This is the full text of a speech I gave recently for the International Socialist Organisation in Wellington and Dunedin. For a shorter version of the speech, go to the ISO website: http://iso.org.nz/2015/07/22/the-anzac-spectacle-gallipoli-peter-jackson-and-the-politics-of-forgetting/
This year New Zealand and Australia commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign. One hundred years ago thousands of Allied troops invaded what was then the Ottoman Empire on April 25th 1915. The ensuing eight month battle was a grim and bloody affair fought within a tiny section of the Mediterranean coastline. Casualties were heavy on both sides, with the number of Turkish / Arab deaths being by far the highest. It was the first major battle the newly christened 'Anzac' soldiers had been involved in, and the large number of deaths had a profound impact upon the people of New Zealand and Australia. The following years of battle took an even heavier toll, but this first shock assumed a sort of mythic status, and now the date of April 25th is the focus of WW1 commemoration in New Zealand and Australia.
One hundred years is a long time. The so called 'Great War' was sold to people as the “war to end war”. This propaganda was exposed as a lie by the following history of imperialist warfare over the course of the twentieth century. With disillusionment in the hollow and self serving justifications of the elites for imperialist war, Anzac day became the site of a contested politics. During the Vietnam War protestors laid wreaths for victims of the Mai Lai massacre. Numbers of people attending the ceremony decreased markedly, as the rhetoric of “sacrifice” became more and more exposed as a sham.
|Louis Althusser, 1918 - 1990|
All of these three factors – the moral blackmail about questioning the Anzacs, the soft focus lens on history, and the de – politicisation process it is a part of, can be understood as a form of ideology. The word 'ideology' I use here is informed by the Marxist thinker Louis Althusser. Without going too deeply into the murky waters of French structuralism, the word 'ideology' here refers not so much to belief systems (like when people talk of 'neo liberal ideology' or 'Marxist ideology’) but rather a cultural practice which inclines people to identify in particular ways. When a policeman calls out to us “Hey you, stop!” we immediately identify ourselves as legal subjects – even if we are 'innocent'. Ideology for Althusser has very obvious physical forms: things like Churches and monuments form a very concrete 'materiality'. He also emphasises practices and rituals – with all of the affective emotional content they involve. So the act of praying, and taking communion – with all of the music and incense and profound feelings these engender – this act itself is the really important ideological element if we think about religion.
Anzac ideology very clearly ticks all of these boxes: the profound solemnity of the Dawn service is at the very heart of the institution. The intense 'sacredness' of the occasion takes precedence; it is our hearts rather than our minds which are appealed to. Values like courage and self sacrifice are paramount, beliefs or debates about historical facts are secondary. We are also very much involved in an appeal to ourselves as New Zealanders: as moral citizens dutifully honouring their ancestors, as victorious Western subjects enjoying the fruits of a well defended democracy.
Scott McIntyre was a sports journalist who worked for SBS – 'Special Broadcasting Service', a partly state owned TV and radio service. SBS was originally set up to "provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia's multicultural society". McIntyre was a journalist who not only reported on sports, but built in social and political commentary into his stories. He did a story last year called 'Football under Fire” which looked at football in the Gaza strip for example.
I think we need to recognise the very emotive and heated content of McIntyre's tweets, and recognise them as a reaction against the stultifying effects of Anzac orthodoxy – with its “values” of bravery and mateship and so on. We also need to see this in terms of the immense cultural power Anzac day has in Australia. I'm not at all interested in questioning the moral integrity of individual Anzac soldiers, or wallowing in moral outrage 'against' the Anzacs. What I want to highlight here more is the very fact that Anzac day very effectively moralises history from the very outset. We frame the Anzac soldiers in terms of various lofty moral values like bravery and sacrifice, and then “remember” them. McIntyre's tweets are like arrows which pierce the bubble of moral framing, and demand that we look at history from all angles.
