Five reasons why talk of turning ANZAC Day into our national day is not smart
I took my son to an ANZAC Day service today. He's three and it was his first attendance. We talked about soldiers, not wanting to fight, sometimes needing to fight mean people and bravery. The sun shone like no other ANZAC Day I can remember, and with my grandad's World War I medals in my pocket I thought, this isn't my national day.
It's become an common line to toss out these days – the suggestion that ANZAC Day should somehow be the day on which we celebrate our nationhood. We see the tens of thousands of all ages turn out at events around the country and rightly recognise the unity this day has come to inspire. We see people's pride in their ancestors and their love of country.
And then we do something rather odd. We make an impulsive leap and say this is OUR day, this should be New Zealand's day.
But as I reflect on the values of ANZAC Day – and try to explain to a three year-old what the ANZAC tradition means – that leap makes no sense to me, for five core reasons (I suspect I could come up with more, given time).
First, what we honour today is sacrifice, courage and independence. But it is, above all else, a sombre day, a day of remembrance. Indeed, in Britain and other countries the equivalent day – when poppies are worn and the last post played – is called Remembrance Day. Today is not a day of celebration, and a national day should be.
Second, I think ANZAC Day has a job to do – a very special job making it a very special day – and it's a job that's quite different to that of a national day. As much as we honour that sacrifice, courage and independence, surely it is our duty not to gild history but to acknowledge that this day is about other things as well. It has baggage, some of it bitterly dark.
ANZAC Day is is about war and loss, and I'd like to think that war does not define us as a nation. This is a day to honour our fallen, to remember what some gave their lives for, to treasure peace and thank our lucky stars that we haven't been called to make the same sacrifice.
Let's not forget what happened on this day – thousands of New Zealand men joined an ill-advised, ill-starred and woefully planned invasion of a sovereign country that offered no threat to our nation. They joined for a mix of motives and travelled to the other side of the world in service of a political system that most of today's young adults only acknowledge through a Christmas message and Pippa Middleton's bum.
Whatever the nobility of the soldier's service, it was a failed mess of a battle in a failed mess of a war; a war of dying empires and burgeoning technologies that never should have been fought and failed even to end all wars. Instead, it's vindictive end only served to plant the seed of another, even more fatal war a generation later.
What a terrible foundation for a day of national pride and celebrating sovereignty.
Sure, we also honour other wars, including World War II, which can be reasonably called a war of necessity. But I've interviewed veterans of that war, heard the stories of a hell entered and never fully left. No, this is not a day to celebrate our nation.
Third, turning ANZAC Day into our national day would make us complicit in a lie of history. A national day should commemorate a beginning. Australia Day is the anniversary of the day the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove. America's Independence Day celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence from Britain.
Moving the national day in an attempt to tie our vague, endlessly evolving sense of independence to a single battle over-simplifies our history, and worse, denies our rich, all though at times ignoble, story from 1840 to 1915.
Fourth, we share ANZAC Day with Australia (and Turkey, lest we forget, given that the event being remembered didn't even happen in our hemisphere, let alone on our soil). It is not ours alone and unique. What's more, I don't think they would thank us for hijacking it and the values it commemorates.
And finally, the argument is short-sighted and too locked in the present day; it is in many regards a reaction to the discomfort felt on Waitangi Day rather than an embracing of this day. And that's disrespectful from both angles.
Waitangi Day is currently one of tension. But as I wrote in February, that's arguably something of which we can be proud. Whether you agree with that or not, it's certainly a temporary state of affairs. Waitangi Day has been of a very different flavour in the past and it's sure to evolve still further.
Let's not make a generational knee-jerk reaction. Waitangi Day remains fit for purpose; it is a beginning, it commemorates a partnership and a document at the heart of our constitution, and it is all about nationhood and nothing else.
I have no doubt we need to have a better understanding of our history and our bi-cultural partnership. We have these sorts of unhelpful comments and then the inaccurate nonsense being spouted by John Ansell on Close Up last night (Basic Error #1: Pre-European Maori were not killing and eating each other to the point where they were at risk of dying out, for crying out loud). But let's work on the relationship, not pretend we can walk away from it. Neither Maori nor Pakeha can divorce these islands and the nation we've crafted here.
So let's leave ANZAC Day to be ANZAC Day, let's leave ourselves this time to honour our fallen, let's be true to our history and let's put aside another time to celebrate this brave country that we're so blessed to call home.