Image: New Zealand Defence Force / Wikimedia Commons
Lest we forget. Those are the words that will be uttered today, summoned from the backroom of our vernacular like a fine, yet sombre suit brought out of the wardrobe for a funeral. They will echo through the fug of the early morning at services around the country, accompanied by the doleful notes of the obligatory sole trumpeter blowing the Last Post.
Today – ANZAC Day – is often described as our true national day, commemorating both a formative moment in our nationhood, and the tragic sacrifices that accompanied it. Gallipoli figures prominently in our national story. Today we remember those who fought and died during that doomed campaign, and in the many other battles in foreign lands that have extinguished Kiwi lives.
Lest we forget. We will remember them.
And we do. We remember the fallen, honouring them and their service “for God, for King and for country” every year. But memory is notoriously unreliable, coloured with emotion and sometimes unconsciously selective. And so we should examine it carefully.
When I look back at our history, I wonder at the discrepancy in ardently remembering our fallen ANZAC soldiers while consciously forgetting the fallen warriors of the New Zealand wars less than a century before. ANZAC Day commemorations began in 1916, the year after the horrors of Gallipoli. When the first national day to commemorate the New Zealand wars dawns this October 28th, it will have taken nearly 150 years for us to remember those who fought and died in our own country. There will be no public holiday for them.
I wonder why we as a nation remember the strength and valour of “our boys”, while we forget that brave Māori soldiers who returned from the First World War were ineligible for the land ballot because of their race. Many Pākehā soldiers were given land that would provide the foundation for generations of wealth and stability, while Māori soldiers were frankly shafted. We remember the courageous Māori soldiers who died on foreign fields. Why don’t we remember the discriminatory conditions their brothers returned home to?
At the conclusion of the Second World War, the situation was little better. The members of the 28th Māori Battalion of WWII were dismissed by their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel James Hēnare with these words: “Go back to our mountains, go back to our people, go back to our marae. But this is my last command to you all - stand as Māori, stand as Māori, stand as Māori.” The following decades would instead bring a massive wave of urbanisation, as Māori left their tribal homelands and flocked to the cities, largely in an attempt to escape poverty.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that we shouldn’t remember those brave men and women who gave their lives all those years ago. Their sacrifices, and the conditions that led to the scourge of war should never be forgotten. But when it comes to discussions of nationhood born in the trenches of Gallipoli, we should inspect our collective memory carefully.
Was our nationhood really born miles away, on a battlefield in a foreign land? Or, was it born here in Aotearoa years – or perhaps centuries – earlier?
I know which answer is the more comfortable. If our nationhood was born in Gallipoli, we can wrap our identity in a cloak of honour, brotherhood and service. We can wear our national pride pinned to our chests, standing together in dignified and respectful silence.
But birth is a messy and arduous process. It is seldom easy. Ours, one could argue, was particularly complicated.
For all of the struggle and suffering, however; from the arrival of British settlers, to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the New Zealand wars, and the brave ANZACs who gave their lives in Gallipoli; we have survived and grown. As a nation, we’ve made mistakes, confronted demons, stood up to bullies, celebrated success and paved our own way as the little country that could.
I suspect the truth of the origins of our nationhood is likely too awkward for New Zealand to acknowledge just yet, but I hope we will one day reach a place where such a conversation is possible.
As the proverb goes, “Mā te whakātu, ka mōhio; mā te mōhio, ka mārama; mā te mārama, ka mātau; mā te mātau, ka ora.” With discussion comes knowledge, with knowledge comes light, with light comes understanding, with understanding comes wellbeing.
Lest we forget our brave ANZACs. But lest we forget what came before, and what happened after.
Let us open our memories to the complicated truth of our nationhood, and honour all of those who fought for it, whether in a field in Waikato, or at the summit of Chunuk Bair.