Monday, 21 April 2014

ANZAC Day and the Politics of Sacrifice

Bold and bloody, set upon the mountain tops of human experience, we dimly perceive through the foggy lens of history moments of supreme and selfless giving. In the biblical tradition the notion of sacrifice is both supremely powerful and supremely awful. Abraham submits to the will of God and comes very close to killing his own son. He was only testing him apparently, but such a test can be viewed as either spiritual triumph or twisted and malicious abuse of power. Jesus dies upon the cross and is resurrected on the third day. Once again God seems to be giving us a mixed message: we are redeemed, but we are also reminded of our fundamentally sinful nature.

In his recent Herald opinion piece, Sam Judd notes the close proximity of Easter and ANZAC day. Both involve notions of sacrifice, although according to Judd the ANZAC version is more 'factual' than the Christian version. Even though apparently secular, the ANZAC day commemoration is a deeply meaningful and 'spiritual' affair:

The poignancy and deeply affecting nature of Anzac Day has in recent years drawn increasing numbers of New Zealanders of all ages to dawn services across the nation. It has, arguably, over the decades, become the most profoundly moving and spiritual of days for our nation, deeply symbolic as it is of the tragic, senseless slaughter of vibrant youthful men on the shores of Gallipoli in service of king and empire, and of all battle sacrifices so many of our young men and women have made in various theatres of war. (NZH 18/04/14)

Judd spends no time at all examining his casual and unthinking use of the word “sacrifices”, and goes on to contrast the ANZAC tradition with the Christian tradition. The former is factually based and flourishing, the latter is based upon myth and superstition. We are living in the modern world, enlightened by science and rationality, therefore it is no surprise that ANZAC day gatherings are growing in size and Christian congregations are decreasing. Modern New Zealanders sleep in on Good Friday and eat easter eggs, then get up early on the 25th of April for their spiritual fix on ANZAC day.

Is this secular ritual and its notion of sacrifice completely independent from the Christian notion? Presumably Judd would like to base his notion of sacrifice upon solid, logical conceptual foundations rather than religious ones. We can quite straightforwardly examine a secular conception of the idea of sacrifice. A man sees a small girl walking in front of a truck travelling at high speed. He runs out and pushes the girl out of the way, but he is then killed by the truck. Most people will agree that he has sacrificed his life to save the little girl. God, Jesus and Abraham have absolutely nothing to do with this common sense idea. There are two parties involved: the one who sacrifices, and the one who is benefited by the actions of the sacrifice. The one who sacrifices either dies or suffers some kind of harm, and this harm is directly and unambiguously related to the benefit secured by the sacrifice.

Now consider the Gallipoli campaign. To consider the deaths of 2721 New Zealanders on the shores of the Meditteranean during the year of 1915 a “sacrifice” in this secular sense of the word surely requires us to identify the two parties as defined above. It is easy enough to identify the first party of those who suffered death, their bones are to be found distributed in various places on the coast of Turkey. We could easily extend the notion to include the 4852 wounded, the traumatised survivors and the thousands of New Zealand families who lost fathers, brothers, husbands, sons or cousins. The suffering is immense, profound and unquestionable.

How can we locate the people who benefited from this alleged sacrifice? This is the question which I struggle with. The one thing upon which all commentators agree is the fact that Gallipoli was a strategic disaster. The entire nine month long campaign was fought on a tiny area of land, which was finally evacuated completely by the Allied forces in January 1916. Kemal Ataturk played a pivotal commanding role on the Turkish side. The troops he led were officially under the authority of the German military, but most likely considered themselves to be defenders of their own land against a foreign invading army. He later went on to become the figurehead and leader of the newly created Turkey in the years shortly after the end of the war. The success of the Gallipoli campaign was one of the foundations of both his success and the victory of Turkish nationalism. So from the point of view of a Turkish patriot, the deaths of the 56,643 Turkish soldiers might legitimately be viewed as “sacrifices”. The benefit of the independent Turkish nation is clearly and directly related to the success of the Gallipoli battle.

