This year ANZAC Day parades were cancelled for the first time ever. Instead we were invited to stand at dawn and remember the war dead. For this one day of the year we were called to think of the cost of war. We’re called to be mindful of suffering, conflict, the forging of a nation, and Trans-Tasman solidarity.
In my area, people in lockdown adorned their driveways with signs and giant home-made poppies and wreaths, adding to the existing heart shaped messages to our rural postie, the giant Easter eggs and the sign saying “Stay home NZ. Fight”, which is sadly accurate given domestic violence increases during confinement. There are driveway signs, “We will remember them”, and even “Whiti whiti e” honouring the Maori fighters of World War One– who were fresh from fighting their own war against imperial colonists here, and off to fight for them abroad, suffering disproportionate losses for an Imperial foreign Queen and country who had killed and dispossessed them too.
I have no family war medals to wear on my chest. But I do wear poppies; a red one for the service men and women, a purple one for the millions of animals ‘called to serve’’ (16 million in the first World War alone), and a white one for peace. Nothing in my studies of politics and history has convinced me that wars are morally justified in pursuit of ‘peace’. Members of the armed forces and civilian victims of war pay too high a price, when both war and peace seem a by-product of other interests and forces. The people of the Blitz, of the saturation bombing of Dresden, Hamburg and Köln, the firebombing of Tokyo, and the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were all victims of war too, lest we forget them.
Pacifism isn’t a popular view though. In New Zealand, Conscientious Objectors were socially rejected, made examples of, tortured, and sometimes still sent to the front. They usually had one of two motivations, Pacifism, and Socialism/communism. I share both principles – a philosophical commitment to Pacifism and opposition to violence, and an absence of loyalty to capitalists – and more loyalty to workers, and citizens of the world, than to imperialist corporates and the nation state. Even now though, advocating for peace is seen as borderline unpatriotic, oddball. We live in a society that glorifies war and violence. Our media normalises killing and makes it entertainment. So it’s as if you’re doing an injustice to those servicemen who made the “ultimate sacrifice” when you stand against war, when in fact the greater injustice is that those soldiers were used as cannon fodder in often ill-considered, poorly executed mass killing.
But ANZAC day this year is at an exceptional moment in time. Much of the ideology and symbolism about celebrating the day, and honouring the war dead, centres on the notion that New Zealand’s participation in wars was in pursuit of democracy and freedom (rather than colonial and capitalist expansion). Yet at no other time in recent history, have we been so willing to surrender those freedoms. Freedom of assembly – gone, freedom of speech – less tolerated, freedom of movement, willingly surrendered – though fragile and fraying now as we move towards a release from lockdown.*
These are freedoms we’ve been willing to suspend, in pursuit of the national good. We’ve taken Jacinda’s March 22 straight-to-camera ‘speech from the war room’ to heart. We’ve been “United, in the Fight Against Covid-19”. The features that are successful in a war have been helpful in our response to Covid-19. Decisive, pre-emptive leadership, a (generally) well resourced population, defensible boundaries (a bloody great ocean), a nation cohesive and unified. And just like in a successful war effort, where the price paid isn’t too high, national pride has increased here in New Zealand after our apparently successful defence against Covid-19. It’s almost like all the murky inequality of everyday society has been forgotten. What matters is that we stand proud – at dawn, and “United, in the Fight Against Covid-19” as one.
No wonder the National Party and their supporters are scared. After all, to paraphrase Carl van Clausewitz, politics is war by other means. With around 88% public support for the Government’s decisions on Covid-19, Jacinda Ardern’s reign is nearly hegemonic, in the Gramscian sense – based on moral and intellectual leadership rather than on force. Some in the media are concerned too – at what they see as a concentration of power. It’s the Jacinda and Grant, and Ashley show. Except when it’s the David and Deborah and Simon sideshow. At this stage of the game otherwise, the National Party, the Greens, New Zealand First, and most of the Labour Caucus are virtually invisible, and mostly irrelevant. But imagine if the tables were turned and we saw this concentration of power in the hands of a few National MPs, an effective dissolution of Parliament and Opposition accountability, and the assumption of what are possibly extra-legal, powers. We’d be scared too.
Labour will be hoping their current support lasts them to the election. The National Party searches around for a new leader as their past leaders, such as John Key, advocate for someone who’s not even an MP yet (Christopher Luxon).
As a Pacifist and a Socialist, and not so much as a Nationalist, I am thinking of the victims of war. Those victims that are in my thoughts aren’t just Kiwi soldiers, animals recruited without choice, or the women, families and communities left behind. But in my thoughts this Anzac Day, and on most days, are the victims of conflict everywhere. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, I think of the Syrian victims of war, the starving Yemeni, the Palestinian dispossessed. There’s no ceasefire for Covid-19 there. I think of the millions of people displaced by war and conflict, in ruined cities and refugee camps around the world. I think of land mines still littering fields, the ongoing effects of depleted uranium weapons, the trillion-dollar military industrial complex. The obliteration of cultures and their livelihoods and the genocide of indigenous communities as capitalism harvests ‘resources’ and leaves its wastes across the planet. I recommit to Pacifism and to Peace, to an alternative to our economic model driven by rapacious greed, on ANZAC Day, in our times of peace, and against the perpetual backdrop of war. I hope the freedoms we have the liberty to surrender now in the time of Covid-19, might be extended to those suffering in conflict elsewhere.
* Other principles developed after Twentieth Century wars, such as the Laws of War – declaration, proportionality and the non-targeting of civilians, are ignored in modern conflicts, including by our traditional (and Five Eyes) allies.