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 themselves from 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.

Comments (11)

by BeShakey on April 26, 2012

To provide some extra context - Waitangi day isn't the only national day where the nation's history is up for debate.  Just look up Australia Day-Invasion Day for an idea of a similar issue in Australia.  I don't know much about the US, but I'd be surprised if there weren't some groups with similar concerns.

by stuart munro on April 26, 2012
stuart munro

You know, just because it was a murderous debacle doesn't invalid ANZAC Day as a national day. Maybe that's what we need.

It's probably good for New Zealanders to remember annually that our leaders would cheerfully send us to our deaths through sheer incompetence and arrogance. The leaders of the men at Gallipoli neither understood nor deserved the quality of their men.

by stuart munro on April 26, 2012
stuart munro

(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).

Captain Cook quoted by Malthus in his essay on population:

“If I had followed the advice of all our pretended friends”, Cook wrote, “I might have exterpated the whole race; for the people of each hamlet or village, by turns, applied to me to destroy the other”. According to Cook, the New Zealanders practiced both ceaseless war and cannibalism; and population pressure provided a motive for both practices.

This was based on his contacts at Queen Charlotte Sound. Life may have been better further north, but until NZ got the potato, life was extremely tough, and practices like infanticide were not uncommon.

by BeShakey on April 26, 2012

Stuart - do we really want that to be the basis of our national day.  To have an entirely negative national day would undermine all the positive things about the country (and surely even if you don't think there are or have been anything positive we could at least have a national day that looks towards the future in a positive spirit).

by Miha Cookson on April 26, 2012
Miha Cookson
Agree totally. I come from a (Maori) family that has served this country since the Boer war and continues to have younger family members in the military, and the distinctions you make between a day of celebration and a day of remembrance are well considered Tim. Just as a child whose birthday is not recognised and celebrated, we will never mature properly to realize our full potential. And just as a family with an abusive parent never prospers, we shall continue to experience poverty of mind and spirit until those who wield power, make the right decisions to lift us all up and out of ignorance. My thoughts were with those of my family who served in the wars, and returned to find their land gone, and their chances of a fair go in society, had unfortunately become more difficult. So much for their sacrifices, and so much for democracy huh?
by Tim Watkin on April 26, 2012
Tim Watkin

Thanks Miha, so much for sacrifice indeed. And you're right, you don't just change your birthday on a whim!

Stuart, the Cook quote's all well and good, except for the fact that he went away again and when other explorers came... then the whalers and sealers... then the colonists... guess what? Maori hadn't warred themselves to death. So whatever the talk, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Yes, there was plenty of warfare, but there were customs around utu and the like that limited the death toll, as I understand. I'm scratching back to reading from a few years back now, but much fighting wasn't to the death, but finished when one was wounded.

Either way, the thing is that however tough was, Maori were there in 1769 and still there in 1777 and still there at later contact. And Ansell was suggesting that Europeans (with their exemplary history of peace!) somehow rescued them from this state of warfare, which doesn't connect with any history I know.

by stuart munro on April 27, 2012
stuart munro

It was an inadvertant rescue, but rescue nonetheless. Cannibalism doesn't tend to survive once a population achieves food security, whatever cultural mechanisms may have sprung up to make it more palatable. But it's probably the infanticide that is more telling. And, according to this the treaty ended most serious intertribal warfare, the exception  being the Chatams invasion.

So however fashionable post-colonial guilt may have become, not being descended from one of the families that stole Maori land, I think I can do without it, thanks all the same. But by all means cry mea culpa for yourself, if that makes you happy.

by Tim Watkin on April 28, 2012
Tim Watkin

Stuart, you're not making any sense. I think in your eagerness to scold me as some limp pakeha liberal you've forgotten to bother with any facts.

You can quote Cook and try to make more out of cannibalism if you like, but Maori were NOT dying out and NOT in need of rescuing. 

The Maori population was in good health before Europeans came, with a life expectancy in the early-mid 30s, superior to Europe at the time. Which makes a mockery of Ansell's assertion that Maori were wiping themselves out and yours that they needed rescuing.

