Wednesday, April 25, 2018

On Memory and Anzac Day

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira
Memory is a funny business. In Australia, it is estimated that by 2028 the government would have spent at least $1.1 billion on war commemoration projects. Such extravagant spending, and the less-than-subtle link between war commemoration and weapons manufacturers, has given rise to the term ‘Anzackery’. 

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, we congratulate ourselves for not going over the top. There is no glory in war, we tell ourselves. Yes, the government has spent millions of dollars on war commemoration (rather than billions). But at least we now have a day to recall the colonial wars fought on our own doorstep, unlike our neighbours across the Tasman.

Yet the business of memory does not need to be well-funded to be memorable. Some of my earliest memories of Anzac Day have stayed with me into my mid-30s, despite what my scholarship on First World War dissent would have me believe.

Picture a short, freckled boy in his Cubs uniform. It is 1992. We had got up early—before it was light even—to make the trip from our home in Christchurch to Kaiapoi, where I was to take part in my first dawn service. I can remember the cold of the morning, the darkness, the colourful flashes of badges caught under spotlights. I can remember bodies—not faces, but bodies—gathered in solemn rows, a human backdrop to the still, grey concrete that represented the war dead we had come to honour. I can’t remember what was said. But that was not the point. The point was: this is important.

And that was enough. The simple act of getting out of bed and attending a dawn service was enough to say to an eight-year-old boy: if you fight and die for your country, you will be remembered.

Intentionally or not, the same message exists today. War may not be glorified in any obvious sense, and we may even confront the horror of war (in super-scale). But the act of commemoration alone—the choice to remember one’s own, and even to remember others—will suffice. If you fight and die for your country, you will be remembered.

This subtle-yet-secure process is an example of what Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen calls the ‘industrialisation of memory.’ It is how bodies are produced for current and future wars.

In his book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Nguyen separates the ‘industrialisation of memory’ from the ‘memory industry.’ The memory industry should be fairly obvious to us. It is the museums we take our children to visit, the sculptured grounds of Pukeahu, the archives we scour for stories, and the documentaries we download on demand. “Critics see this memory industry as evidence that societies remember too much” writes Nguyen, “transforming memories into disposable and forgettable products and experiences while ignoring the difficulties of the present and the possibilities of the future.”

Yet for Nguyen, this misses what is at the root of the memory industry: the ‘industrialisation of memory.’ “Industrialising memory proceeds in parallel with how warfare is industrialised as part and parcel of capitalist society, where the actual firepower exercised in a war is matched by the firepower of memory that defines and refines that war’s identity.”

In other words, memory, and the memory industry, can become a weapon. And while the memory industry produces kitsch, sentimentality, and spectacle, the industrialisation of memory “exploits memory as a strategic resource. Recognising that… enables us to see that memories are not simply images we experience as individuals but are mass-produced fantasies we share with one another.”

I would wager a bet that my memory of the Kaiapoi dawn service is not uncommon. And that it has more than an element of produced fantasy.

What, then, would a ‘just’ remembering of war look like? Would it be to ban politicians, as one writer has suggested? Would it be to focus on the horror of war, what David Aldridge claims to be the only justifiable approach to the commemoration of war, especially in education? Or would it be to widen our remembering to others, to those our grandfathers and great-grandfathers killed with bullets and bayonets, and the millions of civilians killed and maimed?

Nguyen has a thought on this too. “When it comes to war, the basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is not only about remembering and forgetting certain events or people.” It is also “about remembering our humanity and forgetting our inhumanity, while conversely remembering the inhumanity of others and forgetting their humanity.” For Nguyen, doing justice to the historical trauma caused by war involves recognition of both the humanity and inhumanity within ourselves and within others.

This would mean commemorating events like the Surafend Affair of December 1918. It would mean commemorating the brutal torture of wartime resisters at the Wanganui Detention Barracks.

Only then might an honest, meaningful, and ‘just’ remembering dawn.

Jared Davidson, 25 April 2018

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