Friday, 27 February 2015

Anzac rhetoric and the Iraq war

I recently posted a comment on facebook expressing my outrage and disgust at Hekia Parata's comments in support of the move to send NZ troops to Iraq. Like many other people in New Zealand I'm angry at the Key government for maneuvering us into this misguided war. My emotional response was further inflamed by these words quoted in a recent (26/02) Herald article :

Education Minister Hekia Parata said in a fiery speech she was raised on the history of war heroes and turning out for Anzac Day and the point of having a defence force was to carry out such deployments. She said the country could not evoke the emotion of turning up to Anzac Days but then turn away when the practical reality of what that meant presented itself.

The article continues with sickening details from Parata's speech. She links Anzac “values” with the content of the New Zealand school curriculum, and argues that we should send troops to be true to that legacy of courage, responsibility and wisdom.

I'm not going to waste any more emotional energy on Parata here. What I'm curious about is the fact that it was Parata, and not Key, who invoked Anzac rhetoric to sell the war. There was a suggestion late last year that New Zealand troops could possibly join their Australian counterparts under a common 'Anzac badge'. According to this Stuff article from 2nd December,

Prime Minister John Key today said a possible Anzac-badged training force in Iraq next would pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of the New Zealand and Australian forces in Gallipoli in 1915. But he said a decision on a joint Anzac-badged force was quite a way off. "We wouldn't want to do something that was disrespectful, and we are quite a way from making a decision.”

Key is hedging his bets at this stage about both the actual commitment to Iraq and the idea that there would be a symbolic 'Anzac badge'. Fairly obviously, he had already made up his mind about the military commitment. The past few months are a good example of classic Key style real-politik, assuming an attitude of careful responsibility and gradually increasing the likelihood of official commitment. When the actual decision was made a few days ago nobody was surprised. But in the quote above he was also sending out feelers for a sense of how popular the idea of an 'Anzac badge' might have been. His words suggest that he is not quite sure if this symbolic gesture would be 'respectful' or not.

In the same article, Historian Ian McGibbon 'said New Zealand and Australian forces had served alongside each other in Anzac units from Gallipoli to Vietnam. But he had never heard of the troops of both countries wearing an Anzac badge. Creating such a badge in 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, would be "highly symbolic", he said.'

Andrew Little responded to the suggestion by strongly condemning it: “ I think it's pretty cynical of the prime minister to allow us to be drawn into a joint role with the Australians under some sort of sentimental throw back to the Anzacs”.

I don't have any evidence, but I suspect Key may well have gathered information from some of his dirt encrusted minions about the popularity of such a gesture.

Whatever the details of the decision process, the result was a conclusive negative. According to this One News article (25/02/15), Corin Dann says "John Key made it clear our forces would work in conjunction with Australian forces but not under an Anzac badge".

Reading these articles prompted me to wonder how Anzac rhetoric is related to the latest Iraq war in Australia. I was fairly sure that Tony Abbott would have made use of the upcoming Gallipoli centenary and the 'spirit of the Anzacs' somewhere in his speeches about the Iraq war. There's lots of outrageous islamophobia and fear mongering about the 'death cult' of ISIS, but I couldn't find any explicit linking of this with Anzac rhetoric. His 2014 Armistice Day speech is heavy with predictable sermons about the importance of national identity, but he doesn't mention Iraq. It's quite possible that I have missed something, but I think it's fair to say that even in Australia, politicians are being quite circumspect about how they use Anzac rhetoric to manipulate public support for the latest dirty war.

I can't help thinking that John Key is actually employing a version of Anzac rhetoric which doesn't quite join all of the dots. He talks about 'courage' and New Zealand's place in the world, but refrains from invoking any explicit appeal to the brave sacrifices of the Anzac soldiers. To do so would be 'disrespectful' to the Anzac legacy. Rabid minions such as Parata can be given free reign to join these dots, but Key is mindful of the sensitivities of voting New Zealanders.

I'm not looking forward to being an observer of the New Zealand involvement in the Iraq war, or the April 25th centenary. But I'm curious about how the ideological undercurrents of the Anzac tradition will intersect with the political discourse around the war. In a previous post I employed the Marxist notion of “Ideological State Apparatus” to characterise the way Anzac commemorations function today. Although I like the theory, the word 'apparatus' always makes me think of some sort of machine. A crude and wrong depiction of the theory would involve some kind of elite cabal, manufacturing propaganda in a secret factory. The media releases the propaganda, and the masses are brainwashed.

Reality is a lot more complicated.

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EDIT 2/03 Andrew Little meets Tony Abbott and specifically mentions Anzac issue:
"Mr Little also told Mr Abbott that the description of sending New Zealand and Australian troops in a training mission "under some sort of Anzac tradition" was a sensitive issue in New Zealand and that New Zealanders did not necessarily see it in those terms."

EDIT 4/03 OK here we go. Think I've overstated Abbott's reluctance to invoke the Anzac "parallel", he seems to be going out of his way to point out the connections here even with the 'Anzac badge' idea quashed. These comments suggest to me that the 'Anzac badge' initiative was probably an Australian one, and that it was quashed by New Zealand. Abbott is Anzac- rabid:

Mr Abbott said there were "obvious historic parallels" in the joint military contribution although it was not strictly an Anzac mission because it was not one single corps.
But even in the original Anzac operation in Gallipoli 100 years ago, the New Zealanders and Australians were in their own units.

"But I'm very pleased and proud that in this centenary of Anzac year that Australia and New Zealand will be jointly contributing to this important mission."

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