Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Lest we forget *what*?

I grow increasingly uneasy every year with the growing laudation of Anzac Day.

Lest we forget, it is said, every year, with increasing vehemence. But what exactly is it we should be remembering, and are earnestely entreated not to forget?

In my own lifetime, the remembrance seems to have morphed from the birth of a nation and the bungling of generals and remembering those who are gone to one in which the twin themes of duty and blood sacrifice have come to thoroughly permeate the day. Is it just the proximity to Easter that allows that commemoration's central theme to bleed so strongly into this one, I wonder? But I fear instead that it's the increasing link between the ethics of duty and altruism, and the demands of the State in collecting both.

The sculpture above and below is by Australian artist Rayner Hoff, inside the Australian War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park.

It is called, appropriately: ‘Sacrifice.’

At the very focal point of what is virtually a temple to the slain, a stylised man-machine lies prostrate on his shield (embossed upon it are the words “come home on either with your shield or on it,” the words said by wives whose husbands answered the call to war) across a sword too weighty to wield, atop a stylised column lauding the ultimate sacrifice of an individual life...

Few twentieth-century sculptures celebrate the morality of sacrifice in war more nobly. More starkly. More ... appropriately.

For never is the widespread acceptance of the morality of sacrifice exploited so thoroughly but in times of war. In World War One, that mis-named 'Great War,' the exploitation was explicit -- sacrifice exploited for recruitment, for economic savings, to diminish liberty, to justify and transmogrify the mass slaughter into something akin to a mass crusade.
Honour, Duty, Patriotism and -- clad in glittering white -- the great pinnacle of Sacrifice, pointing like a rugged finger to Heaven. [1]
This disgusting cant was how Lloyd George combined the themes in a 1914 recruiting speech, the "great pinnacle" uniting the reasons to die on the State's chosen altar. To no-one's surprise, hymns were written in this vein,  ringing to the drumbeat of sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice ...

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save

In the final days of the war, desperate to give meaning to the slaughter, the literal blood sacrifice of millions was being called up by many as constituting some form of great moral atonement akin to that called up by the Easter crucifixion.
The men who, in days gone by, have recoiled from the plan statement of God's Word that 'without shedding blood there is no remission of sin' should find this doctrine easy of acceptance in these days when our lives in this Nation, as the lives of those in the Nations allied to us, are being redeemed by the blood of our sons. [3]
Thus are the transgressions of those who seek moral meaning in mass slaughter. Could anything be more foul? "At the centre of this," writes historian Adrian Gregory,
was an interpretation of war as in some sense 'a sign of grace' in the English people. Before the war all the indications were supposedly of some kind of a disaster; a disaster caused by materialism, selfishness and social division. The war had called forth a better nature. An altruistic willingness to sacrifice oneself for the cause of righteousness ... [4]
"We have been too comfortable and too indulgent," cried Lloyd George, "many, perhaps, too selfish." Thus is selfishness made the sin and the morality of altruism made explicit as a call to mass sacrifice -- that collective bloodshed 'atoning' in atavistic fashion for the pre-war sin in having produced and enjoyed what was described as the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history -- or as Austrian author Stefan Zweig called it “individual freedom at its zenith, after [which] I saw liberty at its lowest point in hundreds of years.” [5, 6] That was what mass slaughter had bought. By the ethic of altruism, the soldier's sacrifice was a "'blood tax' which everyone else had to measure themselves against." [7]

We are still being asked to, every April 25.

What is it then we should least forget, every year? For these are among the things that I cannot. As Ayn Rand observed, when there is widespread call of sacrifice, there is always someone ready and willing to pick up the sacrifices. Not in military duty necessarily, today, but undoubtedly in calls for duty, for selflessness, for service to a higher cause -- either State, or Climate, or Great Cause -- that Great Cause to be selected for us by Great Leaders. Selfishness, still, the sin to be expunged.

For under a morality of sacrifice, the standard of value is never your own happiness, but that of others. Not your own prosperity, but that of others. Not even your own life, but those of others. (As W.H Auden sarcastically summarises, “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I can’t imagine.” [8])

The result of all this sacrifice amounts to nothing more than an often blood-soaked row of zeroes; or as this excerpt from Galt’s Speech points out: "Under a morality of sacrifice, the first value you sacrifice is morality…" [9]

Think about it.

In the meantime, and as a much healthier antidote , let’s talk about happiness. Not war. Not sacrifice. But the thing -- and, flowing from freedom, perhaps the only thing -- that is ever worth fighting for. “What else could be more selfishly important?”


1. David Lloyd George, speech at Queen's Hall, September, 1914, quoted in Adrian Gregory's book The Last Great War,  2008, "an entirely new account of how British society understood and endured the war." (You might also say: of the moral means by which they were exploited.)
2. From the hymn 'O Valiant Heart,' taken from a poem by John Stanhope Arkwright, published in The Supreme Sacrifice, and other Poems in Time of War (1919)
3. The War and Sacrificial Death: A Warning, The Evangelical Alliance, 1918, quoted in Gregory
4. Gregory, 157
5. From Ayn Rand’s introduction to her essay collection The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature.
6. From Stefan Zweig’s 1942 autobiography, which is also a biography of the collapse of Europe into barbarism, The World of Yesterday
7. Gregory, 150
8. Auden, Prose, vol. 2, p. 347
9. Rand, Atlas Shrugged


  1. We should not forget that war is sometimes necessary to overcome tyranny. We should also not forget how good our lives are, and how insignificant some of the problems we face today are compared to the hardship and horrors that young men had to face in the 1st half of the 20th century - to allow us the freedom many now take for granted. That I think, or some variant of it is how most see Anzac Day. It’s a thank you to those who had to risk their lives and sometimes die to achieve that freedom - not a glorification of sacrifice per se.

