogical on closer inspection.  Yes, the New Zealand soldiers did lose faith in British commanders.  However, the tie with Britain was hardly damaged at all.  Only 24 years after Gallipoli, Prime Minister Savage’s statement that ‘Where Britain goes, we go’ was a reflection of the still very strong ties to the Mother Country.  British connections drew us in to Borneo and Malaya during the 1950s and 60s. Our involvement in Vietnam was controversial to some only because the British were not involved.  If we were still looking for British approval when deciding our foreign policy in the 1960s, can it really be said that Gallipoli fundamentally dented our faith in them?

Furthermore, there are issues with having the birth of your nation not actually happening in your own, uh, nation.  It’s just odd having your defining moment 17 000km from your country.

Any assertion that the Maori part in ANZAC is uncontroversial is equally misinformed.  Maori were not universally enthusiastic about WW1.  The Kingitanga actively opposed Maori involvement.  Maori served in racially segregated units and were not allowed to command themselves during WW1.  ANZAC Day commemorations also cover WW2 – the war in which Sir Apirana Ngata argued that Maori had to fight for New Zealand as ‘the price of citizenship’.  That Maori should have to serve to gain citizenship in their own country shows that Maori war service is hardly morally straightforward.

But one of the biggest problems with adopting ANZAC Day as our national day is that it asserts that only Pakeha men built our nation.  From this angle we can see why the idea can be so appealing.  The ANZAC legend offers a cultural security blanket for Pakeha male ascendancy.  It lauds an incredibly specific type of acceptable masculinity.  Women and Maori are relegated to supporting roles.  While this was unchallenged for the bulk of last century, it is a one-dimensional definition of our national development.  Do we want to say women did not play half the part in developing our nation?  Calls for ANZAC Day to become our national day merely reflect a lack of courage to face the realities of our colonial past and modern multicultural society.

While Gallipoli and other war service was important in our national development, having ANZAC as our national day ignores the fact that nation-building is a process, and a very long one.  Saying that the New Zealand nation was forged at Gallipoli is saying that New Zealand had not established itself as a nation 75 years after the Treaty of Waitangi.  We’d had responsible settler government for 59 years.  New Zealand citizenship wasn’t established until 1948.  God Defend New Zealand wasn’t officially adopted as our national anthem until 1977.  Excessive emphasis on a single event encourages people to overlook the other events and processes that created our society.  Saying our nation was formed at Gallipoli says that centuries of settlement by Maori and Pakeha meant nothing.  It says that twenty years of pioneering Liberal legislation meant nothing.  It says that the only thing we really think counts in creating a nation is war and death.

There are some other issues.  National days are inherently celebratory.  They are a time for a people to come together with festivities while they praise and proclaim special features of their nationality.  This jubilant tone is utterly incompatible with the solemn and reflective tone of ANZAC Day.  Commemoration of war dead should never be confused with celebration.

As someone who has served overseas, and stood guard on many cenotaphs, I do not want our day to remember the dead to be co-opted simply because others lack the courage to confront our past.

It is precisely because Waitangi Day is contested that we need to keep it as our national day, forcing us to face the difficult issues. Only then can we move forward as a nation, together.

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