Anzac: a day to reflect on a modern peril

Here are three ways to mark Anzac Day: remember the dead; celebrate who we are; and know the potential for peril.

The first is less poignant now than half a century ago. Then war and its ruthless scything of young lives was a living memory for most at Anzac Day commemorations, the second world war being not long past. Most of the town turned out in sombre and thankful spirit.

There were still many survivors of the first world war’s horrific slaughter. Gallipoli was a vivid testament to individual stoicism and occasional heroism.

In the 1970s the memories — and remembrance — began to fade as the survivors dwindled. The United States’ misjudged Vietnam war divided a younger generation from its elders (the coda was that generation’s repudiation of another misjudged United States war, in Iraq).

Then, unexpectedly, in the 1990s a new younger generation began to turn out to the dawn parades and make pilgrimages to Gallipoli. So many have gone there that there are fears for the environment.

What do they seek there? A marker of their heritage, an ingredient in their national identity.

This is not a reprise of historian Keith Sinclair’s mistaken proclamation that Gallipoli was the beginning of nationhood. New Zealand went to Suvla Bay as a pawn on one side in a war of empires (not, as John Key ahistorically said a few weeks back, to fight for freedom and democracy — that was 1939-45).

The coming-of-age of a confident, distinct New Zealand identity had to await the post-1945 generation’s coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a Pacific identity, drawing on two heritages, European and Polynesian, a world away from empire.

The modern confident, distinct New Zealander can view Gallipoli clearly and not through previous generations’ veil of war directly experienced or directly opposed.

As heritage, Gallipoli — while we share it with Australians (little though most Australians notice) — is more proximately ours than Waterloo or Hastings. For two decades until recently Anzac Day was more of a national day than Waitangi Day, which was a day of division.

But war is a poor substitute for peace as an emblem. Waitangi Day marks an attempt at two cultures living in mutually reinforcing harmony. Modern New Zealand’s divination of that ideal in the founding Treaty is a central element in our modern identity. It bestows the potential for a creative tension.

At the same time, along with many other societies, we are becoming “multicultural”, as people from other cultures and heritages crowd in. That is distinct from bicultural. And it may embody a future peril.

Recent articles by two British philosophers, one a conservative, Roger Scruton, and one of the once-Marxist left, Terry Eagleton, worry about that peril.

They agree, from different angles, that modern “western” society — and for all our Pacific biculturalism, we are still of the “west” — rests on “citizenship”, a liberal concept that requires citizens’ agreement on the principles of government and participation in law-making (tacitly at least) but leaves belief to the individual.

Scruton perceives in that an “emptiness and defeat, a sense that nothing is left to believe in or endorse, save only the freedom to believe. And [that] is neither a belief nor a freedom”. Eagleton says: “Western civilisation … skates by on believing as little as it decently can … an unholy melange of practical materialism, political pragmatism, moral and cultural relativism and philosophical scepticism”.

Scruton says: “Drop all the multicultural waffling … and reaffirm the core idea of social membership in the western tradition”. Eagleton says that “multiculturalism blandly embraces difference as such, without looking too closely into what one is differing over” and “threatens the existing order … because the political state depends on a reasonably tight cultural consensus”.

They agree that leaves us vulnerable to the sort of terrorist who, in Scruton’s formulation, pursues “a moral exultation”, is “primarily interested in himself (sic) and his spiritual condition and has no real desire to change things here below”: “through death he dissolves into a new and immortal brotherhood”.

Eagleton talks of a “conflict between civilisation and culture”: “Culture signifies all those unreflective loyalties and allegiances for which men and women in extreme circumstances are prepared to kill”. He calls them a “metaphysical enemy”.

Wayne Mapp’s defence review will need to address this shadowy peril (along with older and more easily definable types) but it is bigger and deeper than Mapp and his reviewers. It goes to the core of our identity.

But in our identity is maybe a clue. Some Maori political argument, drawn from culture, reflects “metaphysics” and brotherhood”. If we in this small, new place can find how “citizenship” and “culture” can cohabit — that is, cause Anzac Day and Waitangi Day to reflect two elements of a single nation — we may have a lesson for others.