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be not afriad
April 19, 2015 | by  | in Features |
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Be Not Afraid

It was early morning on 25 April, 1915. A convoy of Australian and New Zealand soldiers had just sighted Gallipoli, a beach in the Dardanelles where the lucky would reside for years. Ellis Silas noted in his diary “the weather this morning is beautiful; what will it be tonight?”

But I’m getting ahead of myself: for the purposes of my article, let’s propel ourselves forward half a century, to a swampy hamlet in Vietnam. It’s 15 March, 1968. It was in the light of early morning when a squadron of American soldiers entered the sub-hamlet of Xom Lang, expecting a heated standoff with Viet Cong soldiers. They found instead a group of civilians, preparing for a typical day of trading their wares. They were massacred, unceremoniously, their bodies thrown in ditches and shallow graves. Women were raped, gang-raped and murdered. Children, infants and even foetuses were not left unaccosted. One soldier, upon seeing a heavily pregnant villager, garotted her stomach, threw her in a makeshift mass grave and left her to die in unimaginable agony, which she accordingly did. A group of sixty were killed, screaming, while praying at a temple. A soldier asked the eldest woman in the village to come with him; she laughed, refused, and spat in his face. She was shot at point-blank range once, and the rest of the clip was devoted to riddling her dead body with gun-shots. Those that survived pretended to be dead and hid underneath the carcasses of their families. Speaking of families: twenty-four familial lines, comprising of three or four generations, were entirely obliterated. The total death toll reached 504; countless more were wounded, tortured or raped. The massacre now goes by the name of My Lai. It has been described as “America’s National Shame”.


On Wellington’s Lambton Quay, one of the ubiquitous ATM machines looks a bit different. ANZ, fresh of the back of its GAYTM campaign (I ain’t sayin’ she emblematic of the commercialisation of the Gay community, but she ain’t messin’ with no other marginalised sub-cultures, UHH) has launched an ATM emblazoned with red flowers—poppies—set against a black background. It’s either sponsored or co-signed by the RSA, and on top of the machine there’s a slogan: “together we’re honouring a century of the ANZAC spirit”.

I’m not sure what this means but it feels like it represents the peak of something: the only way the corporation’s ideology and the events of ANZAC Day overlap is, perhaps, that both characterise machinations of control that most people are unaware of. The frankly insulting integration of “together”, a supplication and a guilt trip that says “if you don’t use this ATM or bank with ANZ UR DISRESPECTING OUR TROOPS”. That the bank has the gall to capitalise on the loss of troops for the sake of generating custom is telling. There is as much reprehensible manipulation going on here as an ersatz claim to support “queer culture” while systemically mis-gendering and mis-naming its trans clientèle. But what caught my interest was the use of “ANZAC spirit”: what is the ANZAC spirit, and how has it shaped—how does it perpetuate—our national identity today?


The origins of World War One are more difficult to pinpoint than those of its sequel. The path to World War Two can be tidily plotted in a neat line of cause-and-effect, escalation and appeasement. World War One, conversely, was the result of a conglomeration of festering tensions, territorial disputes, combatting imperial ambitions, makeshift alliances and concerns over spheres of influence. It was the bullet plugged into Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s head that ricocheted not just out of his cranium but into the series of events that comprised “The Great War”, but this was in many ways a pretext for the two divided alliances of Europe to commence hostilities. Many historians continue to lay the blame firmly at Germany’s door, notably Max Hastings, who claims that Germany planned to enslave the rest of Europe because of a national feeling of inadequacy regarding their lateness to the expansionist game. As your Granddad might put it, the bloody sour krauts were bloody wrong twice in thirty years.


Twelve years before World War One broke out, the British armed forces fought in the second Boer war. They were fighting not against the South African natives but the Dutch for dominion of a land that wasn’t theirs to begin with. I mention this trifling detail only to point out that Germany was hardly the only European power to crave expansion. It’s a pretty rich irony that New Zealand, an occupied and ruthlessly colonised country, was involved in World War One only because of the same ideologies that Britain purported to fight against.


Regardless of whether or not Britain’s motives were entering the war were noble or ig-, the propaganda that induced New Zealanders to enter the fight didn’t exactly outline a set of ethical persuasions. “The Empire needs men: helped by the young lions, the old lion defeats its foe”; “Where she goes, we go”; “Britain needs you at once”; “What will you answer be when your boy asks: ‘Father, what did YOU do when Britain fought for freedom in 1915?’”; “Stop HIM—and the job’s done”, captioned over the top of a snarling Asian visage with grotesque facial features and squinting eyes. Presumably, this is an artist’s rendering of a Turk. The portrait looks inhuman.