After contact disease and muskets combined to lower the population, but where do you get the idea Maori were dying out and in need of rescuing?

Many will be aware that deaths from battle were few after the Musket Wars, but disease continued to cause problems until the late 19th century/early 20th when Maori were depicted as a "dying race". See here for a few brief points. You can search out the deeper research yourself. But the facts don't support your attempts at point scoring.

by stuart munro on April 30, 2012
stuart munro

I accept that Maori weren't dying out - but they were in need of rescuing. The first sign is the loss of capacities that had accompanied the beginnings of the pacific expansion, pottery, certain forms of horticulture etc. Like contemporary capacity loss in NZ, it is not a good sign. I could list others but you'd accuse me of point scoring.

I don't pretend that colonization was an unmixed blessing, I'm not sure why you would want to pretend it was an unmixed curse.


by alexb on April 30, 2012

@ Stuart - Rescuing from what exactly? From their own culture/ way of life? A way of life which, by the way, had lasted more than 500 years and was steadily developing and evolving, as all cultures must? 

This is not about guilt, liberal or otherwise. This is about historical accuracy. It is undeniable that the vast majority of Maori did very badly out of the arrival of Europeans. That Maori culture has survived and flourished in recent years is immaterial, the fact is, the only thing that has ever come close to causing the extinction of the Maori race was the arrival of the Pakeha. If you call having the majority of your people being wiped out a rescue, I would hate for you to personally do me a favour. 


by stuart munro on May 01, 2012
stuart munro

You need to detach a few things from your perspective of colonisation. The spread of infectious disease was not deliberate, nor was it a deliberate policy as it was in North America, and with the development of global travel it was coming anyway. Some pacific islands were entirely depopulated by it - but this was not a secret germ warfare agenda. The Europeans were also troubled by these zoonostic diseases too, but they had developed a limited resistance to them.

The colonial administration  sincerely tried not to screw over the Maori. By the time the treaty was put together by Busby NZ was a mess of competing larger power claims - England, France, missionary speculators, the NSW penal administration, and wannabe king de Thierry to name a few. There were also Maori who didn't understand European land sales, fraudsters of both races, and Maori who 'sold' their enemies land.

Go ahead and make the case that any of these would have served Maori better. It's true that corrupt politicians precipitated a series of land wars to dispossess north island Maori. These men, like the asset thieves under Rogergnomics, represent a perversion of the system of governance, not it's aim. Even today we are troubled by such corrupt and devious men coming up the rivers on cabbage boats.

Maori culture was steadily developing. In fact, in the warm temperate climate of the upper north island this was probably true. This evolution was characterised by a series of bloody conflicts that surely also occurred in Europe before the literacy skills to document them developed. But there were also less robust communities, which were periodically wiped out by issues of food insecurity or by the aggression of their neighbours. It was groups like this who approached Cook.

Small maori communities welcomed pakeha deserters and shipjumpers - these people possessed critical technologies like the building of clinker whale boats, that dramatically improved over existing capacities, and later commercial skills like timber milling or flax marketing or musket buying.

Most anthropologists will tell you that cannibalism is not a mark of robust communities, but of desparate circumstances. We had it in Europe you know, but apart from late practioners like Seany Bean and urban legends like Sweeney Todd, had achieved a level of food security sufficient to wipe it out.

Now you could tell me that Maori would have preferred spending a thousand years developing comparably robust systems. But in the event they proved enthusiastic adopters of the new technologies - especially horticural, shipbuilding and potato growing. Their own staple, the kumara was suffering declining yields due to a viral disease and poor selection practice that was not improved until sailing ships brought in a new cultivar.

New Zealand benefited, and Maori benefited from the arrival of the pakeha. Yes, it's true they suffered too. The simplest statistic is infant mortality in former British colonies. Look at all the countries in Africa. Compare infant mortalities. Former British colonies, regardless of their current rulers, exhibit markedly lower infant mortality.

Most if not all NZ Maori are of mixed parentage - and not a few pakeha for that matter either. Those who choose to deny that heritage are merely ashamed of themselves.

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