There was no tangible benefit realised to New Zealand by the deaths of the 2721 men. I think it is here in this very absence of meaning that we can locate a notion of sacrifice which transcends the secular bounds of common sense. We can find solid and clear evidence for this in the media pronouncements from New Zealand in 1916. Keeping in mind the fact that the war was far from being won in April of 1916, it is to my mind quite remarkable and strange that the first ever ANZAC day was observed so joyously:

In celebrating to-day the first anniversary of the glorious landing at Anzac the people of Auckland are feeling the same thrill of national pride and the same throb of tender memories as are passing through the whole of Australasia and the British Empire besides. Tributes of praise and prayers of solicitude have found very full expression in the never-silent city, in the quietude of country places, in the church, and in the home. The heroic troops who fought the good fight on foreign soil are well remembered in the lands that gave them birth, and, with Tennyson, it may aptly be asked, “When shall their glory fade?”
(Auckland Star, 25 April 1916)

There is something tragic and somewhat desperate about these lofty pronouncements. The shock and grief experienced by thousands of New Zealanders all over the country must have been a strong motivating force. In the midst of a global war despair and negativity were not an option, and the tragedy of Gallipoli could only be redeemed by a renewed and ever more vigorous commitment to the war effort. Later in the same year (September 1916) New Zealand introduced compulsory conscription. Although there were some notable opponents to this piece of legislation, the government of the day felt strongly compelled to offer more “proof” of New Zealand's loyalty to Britain and commitment to the war. The Anzac memory surely played a key psychological role in this demonstration of bravery and strength.

Many recent commentators echo Judd's description of the tragedy of the First World War. The fighting was 'senseless slaughter', the conditions in the trenches were abysmal and the generals were out of touch with the common soldiers. Although this is a very understandable characterisation of the nature of the war, it is not the only narrative mode. Early commentators fervently emphasised the glory of the war, and they often employed religious imagery and language. Instead of secular humanitarian concern for the tragic waste of life, there was a devout celebration of sacrifice. A brilliant example of this sort of Tennysonian sermon is Ormond E Burton's book The New Zealand Division (1919). Here is his description of the famous battlefield of Ypres:

The battle field of Ypres! It is a dreadful place, a waste of desolation, hideously bare of all comfort, with no beautiful or decent or pleasant thing anywhere to be seen. It is a field of agony and death. No place on earth has been so desecrated by slaughter, no place save Calvary so consecrated by sacrifice. In this ravaged field has been sown the seed of the Internationale. Through this Valley of the Passion, Christendom has passed in victory along the high road which is leading onward to the City of God. (NZD p. 85)

When he writes about Gallipoli, the tone becomes almost hysterical:

There were so many of them, the pitiful little graves, marked with the rough cross of boxwood. So many sleep under the frowning Outpost Hill; so many on all the bloody, bitter slope of Sari Bair; so many by the margin of the blue Aegean. These men elevated the Cross; these men blazed a great trail. What valour was theirs, what steadfastness, what uttermost sacrifice of self! Oh God! Would that their bloody ghosts would rise and smite with shame and scorn unutterable all those who in New Zealand held back from paying the blood price it was their privilege to offer on the altar of Humanity. (NZD p.51)

This sort of intense and quasi religious mythologising did not last, and gradually gave way to a more sober and remorseful rethinking throughout the 1920s.

Burton himself is a fascinating case study of such a transformation, by 1923 he had become a staunch Christian pacifist. There is a curious tension in his later writings between his repudiation of war and his undying respect for the bravery and selflessness of the young men who lost their lives. For someone who witnessed the horrors of the trenches and thought deeply about the meaning of all those violent deaths, the notion of sacrifice was loaded with complexities and contradictory meanings.

He later rewrote his war memoirs in 1935 under the title of The Silent Division. His pacifist ideals and political interest do not intrude into the text until the very end, where he gives his views on war in the Epilogue. He praises the 'valour and steadfastness' of the New Zealand soldiers, and still passionately eulogises their deaths as being a form of sacrifice. The fact that they gave their lives for what they saw as a higher cause or the 'greater good' allows Burton to praise them while at the same time condemn the political context. He emphasises a fact which would probably make many of the Modern New Zealanders quite uncomfortable: soldiers don't just die, they also kill. The deaths of all those brave New Zealanders fighting in Gallipoli were not the deaths of innocent men. Many of them killed before they died.

