We don’t know whether, like us, others are feeling a certain uneasiness at the direction the WWI/Anzac centenary commemorations (often celebrations) are taking. That the platoons of books regularly pouring off the presses, here and overseas, that the many WWI websites and other online aids are potentially making readers better informed about what actually happened is good. That many, as a result, have been led to explore their genealogy or whakapapa is valuable. It is worthwhile to learn under what circumstances at Gallipoli or Passchendaele, in Egypt or elsewhere your great grandfather, your great great uncle or your distant cousin died or was wounded. It is rewarding to read their letters or diaries, if these survive. It is important to reaffirm that history did not begin with your own birth, that it’s not all just “back in the day”, some timeless zone called Who Cares? A country without a sense of history, a country without cultural memory, is a country with Alzheimer’s.
But who or what is it exactly that we are commemorating apparently so wholeheartedly? Are we commemorating those who died or were permanently damaged in a devastating imperial trade war, fought largely on the other side of the world, a war New Zealand had no choice but to take part in? Yes, we are, but to put it like that is hardly uplifting. Ritual reverence for sacrifice and courage, uplift, even triumphalism, seem to be the prevailing, the required notes. The illusion that simply by doing some basic research, by making giant-sized models, creating digital environments, doing guided tours of long-cleaned up battlefields, or putting on an Anzac uniform, we will somehow have shared, even taken over, the spirit of those men proud of their lemon-squeezer hats: there is something dismaying, even fetishistic, about this.
And what does it say about us? The past is a very big country, as well as a foreign one; so why are we trying imaginatively to recolonise this particular tiny corner of it? One answer might be that, in the absence of living witnesses and participants, this piece of history is ripe for manufacture and manipulation. No comparably powerful narrative disrupts the fantasy. Another answer might be that we have come to see WWI, and particularly Chunuk Bair and Passchendaele, as representing not so much an (imagined) point of origin as a marker of authenticity. We live increasingly in a world of simulacra, of virtual realities, vicarious experience. (Not true of course for those who happen to live in Syria, say, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria or …) We live in a world increasingly unsure where our own authenticity lies or whether there is any authenticity at all any more. Indeed, it was the disenchantment following WWI which dismantled the authoritative Grand Narratives our current efforts seem to be trying to restore. Seen in that light, WWI can seem (as its enduring poets like Owen and Sassoon saw it) as a vast human tragedy inspiring pity and fear – like King Lear, but real.
Ironically, many who served in WWI seem to have had a comparable feeling about authenticity, to have felt that only back at the Front were things real, to have felt that only others who were there knew, as they did. Perhaps that is something to give us pause as we watch or march or simply reflect on all those lives and deaths a hundred years ago.
Louise O’Brien & Harry Ricketts