(McIntyre refers to several historical episodes in his tweets. Although he was condemned by many for getting his facts wrong, there is a very convincing case to be made that all of his tweets can be solidly backed up by historical facts. )
So there is a very strong case to be made that McIntyre’s tweets represent a much more well rounded, critical and insightful form of “remembrance” than do the conventional tropes about the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers.
Returning to those provocative tweets: what happened afterwards? The answer is that within 24 hours Scott McIntyre was fired. He's currently fighting a legal battle against this dismissal, which was probably completely unlawful. According to 'New Matilda' journalist Wendy Bacon,
McIntyre’s deliberate journalistic intervention unearthed the silences in the contemporary stories being told about the invasion of Gallipoli. His statements were provocative but according to its code, SBS’s content can be “controversial and provocative and may sometimes be distasteful or offensive to some. Not all viewpoints presented will be shared by all audience members.”
Unlike the bullies who attack him, McIntyre has not breached the code that doesn’t allow bullying, intimidation, harassment, humiliation, or threatening anyone.
|Mark Textor, conservative lobbyist, influential managing director of Crosby – Textor. Worked as campaign strategist for Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley and John Howard|
|Jamie Briggs – Liberal Party MP, part of Abbott's government|
Ebeid issued a statement which noted that SBS supports ‘our Anzacs’ and had contributed ‘unprecedented’ resources to covering the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli.
It was an odd statement from the head of a media organisation, but may reflect Ebeid’s background of telecommunications and marketing rather than journalism.
Reporters under both the SBS and Journalists’ own code of ethics are supposed to maintain an independent stance in relation to contemporary events.
( I also talked briefly about the gigantic sums both Australia and New Zealand are spending on Anzac commemorations in 2015. David Stephens from Honest History estimates Australian expenditure at around $600 - $700 million. If you include the millions spent on Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, NZ is estimated to spend around $140 million on Anzac related projects in 2015. For more detail, see this blog
Here in New Zealand we do things a bit differently. The pride and celebratory jingoism is not so dominant, our Anzac day is much more sombre and mournful. The historical censorship which is such a big deal in Australia still exists, but not to such an extreme degree. Figures such as Archibald Baxter, once relegated to the margins of Anzac commemorations, are being given space. The recent TV movie 'Field Punishment No.1' told Baxter's story and was screened on primetime TV last year. Baxter's radical pacifism – very much a political as well as moral stance, with a very liberal dose of class consciousness and socialist thinking informing it – this radical side of Baxter is pretty much invisible in the film, and Baxter gets reduced to moralistic platitudes like “I'm a man, not a soldier!” Mark Briggs, the only other conscientious objector who never buckled to military pressure and refused to even wear a uniform, was depicted in the film as a dogmatic, narrow minded and somewhat crazy person. In reality he was a strong person with a huge amount of integrity, and his Marxist reasoning was a big influence upon Baxter. So while I think that it is not a bad thing that Baxter is at least getting some attention, the way his story gets framed very effectively neutralises most of its radical potential. This is just one example of a broader pattern of a sentimentalised, de – politicised framing which undercuts leftist critique.
( I'm thinking of Anzac biscuits, red poppies knitted by nice old ladies and lukewarm cups of Bell tea .... )
To understand the peculiar and contradictory nature of the New Zealand version of Anzac ideology, I will show you some quotes from high profile New Zealanders:
Tom Brooking (Otago University History Professor, speaking on the 'Journey of the Otagos' documentary as a part of the 'Dunedins Great War' exhibit at the Otago Early Settlers Museum 2014):… “we were deeply involved in it [WW1], rightly or wrongly … in a way it [the question of whether the war was just] becomes a non issue, we were there, we did our best, and on balance we came out of it pretty well.
[ …. ] it doesn't really matter what their motivations were because they were all tipped by fate into the maelstrom …
[was the war] justified? … well the origins of the war are a bit, you know, fuzzy … European culture as a whole was to blame. But, you know, it happened, our guys were there, and they did their best and that's why I think their effort should be honoured, but not glorified.
Sam Neill (Sunday Star Times, April 19th 2015):
“If war is always wrong then our dead died for nothing. Anzac was about giving their deaths meaning.” says Neill.
