By Chris Trotter*
Nicholas Boyack's controversial commentary piece for Stuff is a harbinger of historical controversies to come. Published just 48 hours before Anzac Day’s dawn parades, Boyack’s “We need an honest debate on Gallipoli and a fresh approach to history”, offers an unashamedly revisionist take on the Gallipoli landings. Not surprisingly, it aroused powerful emotions in Stuff’s readers.
Predictably, many of these emotions reflected the affronted nationalism of adherents to the official version of the Anzac story. More interesting, however, were the responses signalling sympathy with Boyack’s anti-imperialistic views.
With the current government strongly committed to overseeing a revolution in the teaching of New Zealand history, Boyack’s Anzac bombshell looks set to be just the first of many such attacks on our national myths. There are few individuals more subversive of the status quo than historians on a mission.
All nations need myths: common narratives – usually heroic, or tragic, or both – with which to bind their citizens to the state with just the right mixture of awe, pity, gratitude and pride. New Zealand’s historical myths were initially crafted to instil loyalty to the imperial British mission, and have maintained a remarkably tenacious grip on the public imagination. The second great wave of national myth making gathered strength in the 1950s and 60s and was aimed at inculcating a robust faith in New Zealand’s “progressive” impulses – the reforms that made “little New Zealand” the “social laboratory of the world”. The grip of this second iteration of “New Zealand-ness” turned out to be considerably weaker than the first.
The proof of the imperial mythology’s enduring strength has just been presented to us in the impressive numbers once-again turning out for the traditional Anzac dawn parades. The devotion of the young to the Anzac Myth has perplexed and delighted not only traditional historians, but the entire New Zealand political class.
It was, after all, the young New Zealanders of the 1970s and 80s who had offered up the first serious challenges to the monolithic imperial mythology of the “RSA Generation”. Provoked, at least initially, by New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Anzac revisionism soon expanded into a critique of the deeply-ingrained conservative values, and limited political vision, of the taciturn Kiwi blokes who returned from World War II. The fear was that as those with personal memories of the First and Second World Wars became fewer and fewer the Anzac spirit would also march away, shoulder-to-shoulder, with their ghosts.
The Scotsman-turned-Aussie songwriter, Eric Bogle, summed-up this anxiety in his famous song about Gallipoli “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”.
And so now every April, I sit on me porch
And I watch the parades pass before me
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reviving old dreams of past glories
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore
They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, “what are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
But the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday no one will march there at all
Except, astonishingly, the thinning ranks of the world war veterans were filled by their children, grandchildren and, by 2021, their great-grandchildren. The Baby Boom generation may have been sceptical of Anzac Day and what it stood for, but Generation X et seq embraced the Gallipoli myth with a passion that was little short of embarrassing. The question is: Why?
Much of the answer is doubtless bound up with the dramatic social and economic transformations of the 1980s and 90s. The free-market reforms that characterised the political histories of both Australia and New Zealand during that critical period effectively put paid to the “progressive” mythologies of the Anzac “brothers” – represented most forcefully by the Labour governments of Gough Whitlam and Norman Kirk.
Globalisation was an important part of the sales pitch of their successors, Bob Hawke and David Lange, and their respective finance ministers, Paul Keating and Roger Douglas. The only problem being that a political project based on giving de-regulated capitalism its head is extremely difficult to reconcile with the tightly regulated capitalism of the social-democratic Australia and New Zealand which Hawke and Lange were in the process of sweeping away. With the costumes of “progressive nationalism” now passé, the Anzac brothers had little other recourse but to reach into the depths of their national memory chests for the imperial paraphernalia of an even older era.
That the Anzac nations did not emerge from this re-invention exercise wearing pretty much the same clobber is due to New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy. Cold-shouldered by Canberra and Washington, and scolded by the British, New Zealand’s embrace of the old imperial myths was tempered by its new status as the scourge of the English-speaking nuclear powers. For a while, at least, this gave to New Zealand’s Anzac Day commemorations a decidedly Blackadder Goes Forth flavour. While the Aussies become increasingly jingoistic (to the point of almost forgetting what the “nz” in Anzac stands for) the Kiwis played up the horror and tragedy of war.
Unfortunately for the New Zealand political class, that doesn’t really work. Play up the horror and tragedy of war too poignantly and people cannot avoid questioning the point of going to war at all. Moreover, it’s only a short step from recognising the futility of war to grasping, as Nicholas Boyack does so persuasively in his commentary, the less-than-honourable motivations of the imperial politicians who refused to stop the war; and the willingness of New Zealand’s politicians to trade so much blood for butter.
And so it is that the rattle of imperial harness has become more and more a feature of Anzac Day commemorations. Youngsters, in particular, will declaim proudly on how the Anzacs went to war for “freedom” and “democracy”, rather than to strengthen the Mother Country’s grip on the oil reserves of the Middle East. One is moved to wonder if the new and compulsory New Zealand history curriculum will appraise these young New Zealanders of the fact that the wartime government of William Massey considered it advisable to lock up freedom and democracy for the duration: conscripting socialist MPs and subjecting the Christian pacifist, Archibald Baxter, to the torture of “Field Punishment No.1”
“It is time for a national debate on our history, focusing on what we can do to lift the standard in schools and universities” says Nicholas Boyack. “We also need to stop peddling myths about Gallipoli and New Zealand nationalism, and take a more honest approach to our history.”
Ah, yes, but that will entail emulating the sorcerer in Aladdin who offered new lamps for old. And when our historians set about exchanging old national myths for brand new ones, who knows what sort of genies will be summoned forth – or what they will be asked to do?
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.