  2. I think it used to be that, and sometimes still is.

    But having watching both AFL and NRL exploit the commemoration so shamelessly in recent years (where in both commentary and means of commemoration it's especially evident), I fear it's been morphing grotesquely from all the things you said first to the think you deny at the last.

    1. If you've picked that up in the AFL and NRL commemoration you're probably right. And in the sculptures above you are right. That's not surprising I suppose given the general philosophical confusion around the definition of sacrifice, and how it's regarded as a virtue. What you describe may be what comes out from artists, and even event writers when they try to be philosophical - but I don't think it reflects the sentiments of the general population when they respect Anzac Day, who are more down to earth. The more that time passes from those horrors, the more important the youth be reminded of this history - that freedom should not be taken for granted and sometimes has to be fought for. The more that lesson is forgotten, the more likely we'll have to endure those horrors one day again.

    2. Not that either AFL or NRL et al are repositories of these things, of course, but in modern times it seems that's where many most encounter ANZAC -- especially when every damned game in the round starts with another ceremony of commemoration.

  3. I saw your post about this on Facebook. :) This is an issue that greatly interests me, but it’s taken me awhile to congeal my thoughts on it over the past few years.

    You are a bit of a tough nut to crack, Peter. :P I think you offer an overly glum view of ANZAC commemorations, but like most Kiwis you are very critical of NZ, and I suppose that is what helps to keep it nice, so I shouldn’t complain too much. :)

    I’d like to offer a more charitable opposing view. Here is my American-Kiwi perspective. And I apologize in advance for this analysis being US-centric, but I think the contrast is useful.

    The attitude toward war in NZ is markedly different than that in the US. Nobody in NZ is going to say “lest we forget that they died for nothing” because NZ is the most polite country on earth. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the wool is being pulled over Kiwis’ eyes.

    If WWI wasn’t believed to be a worthless sacrifice (a redundancy in terms, I know…), I’m not sure conscientious objection here in NZ would have gone up 4-fold in WWII. Yet it did. NZ was then suckered into other British and American adventures post-WWII, but when one looks at the percentage of the population lost in Vietnam and Korea, it’s minuscule compared to the US. The resistance to send anything but a token level of forces to the Middle East remains an excellent sign.

    Back to ANZAC.

    10% turnout at ANZAC commemorations is astonishing to me (would be less than 1% of the population in the US and would drop to well below 0.000001% if they had to drag their sorry asses out of bed before the crack of dawn)

    30-45 minute wait on a week-end day in *summertime* to get into the Gallipoli display at Te Papa? Again, impressive.

    These figures do not mean NZers glorify war. Everything about said museum display is in stark contrast to any US war memorial. Horrifying depictions of what various munitions do to the human body, lots of pictures of limbless soldiers, and heart-wrenching stories. Larger than life wax figures of humans showing emotions such as sadness, despair, and defeat also would not be shown in the US. It’s an emotionally exhausting exhibit. As it should be.

    After WWI, NZ went to great lengths to rehabilitate and employ its limbless soldiers. Meanwhile the US has gone in the opposite direction. Its veterans now wind up homeless on the street, addicts to a cocktail of a dozen pharmaceuticals to deal with pain and psychological trauma, get shot by cops, or rack up $200k medical bills because of intentional bureaucratic technicalities designed to get Uncle Sam off the financial hook for 70% of the cost, after he chews up lives and spits them out.

  4. What accounts for this? I think the raw numbers have something to do with it. NZ lost roughly 20x as many men as the US as a percentage of its population, in WWI. And in WWII they lost twice as many.

    After that, it appears the population was done. Simply put, it was big enough to hurt really bad, and the mental scars have persisted for many generations. The US hasn’t seen that level of devastation since the Civil War, and the state-run media in the US doesn’t show them the current sacrifices.

    One thing that struck me at Auckland’s war memorial is that on the top floor there are many panels engraved with names of NZ’s war dead. There’s one panel in the middle engraved with something like, “May this panel never be filled.” Yet another thing you’d never see in the US.

    There are a few other clues. Compare the full lyrics of “God Defend New Zealand” to those of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

    NZ is one of the least brutal western nations I know of. I think the fact that so much of its populace was heartlessly offered up as cannon fodder in relatively recent memory by an arrogant empire probably has more than a little to do with it.

    That’s not to say that I have not met some Kiwis who are totally off their rocker with the royalist self-sacrificial BS. I actually have a Kiwi friend who said he would die for the Queen. (Pretty ridiculous.) But I think he’s probably not typical of Kiwis, and his mindset is most likely a result of being shipped off by his parents to be brainwashed in a British boarding school in Hong Kong.

    Despite all of its problems, NZ is a comparatively sane and decent country compared to the rest of the western world, and one that I sense will continue to remain so for some time. I’m very grateful to live here.


1. Comments are welcome and encouraged.
2. Comments are moderated. Gibberish, spam & off-topic grandstanding will be removed. Tu quoque will be moderated. Links to bogus news sites (and worse) will be deleted.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say it, it's important enough to put a name to it.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.