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DAN
May 1, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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The Sun Also Rises: ANZAC and The End of the Day

“I only fought for my body and my land; I had not any wish to fight. After the fall of Rangiriri I desired that peace be made… Put it to the arbitrator, for him to ask who was it that made this war.”

Wiremu Tamihana

 

As always, I’d left it late. My alarm went at 5.40am, jolting in the dark. 28 years and I hadn’t been to a single dawn service. Call yourself a kiwi? Gummon mate, show some respect. I struggled into clothes, walked outside in my socks. Trying to be quiet. Failing.

There was a thin slither of moon, the disc behind. Darker than dark. And along its edge, light. I ran down the steps to town, ruru in the trees above. Aro empty and long, longer than I’d thought. Closer there were others, shuffling in the gloom. A father and his sons. A man running in a hoodie and blazer. Crossing roads where you’re not meant to. Night time rules.

The noise of a military band wafted above the traffic. It had started.

Opened in 2015, Pukeahu National War Memorial Park is a “place for New Zealanders to remember and reflect on this country’s experience of war, military conflict and peacekeeping, and how that experience shapes our ideals and sense of national identity.” The park straddles State Highway One, a bridge to the motorway’s cut, joining downtown Wellington to Mount Cook and Massey University in a good example of the end to which urban planning works: connection.

The park was packed, insanely so, the crowd diverse in age and race. People crowded at the edges; the elevated ground was occupied — a cruel but not unnoticed irony. I walked past a group at the back and their sign: LEST WE REMEMBER. NO NZ SUPPORT FOR WAR.

There was nowhere to go. The Australian anthem played; I tried my luck in the middle, standing behind one of the pillars of the Australian memorial. Cut from large red stone, they tower at the north end of the park. I was shielded, but blind.

I tried again, moving further round, God Defend New Zealand playing above me. The stone was gone, but still I couldn’t see. I resolved to look at the cenotaph, straining my ear to hear the speakers. It was hopelessly quiet.

The Governor-General was speaking. There was a delayed echo, her voice cut off by her voice. She was talking about Passchendaele, the “blackest day in our history.” How one family lost three brothers, others two. In the end, New Zealand deaths from that day came to 950. We had 100,000 troops in World War One. 18,000 died. Numbers that can’t speak to the pain.

She mentioned the Pacific Islanders who served, mostly from Niue and Rarotonga, acknowledging their contribution and sacrifice. I thought of the New Zealand wars, the battles of Rangiriri and Ōrakāu, the murder at Rangiaowhia and all that came after. Of Te Puea Herangi, heir to that dispossession, and the efforts she made in 1917, sheltering objectors at Te Paina, the pā near the Mangatāwhiri river where British troops had crossed, some 54 years earlier, in open declaration of war. Of the hostility she had faced, painted as a German sympathiser, the enemy again. How, in World War One, the only Māori to face conscription were those in the rohe of Maniapoto-Waikato.

The Australian Minister of Tragedy got up and listed the places he’d observed memorials. Indonesia, Japan, Germany. Others. This was his first in New Zealand, an opportunity to “acknowledge and honour all past and current members of our defence force.” I thought about Nicky Hager’s book, Hit & Run, and the outrage that had followed it. How fucked both the action and its denial was. How war produces it, atrocity as part of the push. Whatever happened in Afghanistan, it wasn’t the first time.

A kākā called, a long low croak, and birdsong rose in response, almost louder than the speaker’s echo, from where I stood at least. I looked at the men in front of me — officers from the Air Force, there with their wives and kids — and thought about New Zealand and our different tribes. How if you weren’t there with someone who’d served, it was hard to feel connected. Was this who we’re meant to be?

Later I would bump into family friends, their warm welcome tying me back, good strong-valued kiwis, Pākehā in Michael King’s sense of the word, committed and part of my own whakapapa, a cultural one, this loose knit of ideas and names. I thought of my grandfather, his service in Egypt and the brother he’d lost, the friends he must have lost and how little he’d spoken of it, this man that I never knew. Of my grandmother and the fun she’d had in Wellington, how vitalising it had been, war as a reason for change, jobs and a town full of dashing GIs, it all somehow important and exciting.

The sky grew lighter; the piercing call of a gull rang out. The war-time hymn “Abide With Me” started and a few people sang, their voices quiet but brave. The majority just stood, an audience not yet involved.

A plane roared above the next speaker; there was silence, the rustling of coats, then the first two notes of “The Last Post” came, haunting lilt of a lonesome horn. The men in front of me snapped to attention, holding a salute as the trumpet cried and we heard the past, those who had done what they felt was right.

First in Māori, then in English, the words of Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem sounded: “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn….” I looked towards the cenotaph, towering above the square, thought about scale and the empire that birthed us, forever but a dream, pushed out of the minds of men.

There was a minute of silence; then, somewhere beyond my sight, flags being raised and the first bars of “Whakaria Mai”, our own version of “How Great Thou Art”, popularised by the still to be knighted Sir Howard Morrison when he sang it to the Queen on her ’81 tour.

There was some more talking, a prayer I couldn’t quite hear, and then it was done, the crowd dissipating, and I left with a strange sense of dislocation, the sun not yet up and I apart, this ritual that wasn’t a ritual, there with nothing to do. The time was 6.45am.

In front of me, a little boy asked, “Dad, what do your medals mean?” His sister replied, exasperated: “He tells us every year.” The dad’s mate, in matching Air Force blue: “It means he was a pool boy.”

I had thought I might feel some sense of nationhood, solidarity for the bonds formed in the face of adversary, the grit and camaraderie that fueled the myth: that this was where we started. Given a different time, I would have stood with them, I think, signed up with all the rest, gone off to do my bit and in it maybe found something, a sense we were now unique, different from where we’d come.

Or perhaps I would have resisted, refused to fight then as I would now, refused the lie we fought for us, the people not the pound. There are many ways to nationhood.

Wandering the park afterwards, the precision of military dress had me on edge, these strong men with sharp-cut jaws and close-cropped hair, machines in the shape of flesh. I thought about discipline, what it engendered, violence for the gold of our past. Of our present. Whose wars were we really fighting?

I stood, one lace undone, hair in my eyes as I typed on my phone. In front of me a group of kids played, beat-boxing and wrestling. A man called out: “Benji, want to come see the wreaths?” His son looked away, “I don’t wanoo.”

*

The leaves on the maple trees were turning, imports grown here, drawing in for the coming cold. They lay in small coloured piles, not quite done, not yet gone. I walked back up the valley, my mind in the trees, full with the passing of things, each of their own place and time.

I thought about Wiremu Puke, of Ngāti Wairere, and his proposal for a kowhai blossom festival, its wheels already in motion in the Waikato, both new and ancient, celebrating spring and its fertility, the land that sustains, in absence of the past and its weight, he hoped.

I thought of those who’d signed up to fight or been forced, in our wars both home and abroad. The horrors they’d seen, the strength they had shown, and that special human ability: meaning found in torturous things.

Birds sang in the trees, welcoming a new day. The sun rose. I walked on.

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