Anzac Day 2015 was special for New Zealand. That fact is undeniable. Huge numbers attended commemorations around the country, in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli, with Auckland and Wellington both experiencing turnouts of over 25,000 at their main dawn services. However it is not the numbers themselves which delight history loving folk like me, but rather, the increased awareness of our history as a nation which this represents, and the growing respect for those who have, and those who continue to serve, our country.
This awareness brings with it debate though, a questioning of how we as a nation, can be seen to ‘celebrate’ something which had such dubious motivations and was associated with such acts of horror as are undoubtedly associated with those conflicts. I noted on my newsfeed this morning, an article which conveyed some aspects of this debate quite succinctly from an Australian perspective. The author, Ele Jenkins, questions what we choose to remember about war on this date every year, asking why it is that things such the Armenian genocide, the Frontier Wars and the actions of Britain in convincing Australia to participate in World War One, are often overlooked at this time. Her argument is clear, what it is we hope to remember when we state ‘lest we forget’ each year, is a somewhat shameful blot on the history of the ANZAC tradition. This is, in my view, symptomatic of the debate which we get drawn into each year, something which ends up questioning not what the purpose is in the time of remembrance we observe, but rather what it is that we are ‘glorifying’ in that remembrance, particularly in contrast to those things we do not focus on.
Glorifying and remembrance are two different things. Glorify, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is defined as “to make (something) seem much better or more important than it really is”. Do we really seek to glorify Gallipoli as more important or better that the slaughter of the Armenian people? Do we really attempt to overlook the issues that have been created in our own country as a result of colonial land grabs? Do we imply an agreement with the motivations of the wars that enveloped these battles? I don’t think so. I think ANZAC Day is about remembrance, not the remembrance of acts that occurred during the war specifically but the remembrance of the spirit and perspective of those men who put their lives on the line for what they understood to be the freedom and safety of their countries and in some cases, empire. If we believe that ANZAC Day is about something other than simply commemorating war, and has a focus on remembering the sacrifice and bravery of those who fought, then we must also look at the perspective and context within which those men lined up to enlist. Those men we unlikely to know of the horrors occurring in Turkey, they were unlikely to know of the ‘behind the scenes’ manipulation of the colonial governments by the British Empire, and their understanding of the earlier colonial history of their country would have been heavily tainted by their education at the hands of those who had been a part of that period in our country’s history. In that age of slow communication, colonial education and censorship of media, these men had little access to the knowledge we have, in our instantaneous, information-filled, post-colonial Western world today. If it is indeed them that we remember on the 25th April each year, then how can these issues be allowed to override the memory of the spirit and bravery of those fellow humans, whether ANZACs, Turks, Germans, British or any of the other nationalities that fought on either side of that dreadful mark on the history of human civilisation?
We stop to remember those who fought, and those who died in that conflict. The humans, not the war. Yes, we need to be more aware of the truth surrounding the actions of both sides during the war, and peel away the stereotypes of the ‘goodies’ and the ‘baddies’, the motivations, the manipulations and the moral failures associated with those terrible events, but if we are to stop for a moment to remember, let us not try to justify or break down the circumstances, but let us take what we do know and remember the example that was set in love. Those lives that were laid down for their countrymen and comrades on either side are to be remembered, for what they were in the eyes of those who fought in those muddy trenches, a duty to God, King and Country. We look through the lens of their context on this day, not the context of our current understanding. We do not seek to glorify or hide from the war and the horrific actions it encompassed, nor the shame of our own colonial histories but we seek to acknowledge those who fought knowing little of these things we know now and following commands they had no say in, but who still willingly fought and sacrificed their lives that others might live.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” – John 15:13