Anzac Day: Celebrate or Commemorate?

I’m alarmed about the extent of the commemorations of Gallipoli, which are beginning to verge on celebrations. Celebrations of what? Of men from New Zealand going to Turkey to try and kill other men they’ve never met and have no personal reason to hate?

Of their bravery in the face of death? Of their loyalty to each other and their officers even though they probably knew their efforts were futile? Commemoration – yes, certainly. Celebration? Why?

As for all the talk about forging our national identity as New Zealanders there, with the Australians , why should our identity in Aotearoa today have any connection with what happened on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915? Indeed, on reading the Wikepedia entry about Gallipoli one can only feel this was an extraordinary disaster for both our countries, although a great victory for the Turks:

The campaign was one of the greatest Ottoman victories during the war and a major Allied failure. In Turkey, it is regarded as a defining moment in the nation’s history: a final surge in the defence of the motherland as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The struggle formed the basis for the Turkish War of Independence and the declaration of the Republic of Turkey eight years later under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who first rose to prominence as a commander at Gallipoli. The campaign is often considered as marking the birth of national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand and the date of the landing, 25 April, is known as “Anzac Day” which is the most significant commemoration of military casualties and veterans in those two countries, surpassing Remembrance Day

Surely our identity as New Zealanders should be founded on understanding the history of our own country, righting injustices such as those to Maori created by the Land Wars and confiscations, achieving true respect between men and women, welcoming new citizens from less fortunate countries, healing and cherishing our environment, and providing a country which loves and nourishes our children?

None of these goals was progressed at Gallipoli, or the Somme, or Passchendale. None of them can ever be progressed by war, here or in other countries.  Warfare is an evil, an iniquity, an obscenity.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t remember our ancestors who died in World War One, and mourn the loss of those who died, or returned home maimed. But surely the best way to honour their bravery and grieve for the loss of so many is to work towards preventing warfare.

We can’t avoid future wars (or prevent terrorist attacks) by warfare.  We can help those who are suffering because of war by sending medical people and supplies, builders, engineers and teachers when we are asked.

We could become a nation which celebrates its history of peace-making.

Aotearoa has many people in its history who have refused to kill others in order to win battles: think of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi at Parihaka,  Archibald Baxter and the many other conscientious objectors of both World wars, Princess Te Puea who urge Waikato men not to  fight in foreigner’s wars beside the troops of a government which still oppressed Maori people at home.

Think of the contribution of New Zealand diplomats and politicians to the League of Nations, and the establishment of the United Nations.  Think of WILPF, whose members have voiced the opposition of women world-wide to warfare, the armaments industry, nuclear stockpiling and all the others matters associated with causing war and making it ever more lethal on a bigger scale, and less personal – think drones.  And who, with other peace-centred organisations, are gradually succeeding in many of their campaigns to make the world safer for us all.

And think of our Defence Forces, who have a proud recent history of peace-keeping and community rebuilding in many troubled places.

We could help to make terrorist acts here less likely by ensuring that our society becomes fairer, healthier, better educated in ethics and conflict resolution, more inclusive, and therefore more fulfilling and peaceful for everyone. By learning to do these things more effectively, we might even be able to help other countries find peaceful solutions to their problems, and so help to prevent wars.

Example is a great teacher.  Repeating and celebrating the mistakes of the past, or glorifying those who have contributed to the suffering or killing of people in other countries, perpetuates blood-lust and war in all its obscenity and human waste.  Couldn’t we at this time  try to become a nation that celebrates its peace-makers,  learns from the lessons of the past, and continues to try and improve the present? 

Then we would truly be honouring those who fought by creating what they hoped for, surely – a safer and better world.


  1. Thank you for helping me articulate my thinking – I have been feeling uncomfortable around the Anzac preparations and the celebrate vs commemorate dilemma says it all

  2. thanks for your article, I couldn’t agree more and certainly couldn’t write it so eloquently.

  3. Well said,

    Our son, 9, has a school project on ANZAC day and it seems we are stirring up the same love for ‘country and king’ as his ancestors were bewitched by.

    We chose to focus on his great great uncle George. He was a scholar at Christ College and university only to be dragged through 4 years of hell and return to Cheviot to teach and ‘cut himself shaving’. He was unable to bear the pain of ‘weeping wounds’ and the mental strain. It was all too much for any intelligent, sensitive man. His war records outline this.

    I’ve seen war and its aftermath. It’s to be avoided at all costs. If there is a fight; keeping the peace is the struggle worth engaging in.

    Bringing up a boy in 2015 and unleashing the inherent desire to hunt, trap, build and destroy is in the context of caring (especially of the small and vulnerable), loving (even those that are adversaries) and living wisely (making good decisions). As he steps older we also install radar for self-confidence and good decision making; being hoodwinked for king and country is on the top of the list….for his great great uncle George (WWI), uncle Arthur(WWII).

    • Charmaine and Tanya says

      Thanks for comments, Brendan – hard for boys and men these days, as well as still for women. Your son is very lucky in both his parents!

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