Monday, 1 December 2014

Anniversaries of War, Remembering in 2014

Concluding part of talk by Assoc. Professor Annabel Cooper, Otago University.
On Peace Study Day, Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, Auckland, 8 November 2014.

Ernst Renan said that nationhood relies on people holding a stock of common memories. He also said something more surprising: that a nation must have ‘forgotten many things’. To prioritise memory of one set of past events, like the First World War, is to initiate the relative forgetting of others. It's easy to see how catastrophic, singular events like Gallipoli might crowd out memory of the more prosaic daily activities which my grandparents, and yours, undertook. But Renan’s statement implies something stronger: that forgetting is not a passive, but an active process. So what does building nation on memory of the First World War help us to forget?

The RSA, that handy source of information on all things military and New Zealand, offers a clue. Here's a screenshot taken the other day of the RSA's Timeline of military events of importance to New Zealand. Here it is startlingly apparent that in New Zealand, as in Australia, 'Lest We Forget' has a cutoff date, before which it flips neatly into reverse and becomes 'Lest We Remember'. But the RSA is not the only precision amnesiac.

This year, the juggernaut of World War One commemoration is riding right over the 150th anniversaries of the battles of the mid-1860s – Rangiriri, Rangiaowhia, Orakau, Pukehinahina and others. All the New Zealand Wars commemorations are local events, mostly organized, funded and promoted by iwi and attended mostly by Māori, although of course two sides fought in them. In the Maori world, these commemorations are huge events. Thousands of people have participated in them, planning months and years ahead - creating and rehearsing haka and peruperu, doing all the work of hosting and coordinating large numbers of manuhiri, travelling from all around the country and across the Tasman.

The umbrella committee for the Waikato War commemorations headed by Tom Roa coordinated a sequence of events that rolled down from south Auckland into the Waipa Valley and through to Tauranga, following the course of the war. In Tauranga, Buddy Mikaere also ran a year's events, first raising funds, then coordinating a programme of art competitions and exhibits, gallery events, the carving of new commemorative pou, and school activities as well as the large commemorative occasions at Gate Pa and Te Ranga - a programme aimed at broad inclusion of the very diverse population that is today's Tauranga. The Orakau commemoration received a limited amount of government funding, but the other events have been funded locally, mostly by iwi. Media coverage has been very limited. So here's my question. Why is only one side committed to the commemoration of these wars, when Pakeha have ancestors who fought in them too? Why is the funding and the media concentrated so emphatically on World War 1, and so little, if at all, on what happened right here?

This year the priority was expressed in policy. A new classification of important events and anniversaries has been agreed upon, ranking events as Tier 1 or Tier 2 national events. Tier 1's anniversaries commemorate events with 'significant impact on the nation as a whole or on the pattern of New Zealand life' - these include the commencement of the First World War, the signing of the Treaty, Gallipoli, the Somme and Le Quesnoy. The various conflicts of the New Zealand Wars come under Tier 2's events, defined as 'highly important but not of the same nation-changing magnitude'. Well, I imagine it depends on your point of view.

Tier 2 events have had limited government attention. Te Ururoa Flavell was the only MP who attended the first of the major Waikato War commemorations, Rangiriri. The PM, looking a bit awkward, and the Governor General - more relaxed - spoke at Orakau and at Pukehinahina. But government has little appetite for seeing these events as commemorations of national significance. At Orakau, Minister Finlayson conceded for the first time that the New Zealand Wars might have some recognition in the new National War Memorial Park in Wellington, but Mr Key thought it unlikely that there could be a national day of remembrance for the New Zealand Wars. It was made clear that the ongoing efforts to purchase the site at Orakau for a New Zealand Wars memorial will not be supported with government funding.

From the vantage point of 2014, it seems almost strange that in 1917-18 the daily impact of the War in Europe helped to get James Cowan's remarkable official history of the New Zealand Wars commissioned, before the remaining veterans passed away. The case was successfully made then for recording and commemorating the experience of both sides of the colonial wars in which about 3,000 people died and thousands more were dispossessed. Soon after, in 1925, Rudall Hayward made the first of his series of feature films about the New Zealand Wars. Cowan and Hayward, in these early decades of the twentieth century, realised that the colonial wars provided grounds for a more searching and complex exploration about ‘who we are’ than wars in Europe did. We might take from them this idea that remembering colonial wars opens up ‘us’ as a plural society, consisting of peoples who have not always stood shoulder to shoulder or seen eye to eye; people who need to look back at where we come from in these searching, reflexive ways rather than papering over the cracks in an appearance of easy unison; including women as well as men, the old and the very young as well as the ‘flower of manhood’.

This more plural remembering can be done and the New Zealand Wars commemorations are doing it. The first day of the Orākau commemoration involved powhiri, speeches, haka and other performances. To me the second day was especially moving: the main activity that day was a hikoi following the path of the people who broke out of Orākau pā on 2 April on their retreat to the Puniu River. The Orakau defenders had had had no water for several days and as you may know many, especially the women and children, were killed or wounded as they fled. As the hikoi followed the 4 kilometres to the river we stopped on the way to listen to descendants’ stories about what happened then but also afterwards. These accounts of aftermath were stories about how people survived, rebuilding families, communities, economies, in the hard decades after the war. They were accounts of dispossession but also stories of recovery - in a word, of nation-building. It was a day of complex emotions for a pakeha but also a day in which the pakeha there were generously included. But there weren't many Pākehā there. There were perhaps more at Pukehinahina, where Buddy Mikaere put in enormous effort to involve every sector of the community. Nevertheless, in striking contrast to the massive national commemorations of the First World War, there is little to encourage Pakeha to see the relevance of the New Zealand Wars anniversaries to them.

As a Pakeha, I feel a bit underestimated by this. In the 1990s, there were a number of efforts to fund a television documentary based on James Belich research on the New Zealand Wars. Several times they were turned down because TVNZ thought no-one would watch it. When the series was finally made, over 2 million people watched it – a staggering level of interest in ratings terms. There was some objection but mostly people, both Maori and Pakeha, were fascinated to know of a past that had gained so little profile for so long. Scratch the surface, and I think there would be many Pakeha now quite ready to give more thought to the colonial past instead of stopping at the RSA’s cutoff date.

I do not think we should define ourselves only by what we did in war. There’s so much more to us. But if wars are to be part of what creates us then it is incumbent on us to think carefully about what it is that memory's selectiveness engages us in. The increasing, unexamined drift toward sanctifying the Anzacs, whether as vigorous young heroes or sacrificial figures, takes us on a path which has more than one set of problems. It does more than enshrine a narrow conception of nation defined by defence. It returns us to the symbolism of a single, emblematic figure: young, white and masculine. There is no denying the tragedy, but we are still far more than that. What I find particularly disturbing is that it offers us such an easy, self-congratulatory emotional response to the past – allowing us to settle once again for noble little New Zealand united in triumph against the big bad guys. Sometimes, some of us were the big bad guys. We have harder, far more important memory work to do than this; and surely we are capable of engaging with the more complex national emotions it demands of us.

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