Saturday, April 25, 2020

Covid lockdowns give us a chance to reimagine Anzac Day and consider war more honestly

A wreath made from fallen Kauri tree leaves commemorates Anzac Day in a driveway in Auckland, New Zealand. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
My latest article for The Guardian.

Public memory is a funny business.

The New Zealand government spent $65m on its first world war commemoration programme. According to its own figures, 93% of New Zealanders aged 15 and over engaged in the centennial in some way. The futility of war was the most-cited emotional response, which is interesting when put alongside the programme’s objective to strengthen “national identity” (read: the nation state) and an “enduring commitment to peace, global security and international cooperation” (read: current and future wars).

The foundation stone of this nationalist and militarist commemoration was, and is, Anzac Day. Every year on 25 April the country marks the anniversary of New Zealand and Australia’s 1915 colonial invasion of Turkey. State events and dawn ceremonies have been present from the very beginning, held every year since 1916.
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But this year Aotearoa New Zealand will not mark Anzac Day with public services. Lockdown restrictions to eliminate Covid-19 has seen all dawn ceremonies and other civil events cancelled. Instead, people can decorate their letterbox, lay a virtual poppy or hashtag their tweets. For the first time since 1916, Anzac Day will be relatively free of the state.

For some, the idea of not having a public dawn service will be hard. Even this historian of wartime resistance has trouble imagining what Anzac Day will look like without them. Some of my earliest memories of Anzac are of emerging into the cold, autumnal morning to attend a dawn service. My understandings of why were vague. Yet the message was clear. 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.

This year, we have an opportunity to jettison the militarism and remember the trauma of war in a different way. This year, we may be able to escape what the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen calls the “industrialisation of memory” and consider the root causes of war, as well as the voices that are heard in wartime commemorations and those that are not. Not having a public commemoration defined and organised by the state might just enable a “just” remembering of war.

What would a just remembering of war look like? This year we don’t need to ban politicians, as Guardian writer Paul Daley has suggested, as there are no public events for them to crash. 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? 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? Would it mean recognising the thousands of wartime resisters – Māori included – who would not fight for the state? Would it mean refusing the day altogether?

“When it comes to war, the basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is not only about remembering and forgetting certain events or people,” writes Nguyen. 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.

Personal reflection at home might be the perfect way to start. So, as we stay in our bubbles and avoid state-sanctioned memory-making, we can decide to commemorate Anzac Day (or not) on our own terms. And maybe it will mark the dawn of an honest, meaningful, and “just” remembering of war.

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