I knew my alarm was set for 5:15 a.m., so naturally I woke up at 4 a.m. in anticipation of walking down to Lambton Quay to participate in my first ANZAC Day commemoration. It took me by surprise in my groggy haze to see from my kitchen window as I was making instant coffee a group of about 10 Weir House undergraduates making their way down the footpath chatting loudly as they headed towards the city center. The notion of starting a national day of remembrance before the sun comes up is totally foreign to my American sensibilities, but if the ten undergrads could make it out the door at that hour I thought maybe it was important for me to have this experience and was glad I was soon to follow.
Until today I didn’t know what the acronym ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) even meant, not to mention what I was about to commemorate, and if I wasn’t paying full attention before, standing in a crowd of what seemed like several hundred, maybe a thousand, I certainly was once the canon heralding the dawn was fired.
I don’t know if it was the intention, but the firing of the canon encouraged me to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of that booming thunderous sound. I’ve only known mortal terror in my dreams and can scarcely conjure the waking nightmare armed battle must be. I was soon elucidated to the ideals of ANZAC Day, why we gathered and whom we were to remember. Throughout the ceremony I found myself thinking about the meaning of a nation of people being so intentional about stopping their routine to make time and space to think on the deeds of men and women who have died under the banner of their shared flag and sense of identity. I was also interested to upon returning home and spending some time on Wikipedia learn there has been some controversy about what exactly Britons, Australians and New Zealanders are remembering and how the events at Gallipoli have shaped their respective national consciousness.
Controversy aside I think most of those who turned up this morning before the sun rose fall into the camp espoused officially by the NZ government, “After Gallipoli, New Zealand had a greater confidence in its distinct identity, and a greater pride in the international contribution it could make.”
There is nothing like fighting and dying and killing to bring people together in support of a goal, be that one defined by the state, by popular opinion, by a sense of duty to a figure – “for King and country,” or even in support of a system or way of life.
Before I started looking at the history and meaning of ANZAC Day I turned on some music on random in my iTunes library and the very first track to play was an excerpt from a popular U.S. Civil War documentary I have the soundtrack for. It’s an achingly beautiful letter from a man to his wife with a poetic introduction where the soldier proclaims his unwavering commitment to the system he lives in.
July 14, 1861 Camp Clark, Washington DC … I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt. …
My experience this morning, reading the civil war letter, and reflecting on the meaning of why we honor the dead who served I come to one conclusion. The sacrifice of individuals is irreproachable even when the system calls for reprehensible action.
The question I’m left with is not about human nature but about the international order we set up over the past 100-years. Will people always be perfectly willing to lay down their joys to maintain a government? Will we always buy into the system we have now?
Is there an argument to be made that Marxism hasn’t been see through to fruition yet? Is capitalism in China the last stage of capitalism’s spread? Will the next 20-years of China’s rise provide the necessary roots of a great revolution like Marx thought was coming in 19th c. Europe’s failed social progress experiment?
Will Lenin’s notion that competing empires scrambling for market and resource access lead to more and more failed states like some in Europe and arguably the U.S. of today ultimately lead to a failed international system?