This article was first published on on Friday 21 April 2023

The Last Post ringing out in the still air as dawn breaks is the most poignant minute of ANZAC Day dawn services, which will be held around the country on 25 April. It unites the past and present. It unites us as kiwis as we remember those who sacrificed their livelihoods and lives for our peace and freedom. It unites us in thinking of the future.

ANZAC Day is the public holiday that best speaks to me of New Zealand’s nationhood and identity. Other’s will disagree – as is their right – citing Waitangi Day or our new public holiday of Matariki as more appropriate when considering our nation’s history.  But these things are personal and to me ANZAC Day brings New Zealand’s Māori and Pakeha cultures together through remembrance, unity, identity (our place in the world) and recognition of service to our country. In a world where division and disruption are rife, these values are important.

On ANZAC Day, New Zealand and Australia pay tribute to defence force personnel who made sacrifices in the course of duty. It serves as a reminder of the tragedy of war, of conflicts and peacekeeping missions around the world. It is the day we remember to be grateful for the relative peace and freedom we enjoy because our forebears fought and died for a better world.

That better world is sometimes hard to see. War in the Ukraine, civil unrest through much of Africa and elsewhere, shenanigans in the South China Sea are all other people’s conflicts, but they impact our lives in a variety of ways and prevent our free passage around the world. They are a reminder that peace and freedom are a fragile thread that must be constantly guarded and guided. Since 2020 the thread of freedom has been broken across the entire world by a micro-organism. The front line in the war against COVID has been healthcare workers and emergency services, but the consequences of death and restrictions to our movements and associations impinge our lives in similar ways.

In 2018 we commemorated not only ANZAC Day but one hundred years since the end of WWI. We had no idea then that it would be three years until New Zealanders could gather together at an ANZAC Day parade, first because of a rogue shooter in Christchurch, then the COVID virus. The future is unpredictable and often perilous. So how can we best prepare for whatever comes next and ensure we don’t relinquish the freedom and safety that allows us to gather in groups, travel to see family and friends and speak without fear?

This whakataukī or proverb is a good place to start:

     Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua: ‘I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past’.             

Learning the lessons of history is easier said than done. We often forget it was one lone shooter who created the spark that caused WWI. Oppressive economic sanctions between countries created the environment in which WWII and numerous other conflicts arose. Today similar events are in the news every day, but are we any better prepared for the future, or have we forgotten the lessons of the past and just sleep-walking our way forward in time?

On ANZAC Day we commemorate the bravery and dedication of our forebears when they went off to war to fight in defence of freedom. Actually, we were lucky. We’ve long since forgotten  both Australia and New Zealand were hopelessly unprepared to enter into war in 1914 and 1939. We were lucky to have powerful friends.

When our soldiers, sailors and airmen returned from the two World Wars they would have encouraged future generations to promote peace and understanding by strengthening our international relationships. Shared history and values with Australia should be built on to strengthen ties with other nations who share our commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights. They would have asked us to support our veterans, ensuring they can access the assistance they need to thrive after their service ends. They would have asked us to work towards a society that is more just and equitable for all. And they would have asked us to learn from the mistakes of their time to build a strong and prosperous future for all New Zealanders. I know this because it is the same asked of us by our returning contemporary veterans, those who have served since WWII and continue to do so today.

My small contribution to remembrance on ANZAC Day will be joining other members of the volunteer organisation, The New Zealand Remembrance Army, to clean headstones and bronze plaques of former military personnel in my local cemetery. We have a rich history and like the wise words of the whakataukī, New Zealand’s decision makers should carry our past into the future.

Kei Wareware Tātou, Lest we forget