At the outset of the film he makes clear his hate for militarism and nationalism. But he honours those men and women who served. He is not a pacifist.
“I think nationalism and fundamentalist religion, racism, these are the most dangerous things at play in the world today. I am entirely respectful, and the film is too, of those that served in those wars. And in 1939 there was no question, we had to go to war, and that war had to be won.”
Minister of Culture and Heritage Maggie Barry (Sunday Star Times April 19th 2015):
WW1 was where New Zealand gained a sense of nationhood, she says.
“It's where we started. As New Zealanders we were fighting as one, and that set the tone for the nation we are and defines who we are. It's definitely not about glorifying war, my dad used to say if you've ever fought in a war you love peace, and that's what we fought for.”
Peter Jackson, commenting on his 'Scale of our War' Te Papa exhibition (Stuff.co.nz article, April 18th 2015):
"It's not an anti-war museum, it's certainly not a glorifying war museum. It is just showing the reality," Jackson said."I wanted to tell it from the point of view of the people who were there, who were just doing what they were told, really." [….]
One of the main reasons he undertook the project was to tell the story of the Great War to younger generations.
"A lot of young people today aren't going to read stuffy history books," he said.
"[The exhibition] is not designed for kids, but I just wanted to ... capture the younger people who don't feel they have any interest in the First World War."
….All these Anzac biscuits taste the same:
We don't like glorifying war, but we sure do love the idea of sacrifice and 'nationhood'. We are neither pro war nor anti-war, we are instead completely objective. We especially like our brave soldiers who died so long ago. WW1 was a bit murky but WW2 sure was a righteous battle, we had to fight that one no question. Anyway we aren't so keen on reading history books anyway so here are some really cool realistic models of our brave Anzacs fighting and dying in Gallipoli ….
Peter Jackson makes an interesting comment in this same article about how he insisted on the Anzac models being recreated in full colour, rather than black and white. Although we see Anzacs as 'black and white' because all of the photos taken of them were in black and white, the real Anzacs inhabited a world of full colour. So in the name of truth and authenticity, the “Scale of our War” exhibit is presented in full colour. The Chunuk Bair Diorama has a similar very insistent emphasis upon authenticity and realism: the diorama is a very accurate scale model of a section of Gallipoli, geographically precise, and the soldier's uniforms are painted in painstaking fidelity to the actual uniforms worn 100 years ago.
|“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”|
But the dead who waited in No Man's Land didn't look like dead, as the men who came to them now had thought of death. From a distance of a few yards, the bodies, lying in queer huddled attitudes, appeared to have something monstrously amiss with them. Then the burying-party, white faced, realised that twenty four hours of the Gallipoli sun had caused each boy to swell enormously – until the great threatening carcases were three times the size of a man, and their skins had the bursting blackness of grapes. It was impossible to recognise features or expression in that hideously puffed and contorted blackness (1)
In the space of a few sentences Hyde captures something Peter Jackson's “realistic” portrayal will never come close to: the queer and disorientating shock of death as it must have been experienced by those soldiers who saw it, the sense of something 'monstrously amiss', the absolute nihilism of war.
|"The spectacle, as the present social organization of the paralysis of history and memory, of the abandonment of history built on the foundation of historical time, is the false consciousness of time."|
|"The masters who make history their private property, under the protection of myth, possess first of all a private ownership of the mode of illusion"|
NOTE: the captions for the images above contain quotes from Guy Debord's 'Society of the Spectacle'. For the full text go here: http://www.antiworld.se/project/references/texts/The_Society%20_Of%20_The%20_Spectacle.pdf
If you're interested in Althusser and his theory of 'ideological state apparatus', you could either check out his original text http://my.ilstu.edu/~jkshapi/AlthusserISAs.pdf
Or this more accessible secondary source http://www.umass.edu/economics/publications/2004-07.pdf
Or this more accessible secondary source http://www.umass.edu/economics/publications/2004-07.pdf