I was in Australia visiting friends on ANZAC day this year, so didn't really dwell on the public holiday and its significance as I have done in the past. But having read some thoughtful comments on it in the New Zealand blogosphere (particularly Span's) I thought I'd try and write something while my brain was at least on the edge of ticking away.
First up, the obvious point: ANZAC day makes me sad; war makes me sad. Recently I've been reading one of Anna Politskovskaya's books on Chechnya, and with every page the human suffering associated with that conflict leaves me staggered. And that's just one small war amongst all the others that have burnt through the pages of the histories of our last 100 years. World War 1, meanwhile, makes me acutely sad, in part because of its scale, but also its shear futility. Whenever I travel round New Zealand I feel this sadness as I come across the statues and the long list of names that bear witness to people, families and, in some cases, whole communities gutted by war.
When I think of World War 1 (every ANZAC day included) I also feel angry. As far as I can tell it was an utterly needless war, waged by European elites over alliances. They didn't give a toss about their working class (let alone ours) who they set away to die like cattle. The pointlessness of World War 1 doesn't detract from the sacrifice and bravery of our soldiers (not to mention their wives and kids who had to soldier on without them) but it does bestow upon us, those who ought to have learned the lessons of that war, the obligation to save for ever conflict as something of last resort.
Which brings me to my third set of emotions regarding ANZAC day: unease. I think the ceremony on the day is fine, and the sober, sorrowful tone resonates as much with me as I think it does with most New Zealanders. But there is always the risk that commemorations of war can be co-opted to become celebrations of militarism. I'm not suggesting that this is happening with ANZAC day, but I do think it is something that we want to be vigilant about.
So would I ever consider protesting ANZAC day? Maybe, one day, if the ceremonies started to be dominated by jingoism. Possibly even, if I lived in Australia. It would be pretty hard to stand silently through a ceremony when John Howard was mouthing platitudes about never again.
But unlike Anarchafairy et. al., in the New Zealand case, I don't have a problem with our current troop deployments (most significantly Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, and Afghanistan). Indeed, to be honest I can't even fathom where they (the http://nztroopsoutnow.org/ folks) are coming from.
I write this as someone who opposed both invasions of Iraq, and who - possibly mistakenly - opposed the invasion of Afghanistan and military action in Kosovo. And as someone who is instinctively anti-war: that is, in trying to make my mind up about the legitimacy of any conflict, I always factor into the equation the fact that war is utterly fucked and ought to be avoided at all costs.
I'm also incredibly anxious about New Zealand soldiers being placed in harms way. Not because I place any higher value an their lives than anyone else's, but because I think that our own domestic social contract, particularly the part that they've signed up to, requires a good reason for them to risk their lives.
At the same time though, I think that our soldiers are currently doing considerable good. In Afghanistan, whatever I might have thought of the original conflict, I find it hard to believe that our soldiers, who are primarily in a non combat role, are doing more harm than good. Nor do I believe that if all international forces suddenly pulled out of Afghanistan the country would suddenly lapse into a better state. This is not to say that I agree with everything the US military, in particular, are doing there, but rather that I don't see much positive in a resurgent Taliban or civil war (two distinct possibilities in the wake of troop withdrawal).
In the case of Timor Leste and Solomon islands, while I think the way the peacekeeping missions are run leaves something to be desired and while, in the case of Timor Leste, I am deeply suspicious of the motives of the Australians, I still don't think that pulling the troops out would achieve any good. I think that this is particularly the case in Solomons where, for all the shortcomings of RAMSI the inescapable fact is that troops brought to an end a horrible conflict and have offered some hope of moving forward. I'd happily campaign for better engagement in Solomons but not for disengagement. I just can't see how that would improve the lives of the average Solomon Islander.
Monday, April 30, 2007