ANZAC Day was on the 25th of April, and someone asked me if I’m upset that I’m not in New Zealand to go to the parades, wear a red poppy, and watch the 21-gun salutes.
No. But I am upset.
ANZAC Day's original intentions were reasonable: to remember the men who died during the failed 1916 attempt to take the Turkish penninsula of Gallipoli. By remembering them, we could protect future generations from undergoing the same fate. By taking once a year to reflect on the profound waste of life that the battle had been, maybe some good could come from it, and the errors would not be repeated.
But then, like a parasite, it evolved. Before anyone knew it, the holiday’s intention was not just to remember those who had died at Gallipoli, but also the men and women who fought and died in every battle of every war, both previous and subsequent to Gallipoli and World War I.
Soon enough, all these holidays (as the Canadian and American equivalents were founded on similar ideals) became not sombre remembrances of mistakes passed, but gaudy celebrations of war and those who fight in them. Or, to be more specific, celebrations of death and those who kill. Celebrations of destruction, and of those who destroy.
We fire off the guns, we parade the veterans onstage, we read poems, and, of course, we pin the blood-red poppies to our chests. But it’s all lip service. Not only is it lip service, it’s lip service that celebrates exactly what the holiday was sworn to eliminate: meaningless waste of life.
Because this is a point that is not said enough, if at all. The ANZAC Day theme is that Gallipoli was a waste, but it was a discrete waste; every other battle was worth it. And this is incorrect. This isn’t an opinion. It’s objective fact. There is no such thing as a good war. There is no such thing as a war that was worth its profound economic, social, and political, and moral cost. World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – every single one of them is just a larger-scale Gallipoli.
World War II is everyone’s favourite. Most can agree that the other ones in my list are or were unnecessary, but World War II somehow has this sacred, mystical quality as the “last good war.” Hitler was Evil and we were Good. He was the Joker to our Batman, the Lex Luther to our Clark Kent. It was a just crusade, and justice prevailed.
Justice prevailed by allying with Stalin. Yes, we fought evil. But we fought it by siding with evil, siding with a man who was just as genocidal, just as megolomanical as the man we defeated. It's hard to accept that siding with one despicable leader in order to defeat another can be in any way described as a good war.
The Holocaust is also mentioned a lot by World War II apologists (Stalin's Great Purge notwithstanding). “Hitler was hell-bent on exterminating Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, and a host of other people!”
And he was. I’m not going to deny that. And he succeeded in exterminating a great many. And that’s horrible. But let’s look at it with some perspective.
Hitler killed an estimated six million. This is a staggering number; it’s New Zealand’s entire population plus another fifty percent. It’s such a large number that it’s actually impossible to conceptualise.
But if that's hard to conceptualise, here's something harder: sixty million. That's the total cost, in human lives, of the war. In sheer number terms, the Holocaust was terrible. But the war, which the Holocaust is used to justify, was ten times more terrible.
Not to mention the fact that the Holocaust is an after-the-fact justification; nobody knew, or cared, when the war was raging.
The justification while it went on was that Hitler was hell-bent on conquering the world. That couldn’t be allowed; someone had to stop him!
Why? Really, why? What does an American, Kiwi, or Briton care who’s running the show in France, Belgium, Italy, or the Balkans? Why does he care enough to die over it or send someone else to do so? The French, still feeling the sting of the First World War, were quite clear about this; with their pre-war cliche of “better to be a living German than a dead Frenchman.”
We wouldn’t have that, though. Policies and men that we celebrate every year on ANZAC Day took war to those who expressly professed their lack of desire for it. We bombed their cities, wrecked their houses, killed people whose only crime had been to live on the wrong strip of land. When's their holiday? When is Collateral Damage Day? It's easy to celebrate the people and institutions who deal in death. It's much harder, and much messier, to celebrate the millions of faceless people who had it dealt to them.
Refugees trekking through the Eastern European winter on barefeet, entire families incinerated, of children starving to death. That is war. The adolescant, selfish, cowardly act of of sending boys to die for reasons defined by men who should know better. That is war. Strip away the poppies and uniforms, the parades and the salutes, the comraderie and the espirit de corps, and all those other superfical trappings we hide behind on ANZAC Day, and what is left is a gritty, ugly reality that we are so afraid of talking about that we'd rather repeat it.
I’m not upset that I missed ANZAC Day. I’m upset that a cowardly society deliberately missed its point.