The condemnation of war lies not in the sacrifice of life, but in the fact that the sacrifice is wasted as far as the attaining of any good end is concerned. Sacrifice is the essential of all development toward higher levels of life. It is the way of the Cross. But to be availing, sacrifice must be directed into profitable channels. There can be a waste of the capacity for sacrifice just as there can be a waste of patience or wealth. The primary aim of a combatant is not to offer himself as a sacrifice but to destroy his opponent with the minimum of loss to himself. The paradox of war is that great communities endeavouring to enforce their desires against others in the most selfish manner, are, for the attainment of their ends, compelled to challenge their own peoples to most heroic acts of self giving. (SD p.323)

Burton's pacifism is a fascinating and idiosyncratic blend of political idealism and devout interpretation of Christian doctrine. It is a curious fact that his pacifist thinking grew out of his experience on the front lines of World War One and led him to become a staunch and vocal conscientious objector in World War Two. Whereas there was a dubious moral boundary between the warring imperial powers of World War One, there is a wide consensus on the evils of fascism. Bertrand Russell was a notable World War One pacifist who altered his principles and supported the war effort against the Nazis. Many socialists also changed their pacifist stance in order to provide a united front against the fascist powers. In this sense Burton represents the more extreme and uncompromising version of pacifist thought.

Having said this, it would be wrong to think of Burton's stance as a kind of moral fundamentalism. Although his religious beliefs played a large part in his repudiation of war, political factors also had a strong influence. According to Burton's biographer,

He was very disillusioned by what he called the “great betrayal” of the war aims by the Allied leaders with their policy of revenge and their lack of will for reconciliation. He was shocked that the leaders had wanted to try the Kaiser and hang him for the German “crimes against humanity”, and that the Germans should be made to pay “to the uttermost farthing” for the damage done in the war[...] (Crane 1986)

He was certainly not alone in questioning the integrity of the 'profitable channels' flowing from the victorious outcome of the first world war. New Zealanders from across the political spectrum joined the New Zealand branch of the League of Nations Union, determined to reconfigure international relations so that the horrors of the war would not be repeated. This shift in attitude was reflected across the globe throughout the western world. As the historian David Grant observes,

Internationally by the late 1920s, there evolved a slow, mostly covert difference in attitudes towards war and peace, as with the benefit of time, the First World War stimulated a more balanced perspective. The glory of victory (or the bitterness of defeat) gave way to a growing recognition that the carnage on the battlefront must never happen again. From 1926, a spate of anti-war plays, novels, poetry and memoirs were written, principally by former combatants who chose to elucidate the horror and dark side of war with stark dialogue. (Grant 2004)

In spite of this shift of attitudes and the changing political dynamics of the 1930s, most New Zealanders continued to view ANZAC day commemorations as sacrosanct. Although the thousands of deaths surely had political causes, the meaning of the sacrifice of so many lives was too sensitive an issue to be questioned politically. The dunedin branch of the Movement Against War and Fascism attempted to organise a peace march on ANZAC Day 1935,

but was forced to cancel it in the wake of widespread public opposition. The following year in Christchurch 250 unionists, communists and supporters participated in a peace march on 26 April, but on the previous day more than 3,000 ex-servicemen, their families, local body politicians […] remembered ANZAC in their own street parade. (Grant 2004)

Although New Zealand is a very different country now, ANZAC Day continues to provoke highly charged political sentiments. In 2007 Valerie Morse was arrested for burning a New Zealand flag as part of a peace protest outside an ANZAC Day dawn service in Wellington. Her actions were widely condemned, and she was portrayed in the media as an insensitive leftwing firebrand. Based on this incident alone, it would be easy to conclude that there exists a gigantic ideological chasm separating the respectful majority of red poppy wearing Modern New Zealanders from a tiny minority of political zealots who challenge the mainstream ANZAC culture.

If the example of Ormond E Burton can teach us “Modern New Zealanders” anything, surely one lesson would be to avoid such simplistic judgments about a complex issue. What caught my attention about the 2007 protest was a photograph of one of the banners, which loudly declared: “Conscientious Objectors: The Real War Heroes”. If Burton could see this banner, what would he think? As a “War Hero” who wrote several books in honour of the efforts of New Zealanders in World War One, he would belong with the Modern New Zealanders listening to the Last Post. As a “Conscientious Objector” he would belong with the protestors outside, blowing their horns and burning flags.

The dead cannot speak, but sometimes they can challenge the living to think.

Note: After I wrote this piece I saw another Herald article about a previously unpublished book by Burton. 

In this article Burton's earliest war memoir is referred to as "Our Little Bit". I think this is the same book as what I refer to as "The New Zealand Division" under a later title. Thanks to the McNab collection at the Dunedin Public library for access to all of the books quoted.


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