Saturday, 8 August 2015

Anzac Day and the Politics of Forgetting

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:

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.

This politics of contestation went downhill towards the end of the century. The neo - liberal reforms of the 1980s coincide with the ascendancy of Anzac day. It isn't too difficult to draw some parallels: just as leftist politics was effectively marginalised from the halls of power in the beehive by the orthodoxies of free market economic theory, Anzac day became a sentimentalised and depoliticised culture of 'remembrance'. In spite of the fact that New Zealand and Australia are both still committed to imperialist wars which have nothing to do with the interests of the majority of the people. In spite of the fact that the actual Gallipoli campaign was a part of a broader imperialist assault on the Middle East region, with the fallout from WW1 still playing out in countries like Iraq, Syria and what used to be called Palestine.  In spite of the fact that military spending has now actually surged above cold war levels worldwide. In spite of the fact that there are serious grounds for considering the world situation today as parallel to those in the years just prior to 1914. None of these overwhelming and serious considerations of connections between WW1 and our present situation or the likelihood of future war seem to affect Anzac day itself. The 1914 – 1918 war is preserved inside a nostalgic bubble, with heroic young men bravely sacrificing themselves for a higher cause. It doesn't seem to matter very much that this 'cause' was a cynical sham. It doesn't seem to register that the 'national pride' we are encouraged to participate in is a story of identity told to us by the state.

What fascinates me about the Anzac day phenomenon is the fact that this so called “remembrance” could actually have a very radical potential. If we remembered the militant stance of people like Te Puea Herangi, Archibald Baxter, the Irish nationalists and many others who saw the First World War for what it actually was. If we remembered the worldwide process of radicalisation which followed in the wake of WW1 which led to both massive ruptures such as the Russian revolution, and more modest but still significant developments such as the rise to power of the Labour party in New Zealand.

It would be easy for me to also tell you an alternative story about the WW1 trenches themselves: of soldiers on both sides of the Western front purposefully shooting away from their so called 'enemies'. Of troops mutinying against their officers. I could also tell you a long and fascinating story about the impact of the war on art and culture: the impact on the struggle for women's rights, books like 'All Quiet on the Western Front'.

My main claim in this talk however is that in spite of the intrinsic merits of all of these alternative historical narratives, the modern version of “remembrance” very successfully marginalises all of them. It does so mostly without trying very hard at all. There are many aspects to this, but three stand out: “remembrance” is very strictly curtailed to the dead soldiers. The focus is on soldiers in the trenches, and especially 'our' soldiers. Secondly the actual history tends to be packaged in a personalised and sentimental fashion: check out for example the numerous Herald articles with pictures of families holding up pictures of their ancestors in uniform, with poignant and tragic stories told in a sepia laden tone. Thirdly, and I think most powerfully, any sort of 'alternative narrative' which points out shortcomings or criticism of the idea of 'sacrifice' – any suggestion that in actual fact the deaths of all those thousands of young men were a complete waste (or even had overall negative effects on the world) – this is always avoided because it is too upsetting. So there is kind of post traumatic stress disorder which has somehow lasted for 100 years, with the effect of moral blackmail: to question the Anzac legacy is disrespectful of the dead.

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.

Althusser also links ideology to the state: his terminology is “ideological state apparatus”. The state – broadly conceived to include various types of institutions – helps to reproduce the status quo relations of power through both the gross and violent mechanisms of repressive apparatus (police, military etc) and the more subtle techniques of ideology.

There is nothing monolithic about ideology: it has schisms and ruptures, contradictions and transformations. If we think of the church as the archetypal form of an ideological state apparatus, it is easy to see this: the unity of the Catholic Church is broken in the sixteenth century, it continues to fragment and split and transform itself over the following period. All of those battles between Catholics and Protestants are forms of ideological contestation – not just in the sense of disagreements over how to interpret scripture, but as forms of politics, forms of class struggle.

With Anzac day and its accompanying traditions conceived of as an ideological state apparatus we can also point to various fault lines and points of contestation. One of the most interesting recent examples of this can be seen in the affair over the sports journalist Scott McIntyre who was fired because of his “despicable” tweets on Anzac day.

Scott McIntyre
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.

It isn't too difficult to find examples of other Australians  with progressive sensibilities expressing frustration with the status quo version of Anzac remembrance. I think what is remarkable about McIntyre's tweets is the timing – right on Anzac day itself, and the fact that he is a part of a state media establishment with a high public profile. The extremely swift and brutal reaction to his tweets is quite revealing of the sensitivity of the Anzac ideology, and the danger McIntyre posed to its integrity.

Here are the tweets: 

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. )

Perhaps the most interesting historical episode here is the Wass'ah riots. Mainstream Anzac commentators do talk about these riots, but tend to frame the story in an apologetic form. According to them the soldiers rioted because they were frustrated and impatient with waiting to go into battle, and had to let off steam. Alternatively their religious sensibilities were outraged by the open prostitution, so they had to teach the natives a lesson on Good Friday. Or the alcohol was too expensive, or someone's sister was found working in a brothel as a hostage. All of these apologetic narratives ignore the overwhelming fact that Cairo was an occupied space, that British imperialism had set up the conditions for the very brothels themselves and also the great hostility and resentment of the Egyptians themselves. They also ignore the very obvious and widespread racism of the Anzacs themselves, not to mention the fragile and challenged sense of masculinity of the men rioting violently against the same women they had previously paid for sex.

