Wednesday 25 April 2012

A Huge Exercise In National Denial

We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here: These words, sung to the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne' captured the futility of the exercise in industrial scale bloodletting that was the First World War. It would serve as a much more fitting tribute to the slaughtered sons of New Zealand than 'I Vow To Thee My Country'.

“WE’RE here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here …”  This tongue-in-cheek anthem to utter futility was sung with gusto all along the Western Front during World War I. The tune – an adaptation of Auld Lang Syne – was entirely appropriate. Between a third and a half of the men who sang it at the “sharp end” of that pointless conflict never returned to celebrate the fifty New Year’s Eves that were their due.

Sadly, we do not sing “We’re Here” at dawn services on ANZAC Day. It’s lugubrious nihilism would sit uncomfortably alongside the youthful heroism with which the day is still infused. The 18,000 dead of World War I must be shielded from the muck and stink of the killing fields to which they were consigned. For more than ninety years we have bathed their memories in the radiant colours of idealism and self-sacrifice: singing hymns to the “love that never falters, the love that stands the test/That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best.”

But how many of us realise, as we sing the stirring verses of “I Vow To Thee My Country”, that the God who claimed our dearest and our best was not the Christian Yahweh, but Moloch – the insatiable pagan deity into whose fiery bowels the ancient Carthaginians were forced to consign their own precious children?

To sing “We’re Here” would be to acknowledge that between 1914 and 1918 twenty percent of our military age population – some 58,000 young men - were needlessly and pointlessly maimed and slaughtered. More importantly, it would be to identify the commission of a vast and unforgivable crime by the Imperial and Dominion Governments of the day. But that is something which the New Zealand state – and the New Zealand people – will not do. Even after the passage of nine decades, the huge exercise in national denial that is ANZAC Day continues.

It is young New Zealanders I feel most sorry for. Every ANZAC Day they throng to the cenotaphs and memorials, yearning for some sort of mystical communion with the boys who “will not grow old – as we who are left grow old”, and never quite finding it.

When questioned by breathless young reporters, they speak about the soldiers who “fought for peace”, and “died so we could be free”. Freedom? Peace! The invasion of Turkey was intended to open the sea lanes to the Russian Empire. Yes – that’s right – the Russian Empire. Nearly 3,000 young Kiwis died at Gallipoli for the Tsar of Russia – a ruthless autocrat whose Cossacks, just nine years earlier, had massacred hundreds of his own subjects on “Bloody Sunday”. It modern terms, it would be like asking 3,000 young New Zealanders to die for the Chinese politicians who ordered the troops into Tiananmen Square.

Not that the men who volunteered in 1914 objected to invading Turkey. Far from it. Many of them had acquired a taste for action less than a year earlier when they mounted up and rode into Auckland and Wellington to crush the General Strike of 1913. To read the contents of these “special” policemen’s newspaper – “The Camp Gazette” – is to discover the mindset that would later become familiar to the world as fascism. Oh yes, those boys on the slopes of Gallipoli fought for their King and their Country all right: but for “our” freedom? – I think not.

Of course the working class lads whose heads were split open by “Massey’s Cossacks” in 1913, died in considerably greater numbers than the ANZACs of 1915. But the 50,000 casualties of the New Zealand Division didn’t suffer in the mud of Flanders for Peace and Freedom, they suffered because, as conscripts, they were given little choice.

Bill Massey, New Zealand’s ferociously conservative Prime Minister, introduced conscription in 1916. This bigoted Ulsterman fervently believed that the British were descended from the Israelites, and ordained by God to rule the world. The Labour Party was born out of the struggle to make his hideous sacrifice of a whole generation mean something.

“We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here…” the Diggers sang. If we are to celebrate anything on ANZAC Day, let us celebrate the grim gallows humour of men who in the face of political criminality, unspeakable horror, and an overwhelming sense of the utter futility of their conduct, could still go “over the top” with a song on their lips.

They will not grow old. But it is long past time that those of us who are left grew up.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 28 April 2006.


Anonymous said...

Good article. Tell young Sam Johnson to read it.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

"But it is long past time that those of us who are left grew up."

Never a truer word, Mr Trotter. Never a truer word.

Victor said...


I understand the point you are making.

However, ANZAC Day, just like Armistice Day in other parts of the world, is also the occasion when we remember the dead of World War Two.

Unless we regard the defeat of the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire as matters of no consequence, then it is surely right to recall with gratitude the sacrifice of all who gave their lives to defend a modicum of human decency in that terrible conflict.

And I make this point in the knowledge that many, perhaps most, allied servicemen and women may not have been motivated by an ideological commitment to Democracy or by hatred of Fascism but by a simple unadorned patriotism, augmented in New Zealand's case, by loyalty to the "Mother Country", mate-ship and even by a desire to see something of the world.

However mixed the motivations of the World War Two generation, we all remain profoundly in their debt. More so, perhaps, than we can ever show or say!