I, like many New Zealanders, have an ancestor who died at Gallipoli. He would have been my Grandfather’s uncle. I have known this since I was young, for as long as I can remember. His name was Piers, and his story has been passed down since, like an heirloom or intimate bequeathment. Apparently it tore apart his family; his mother was, said my Granddad on the rare occasions he could be coerced into discussing it, never the same. His father grew taciturn and took to tending gardens. It was only in the course of researching this article that I discovered he was not the only family member who perished during the course of the war. My Grandfather’s aunt and Piers’ sister, whom I had never heard of, is listed as living in New Zealand as a 16-year-old. Her name was Jessie.


On 25 April troops from New Zealand and Australia landed at Gallipoli. In 1914, the Ottoman Empire had signed a covert treaty unifying them with Germany. Famously, the officers in charge of the Gallipoli invasion based some of their strategy on the word of Egyptian tour guides, and their sense of superiority over the Turkish people led them to believe that immediate Turkish surrender would be the likely outcome. Their intelligence was incorrect. A Turkish General correctly calculated where the Allies would land. You know the rest.


When we talk about “ANZAC spirit”, what do we mean? What attributes shown in the battle do we choose and which do we discard? Our soldiers are portrayed as brave in the face of slaughter, industrious, patriotic, principled. The diary of Ellis Silas encapsulates the mind-set we treasure: “I do not feel the least fear, only a sincere hope we do not fail at the critical moment”. He is referring to his fears that he might, horror of horrors, fail Britain, a country he had never visited, based only on a tenuous link forged by morally indefensible colonialism.

Another famous passage: “We were scared stiff—I know I was—but keyed up and eager to be on our way”. Why do we focus on the accounts of the fearless, of those in possession of a “stiff upper lip”? Why do we consign entries like these to locked rooms in national libraries, relegated to afterthought or anomaly: “Oh Mummy I am so scared”; “This is hell, let it be over by Christmas”; “I have never been more alone”; “it’s just hell here now”; “please, I beg you merciful God, take me home”?


The debate about whether commemorating ANZAC Day glorifies war is tired. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. We’ve all encountered the kind of tripe that overtly glamorises fighting, most recently in a film directed by a man who lost an argument against an empty chair. Or that kind of novel, we were just sitting in our army-issued SUV when a rocket hissed past us and all hell broke loose I grabbed my rifle. If you don’t feel comfortable with the militaristic associations of the red poppy, you can purchase a white one and only the most conservative of military drones will rag on you for it. A more fruitful line of enquiry is acknowledging that the events at Gallipoli have been reified into our national psyche, that our national identity was to some extent hewn by the events that occurred 100 years ago. The government focus became a self-fulfilling prophecy. What now?


It’s estimated that approximately 120,000 New Zealanders fought in World War One, with 100,000 of them “seeing action”. Less known is that of these vast numbers, just over a quarter were conscripted, which is to say that they weren’t there of their own volition. On a more insidiously coercive note, God knows how many men were lost because of what basically amounted to peer pressure and fear of public humiliation. In 1916 the New Zealand Government passed the Military Service Act, which made serving in the Army, if you were able, compulsory. If you didn’t you were either fined, imprisoned or, if you were on the front lines already and were having doubts, tortured. The Act, originally encompassing only Pākehā, was extended to Māori in 1917, despite doubts about their competency on the battlefield.


ANZAC Day is remembered in New Zealand history for being a watershed moment of race relations. Māori fought alongside Pākehā at Gallipoli, though not immediately. Despite Alexander Godley’s claim that “although they are a coloured race I think it would be apparent on their arrival that they are different to the ordinary coloured race”, there were fears about arming Māori people to fight Europeans. Their contingent only landed in Gallipoli after New Zealand had haemorrhaged enough troops. It was in this moment that, according to one historian, Māori were seen as “full New Zealanders”. That is to say: the Māori people’s worth to the Empire was conditioned on whether they were willing to die for it in lieu of their own emancipation.