There is a very clear sense here that this historical episode tells us quite a lot about the world of 1915 and New Zealand's place in it. It tells us about British imperialism and its effects upon a restive colonial outpost. It tells us about the status of women in this context, with the story of the prostitutes – women from various countries in Europe, as well as various African countries – a story with its own insights into colonialism and capitalism and identity. It tells us about the psychology of the young men of the British dominion: their fears and sensitivities, their understandings of the world and gender, their assumptions about ethnicity.

All of these sorts of insights are very effectively marginalised or side-stepped completely by the traditional focus of mainstream Anzac historians. Thousands of books focusing mostly on military history can be found on the shelves of your local library. The narrative revolves around white men in uniform fighting in the trenches. Women are pretty obviously not relevant to the main plotline and Egypt figures as a colourful but not very important preliminary backdrop for the Gallipoli spectacle.

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.

Who were those bullies, and how did they deal with McIntyre so quickly and so brutally?

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

Malcolm Turnbull, Minister of Communications (Abbott govt), ex-manager of Goldman Sachs Australia 1997 – 2001, ex-chairman of Axiom Forest Resources, which conducted logging in the Solomon Islands, a clear felling operation criticised by the Solomon Islands PM, who threatened to close it down for 'constant breaches of logging practices'

Wendy Bacon's article shows how these three powerful men lobbied the boss of SBS for action to be taken against McIntyre. A torrent of virulent hatred was unleashed against McIntyre on twitter, with Malcolm Turnbull labelling his comments as 'despicable' and others calling him a 'scumbag' (and much worse). Within 24 hours the boss of SBS, Michael Ebeid, took action and fired Scott McIntyre. The three bullies I've pointed out above, plus several more Mps, plus a chorus of hate filled right wing nationalist twits provided the momentum. Malcolm Turnbull himself was the one who phoned up Ebeid and put the pressure on. Wendy Bacon tried to dig a bit deeper but Ebeid did not respond to her questions. His statement comes across as awkward and legally dubious as Bacon notes:

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.

The McIntyre witch-hunt shows up the 'hard face' of Anzac nationalism: a narrative of nationhood and values which excludes uncomfortable historical facts and is highly sensitive to any form of criticism. Although this Australian version of Anzac ideology is extremely powerful and massively well funded, we can be grateful for people like Scott McIntyre for exposing the lies and historical distortions it contains.

( 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 ( 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.

This approach towards Gallipoli, with its emphasis upon 'realism' and a forensic attention to the smallest details, is mirrored in the writings of mainstream New Zealand historians. The focus is very squarely upon the battles and the soldiers, with an incredible amount of research going into each and every particular. The topography is studied carefully, and soldier’s diaries are examined for clues and important information about the whereabouts of certain battalions. Every battle is studied, with reference to both official military sources, letters, photographs and soldier's diaries. Individuals are singled out, especially those who died, and are listed according to their home town and battalion.

There is absolutely nothing wrong per se about this mode of historical presentation – details are important, and people are legitimately curious about their family history. They can learn about the exact sequence of events in a certain battle on Gallipoli, where their great-great grandfather was killed, and so on. This forensic approach towards history is questionable not on account of its content, but rather for what it excludes: pretty much everything except for what happened in the trenches. The politicians who made the decision to commit New Zealand to war in 1914, the thousands of people who were not convinced that war was justified or served our best interests, they don't get much attention if any. The narrow focus lens completely and utterly excludes the time period before WW1, and thus we are not inclined to think too much about the context or causes of the war. It excludes also the time period after the war, and the impacts of the war – including of course grief and loss (which are recognised) but also a complex host of other social and political things (which are not recognised). This forensic military focus also marginalises the domestic history within the war years. It encourages the misguided and politically conservative approach to history which is 'top down' and focuses on the big powers (states, kings etc) and battles. It discourages or rather ignores the other approach of 'history from below'.

I think these considerations help us to understand why it is that critical perspectives on Anzac day find it so hard to gain any purchase: we have a very prominent apologetic narrative, which recognises the hideous cost of war, but which simultaneously glosses over any sort of critical approach. This same narrative always insists upon putting the focus on 'remembrance', which translates into the narrow lens on soldiers and trenches I have just outlined. The outcome of this ideological process is the replacement of history by spectacle: the young New Zealand soldier in his trench in Gallipoli, anguished, brave, in excruciating pain, or a tragic fever of warlike aggression. This fantastic image of the past, stripped of any aspect not captured by the microscopic focus of bourgeois military history – who else could capture that image but our own illustrious master of fantasy, Peter Jackson?


“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

At the time of writing this I have not visited either the 'Scale of Our War' exhibit at Te Papa or the miniatures diorama of Gallipoli. From the pictures though, and the very fact that 'realism' is departed from in terms of scale – either twice the size of life or 1/50th of it – I am fairly confident about the claim that there is something very murky going on here. I doubt very much that either exhibit will feature the bloated corpses Robin Hyde refers to in her book “Passport to Hell”:

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"

The spectacle is ideology par excellence, because it exposes and manifests in its fullness the essence of all ideological systems: the impoverishment, servitude and negation of real life. The spectacle is materially “the expression of the separation and estrangement between man and man.”

NOTE: the captions for the images above contain quotes from Guy Debord's 'Society of the Spectacle'. For the full text go here:

If you're interested in Althusser and his theory of 'ideological state apparatus', you could either check out his original text

Or this more accessible secondary source

(1) Hyde, Robin. 'Passport to Hell', Auckland University Press 1986 (1936), p.84

1 comment: