Imperial Folly: If the Anzac legend is about anything at all, it is about young Australian and New Zealand men transcending the idiocy and mendacity of their leaders and the hopelessness of their situation to assert a set of values and qualities unique to the places they called home.
IF ANYTHING can still be considered “sacred” in New Zealand it’s Anzac Day. For Pakeha New Zealanders, in particular, the commemoration of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 holds a visceral significance which Waitangi Day has never achieved. That the day has survived the passing of all those who were actually there bears testimony to its status as one of the most potent symbols of our national identity.
In her nine years as Prime Minister, Helen Clark devoted considerable energy (and a not insignificant amount of taxpayer cash) to enhancing the power and reach of Anzac Day. Ms Clark’s purpose was to underscore the military tragedy’s role in nudging New Zealanders forward from their reflexive identification with the British Empire towards the first, tentative, notion that they might, one day, become something more than mere “loyal subjects” of the King-Emperor.
You might, therefore, think that Ms Clark’s successor, contemplating the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, would be anxious to ensure that nothing happened to besmirch or cheapen the solemn character of this major historical commemoration. But, in this matter, as in so many other matters of late, our current prime minister, John Key, is full of surprises.
At his post-Cabinet media conference on Monday, Mr Key announced that: “it’s not impossible that they [the training components of Australian and New Zealand military contingents poised to join the international effort against Islamic State] could be badged as an Anzac unit.”
Mr Key and his Australian counterpart, Tony Abbott, have clearly been mulling over the possibility of resurrecting the Anzac “badge” ever since the two politicians teamed-up in the West Australian port of Albany to jointly preside over commemorations of the original Anzacs’ embarkation for Egypt on 1 November 1914.
It is difficult to know where to begin the list of reasons why the Prime Ministers’ suggestion should be dismissed out of hand.
Perhaps we should start by reviewing why the original Gallipoli Campaign proved to be such a disaster.
In April 1915 New Zealand was ordered into a hastily improvised invasion of the Ottoman Empire with no clear understanding of what we were being asked to do – or even if we could do it. If the Anzac legend is about anything at all, it is about young Australian and New Zealand men transcending the idiocy and mendacity of their leaders and the hopelessness of their situation to assert a set of values and qualities unique to the places they called home.
We honour the 2,779 young Kiwis who fell in that fight not simply for their tremendous courage, but also for the terrible lesson which their utterly needless deaths have, hopefully, inscribed upon our national memory. That it is terribly wrong for our leaders to send young New Zealand men and women to right wrongs that we, as New Zealanders, did not commit and which we cannot hope to end.
Mr Key has stated that he has no intention of “doing something that’s disrespectful”. But allowing us to be drawn into a joint role with the Australians under some sort of sentimental throwback to the Anzacs is, as Labour’s Andrew Little noted: “pretty cynical”.
Especially since it would be a joint mission without clear objectives; lacking any reliable metric for success; and which will likely end with New Zealand’s soldiers being hastily withdrawn amidst recrimination and disgust.
Dry Run? US Marines and New Zealand soldiers conduct joint military exercises, "Dawn Blitz", at Camp Pendleton, California, in 2013.
Iraq is a failed state riven with corruption and religious enmity. Its standing army is a standing joke. Nine tenths of the men we’d be “training” have no wish to either kill or die for a regime they neither respect nor trust. The remaining tenth will gladly put themselves and their weapons at the disposal of Islamic State. Nowhere in Iraq is “behind the wire”. The whole country is a combat zone.
If the “strategic studies” departments of our universities were worthy of the name they would be condemning the madness of sending foreign troops to Iraq in order to crush a movement brought into being by the presence of foreign troops in Iraq. With Australian planes strafing IS positions and its special forces readying themselves for combat, nothing could endanger New Zealand’s “home front” more than publicly joining our name with that of the United States’ gung-ho “Deputy Sheriff”.
Imperial folly has claimed enough New Zealand lives. No more.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 December 2014.