There is a sub-genre of historical fiction, alternate history, that explores questions of “what if”: “what if president Kennedy had survived his assassination?”; “what if Kurt Cobain was still alive and making music?”.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves: what would have happened if the Gallipoli siege had been successful, and New Zealand troops were involved in carving up and decimating Turkey for the good of the Empire? I don’t mean to disrespect our troops by saying that something on the scale of Mai Lai would have occurred, especially when they are not here to defend themselves. Truly. But at the same time: we know what happens when people go without adequate food and sleep. In the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, 24 fit, psychologically resilient individuals were rationed to 1,800 calories each month—about what soldiers on the front line consumed per day. They became hostile, depressed, irrational. Researchers noted the participants “show no partiality… the starving are are ready to argue on little provocation”. Loud noises triggered furious outbursts. Some participants self-harmed. One experimentee chopped off three of his fingers with an axe and couldn’t remember whether he did it accidentally or on purpose.

The ill effects of sleeplessness are even better known—hallucinations, irritability, fluctuating moods, despondence. At Gallipoli, scores of men recounted in their diaries that “for days [we have] had little or no sleep… little winks”, and there was no adequate nourishment. “No sleep and nothing to eat,” lamented one. Here’s the thing about My Lai—it wasn’t an aberration, it’s a synecdoche. It is one village of many in Vietnam where unspeakable atrocities took place. Please don’t mistake me—in my heart of hearts I, maybe naïvely, believe that people are inherently good, compassionate, kind. I also know that when you put humans in sustained inhumane conditions, horrid things happen. Had New Zealand troops breached the confines of Gallipoli, would acts of savagery have occurred? I think you know.


Isn’t it strange that our fondness for commemorating ANZAC Day emerges from abject failure, from military stupidity, from soldiers suffering under dubious pretenses? The ubiquity of ANZAC Day in our national psyche was dependent on the mission’s failure. Say we’d immolated Turkish villages and enslaved some of its populace, as was the plan. Would Mustafa Kemal have said of the perished New Zealand soldiers “wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in the bosom, and are at peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” Would we consider our troops worthy of those beautiful, heart-wrenching words?

It seems that after the hostilities concluded, our government wanted nothing more than to forget. The vast majority of war memorials erected in the interwar period were financed by community leaders, bereaved mothers, charitable organisations. There was scant state involvement. It is only when a suitable amount of time passed that governments began praising our troops’ valour and constructed them as heroes. Enough time passes and suddenly they’re paragons of virtue, New Zealanders whose attributes we should look up to. Walter Benjamin, subtweeting Freud, insisted that we ought to cling to our melancholia, our anger, our sorrow or we risk erasing the past. As a society this is what we have done. We say “lest we forget” but we do not remember.


After finding out about my great-great-aunt Jessie’s existence, I did some research, contacted family members. No-one knew anything, but they filled in some missing pieces for me. I think she died of an illness during the war. Since then, her existence has been erased completely, as though someone snipped her out of every photograph and omitted her from every tale. Proof that she ever spent time on Earth can only be found on an obscure ancestry forum and in the anguish in my great-grandparents’ eyes. Piers is my brother’s middle name. I did not know hers.


Let’s talk duty. In our parochial focus on a specific kind of soldier we ignore those that were scared, that wanted nothing more than to go home and hug their families, who dared show vulnerability as though bravery precludes wanting to stay alive: we abrogate our duty. In ignoring the fact that many soldiers did not want to be there: we abrogate our duty. In claiming attributes of loyalty, bravery, honour, strength as endemic based on our ANZAC performance, we deny arguments that the qualities were perhaps imperialism, acquiescence, xenophobia, thoughtlessness. This is an abrogation of our duty.

Consider the correlation between our deification of “bravery”, of not complaining, and how we treat those who admit they are vulnerable, the openly aggrieved, today. Consider the whole “in suffering comes nobility” bullshit that permeates our cultural ideals. We ignored the generation of soldiers who came back shell-shocked, who screamed in the night and shook their babies and drunk themselves to early graves. We ignore them still. The die-hard defenders of ANZAC day insist our boys died for our rights; I’m going to invoke one of those rights and criticise not the campaign but the way it’s been uncritically folded into our cultural consciousness.

When you wake up, maybe hungover/still drunk on ANZAC Day this year, whether you attend the biting cold dawn service or whether you rise at noon to stagger to the supermarket to buy some nurofen, spare a thought or a prayer for the soldiers. But spare a thought for those that lived and died unsung, and maybe most importantly spare a thought for those who live and die unsung today. And spare a thought about which bits of our history are selectively shared and to what end. Lest we forget.

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