Be that as it may, the pattern of commemoration for the 1914-18 war was already well set-up by 1945. It would probably, at that time, have seemed both pointless and tasteless to have created a new commemorative event for the dead of the more recent war.

Nor, I suspect, would most of the servicemen and women of 1939-45 have seen themselves in a different category to those of a quarter century earlier.

And I suspect that those of them still alive would resent any failure to grant to their predecessors the same level of gratitude that we rightly feel towards them.

Of course, the Soviet Union did things differently, creating Victory Day to commemorate the millions of its people who died in the "Great Patriotic War".

But, obviously,the last thing the Soviet regime would have wanted was any sense of connection between that struggle and the "Imperialist War" of 1914-17,which Lenin had so ferociously denounced and in which Russian arms had so failed to distinguish themselves.

Unlike Russia's, our 20th century domestic experience was one of continuity rather than convulsion. Perhaps a degree of mental fudge is the price you pay for continuity. If so, it's a small price and one that I'm personally happy to keep paying until such time as the World War Two generation has passed away.

In Memory of Ted said...

Today, as always in recent years, I went to the Anzac wreath-laying ceremony in the small rural district where I live, a district that lost 31 men in World War One.

I don't go particularly to honour them (although I have an uncle who died at Gallipoli). I go in hope of keeping alive the memory of the ghastly waste and futility of our imperialist involvement in foreign wars.

I grind my teeth when I hear RNZ newsreaders speak of “the fallen”, “sacrifice” and “those who gave their lives”. Nonsensical phrases in times of conscription and ignorance.

They were young, which is no crime; many of them were foolish, which is understandable; and they were expendable, which is unforgiveable.

If we want to talk about New Zealand heroes, let's talk about Archibald Baxter and have every child in every classroom read his classic memoir “We Will Not Cease”.

Chris Trotter said...

There was but one great war, Victor, beginning in 1914, halting for a twenty year truce in 1918 to replenish the stocks of young men, and then breaking out again in 1939.

Because the first round had been so terrible, the second could only ever have been a true existential struggle. Yes, "our side" won: but, from the perspective of 70 years, was it worth the loss of 55 million souls?

I suppose, given the world Hitler and Tojo are likely to have created, we must say "Yes". It's just a pity that the future our forebears fought for has turned out to be so much less noble than the sacrifice they made to secure it.

Anonymous said...

" a degree of mental fudge" - bollocks.
Every ANZAC day the whole country is steeped in a soft coating of sickening sentimentality, with blind obedience to military authority as the hard centre.

Chris is right, enough with the nonsense.

Victor said...


I'm not sure about there being only one Great War. I doubt, for example, that it appears so to the Japanese, who were on different sides in the two conflicts.

But, apart from that, I agree with you entirely.

Anonymous said...

It is so absolutely pointless to attempt to somehow rewrite history with the wisdom of hindsight. To say that we are so much smarter and wiser than they were at that time. It seems as a country we engage in this constantly and we build myths out of it.
It was, it happened and we recall that-each in our own way.

Anonymous said...

Why do you try and rewrite history in hindsight, no point to it. People served same as they do now for what seemed valid reasons at the time, my father from WW2, now deceased, never felt that there was no point to it, and he didnt want to hear judgement in hindsight from the baby boom generation either. Mind you he never voted labour again after reading in the armed forces news that Toby Hill took the wharfies out on strike for danger money to load ammunition. As he said " I didnt get danger money to shoot it"

Chris Trotter said...

No hindsight required, Anonymous@11:49.

There were thousands of New Zealanders at the time who questioned our participation in what was clearly an imperialist war.

Labour itself was formed in the midst of the national debate over conscription.

And, with the greatest respect to your Dad, wasn't protecting the right of ordinary workers to fair wages and safe working conditions one of the reasons we fought the fascists?

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post Mr Trotter, from someone who wouldnt agree with you very often.

Our ANZACs died in WWI so that the victorious Allies could pillage the prostrate corpses of the defeated powers, thereby guaranteeing another conflict in short order (and they got it). There was no thought to creating a lasting, just and stable international order.

The world would probably have been a far more stable place had the Central Powers won. Russia would have been spared the worst depredations of the Stalinist era, Germany and Austria-Hungary would have been still stuck under illiberal monarchies...but the slow reform process would have continued, and been preferable to the extremist result that actually eventuated. WWII would not have happened in the destructive form that occurred.

Anyway if there's two things i cant stand it's lies and wilful blindness, whatever their "nobility".

There is always a "this is why we're going to war" story for the general public that is separate and distinct from the real motivation(s). The US entered WWI so that they would be guaranteed to recover their war debts from France and Britain. Roosevelt deliberately fomented war with the Japanese as well through an economic blockade (though we should probably be grateful for that).

There is no sentiment in international politics, just cold calculation. And the public are dragged along using whatever means necessary...

WAKE UP said...

"There were thousands of New Zealanders at the time who questioned our participation in what was clearly an imperialist war."

Even if this was true - and I'd debate that - men still DIED so that we can have these futile latter-day debates.


Mark said...

Ain't revisionism grand?