Saturday, April 28, 2012

ANZAC day - a fictional narrative of nation building?

Well, ANZAC day has come and gone for another year and I'm left with an increasing sense of unease.
My unease has been growing for a number of years, concurrent with the increasing popularity of the day and its rituals, especially with the young. I'm not quite sure when I first started to hear, via the media, that New Zealand's  military involvement at  the slaughter that was Gallipoli symbolised the moment we  first became a nation, but it certainly wasn't considered that way when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s.

Many things disturb me about this claim,  not the least because it is based on a view that the ultimate arbiter of nationhood is the (male) experience of war, especially a battle and a war fought in someone else's country. I don't have any issue with people wishing to honour and respect the sacrifices their forebears have made, or with the desire to construct  meaningful narratives about who we were and are, or with debates about what constitutes the basis and nature of our citizenship. What concerns me is who and what are missing from this version, and, to use old-fashioned language, whose point of view is it and whose interests does it serve?

The idea that there is one narrative, and one moment, that defines a person's - let alone a nation's -  identity is ludicrous. Anyone who attempts to construct a narrative is immediately challenged by issues of point of view and perspective. And then there are issues of what to include and what to leave out, what emphasis to give actions or events, what to  hint at or make explicit, what is text and what is subtext.

Surely there are many different narratives that contribute to our sense of nationhood and national identity . One that springs to mind is Archibald Baxter's powerful story of being a conscientious objector in World War 1, We Will Not Cease. His story is as much about courage and sacrifice as are the individual stories of New Zealand and Australian soldiers sent to their deaths at Gallipoli. What a shame we don't have a day to celebrate his perspective.

Here is a link to a book review of We Will Not Cease.



  1. You raise some good points Trisha. I used 'We Will not Cease' and Archibald Baxter's experiences as one of 'The Fourteen' who, along with a great uncle of ours, was transported overseas in appalling conditions in writing my biographical narrative of Daniel: A tale of courage and determination, of love and loss.
    Daniel was the father of Fred who was one of 'The Fourteen'. Daniel was a soldier, came to NZ at aged 21 and fought in the Battle of Orakau Pa in 1864. He was in the Armed Constabulary. He received a medal for his efforts. He became a settler, married a women 24 years his junior, raised a family of 7 and became a conscientious objector. As did his sons and his sons to follow. Their story was compelling.
    If you'd like to know more - visit my website

  2. Hi Vicky
    thanks for your comments and so interesting to get information about your biographical narrative of Daniel. It seems self-evident, but is still often forgotten, how important it is that a wide range of historical and contemporary stories/narratives are shared, and contribute to our views of our national and local identity.