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ANZAC Day: Red poppies, militarism and the RSA

ANZAC Day: Red poppies, militarism and the RSA

by Anne Russell
April 24, 2012

Every Friday before ANZAC Day, the Returned Services Association organises volunteers to walk the streets selling red poppies for charity. Last year Red Poppy Day collected $1.7 million nationwide, a figure that dwarfs the collections of many other non-governmental organisations’ annual appeals. Enthusiasm for donating to retired soldiers clearly runs high in New Zealand; unusually so for a country that employs only 11,891 soldiers in total as of 2011. I began to wonder why, and exactly who benefits from Poppy Day collections.

People are aware that Poppy Day collectors come from the RSA, but are not always aware of the details of the connection. The RSA was formed in 1916 after the failed Gallipoli campaign, as a support group for soldiers, many (though not all) of whom had been conscripted. They were essentially the army’s union, fighting for better working conditions, pay and ‘repatriation’ (later known as rehabilitation into civilian society). The RSA performed necessary advocacy for a group of people who were thrown in into violence with or without their consent.

Poppy Day began in 1922 to help raise funds for the RSA, and directed three quarters of its proceeds towards unemployment relief for returned veterans. The RSA also used money to participate in a conference in Cape Town in 1920, whose delegates supported the recently-formed League of Nations, the first international organisation created to promote negotiation over armed conflict. The RSA, it seems, had some commitment to promoting and sustaining peace. The levels of commitment to this ideal have been rather variable over the RSA’s history.

To find out exactly what Poppy Day funds go to in the 21st century, I went to ANZAC House on Willis St and interviewed Stephen Clarke, the CEO of the RSA. “It goes towards veterans and ex-servicemen and women and their dependents that are in need,” he said. “Out in the community we’ve got 30,000-50,000 veterans—there hasn’t been a census taken on it since the 1970s so we’re not quite sure of that total number.” Peculiar, when the CEO of an organisation is unsure exactly whether they're collecting for just 30,000 or nearly double that number. The oldest veterans are in their 80s or 90s, from wars like WWII and the Korean War. “The RSA’s work involves visiting veterans in homes and hospitals, taking small food parcels, getting glasses and hearing aids and operations, but it’s also around home maintenance, and just really generally helping them out and ensuring that they’re not isolated in the community. That’s done by a volunteer network; the poppy supports the direct assistance to those people,” says Clarke.

One might wonder why military veterans in particular need more social care and advocacy than people in other professions. It’s arguable that they did back when conscription was in place; citizens then were being singled out by the state to face and engage in violence simply for being male and over 18. This violence to conscripts could be seen as discrimination similar to women being subjected to violence, something that our society largely tolerates. The point common to both groups is that their consent (or lack thereof) to being involved in violence was treated as irrelevant.

Not so now. The army no longer contains ordinary civilians there by chance; these soldiers have all chosen to be professionally trained in combat. Moreover, while it is not encouraged, soldiers are allowed to refuse deployment to certain areas. The question of conscientious objection is thus no longer particularly relevant; those who ‘conscientiously object’ can not join the army in the first place, or leave. While many uphold the ideals of going into the armed forces, an important incentive for many lies in the considerable financial benefits it offers. The military budget for the year 2011/12 was $3,398,400,000—remember, for a workforce that forms a relatively small percentage of the population—compared to the housing sector’s $997,700,000. Army recruits receive a salary of $31,894, and overall officer pay reaches heights of $93,222. While this may not sound like much, bear in mind this pay comes after accommodation, food and clothing, which is already provided (admittedly, at the expense of autonomy of living quarters). Moreover, the military is the only profession in the country that guarantees its members access to free university education.

Why then do we donate so much to retirees who were already, in many ways, richer than the rest of us can ever hope to be? I believe the central reason Poppy Day collections are so popular is the ongoing perception of the military as being somehow separate from other kinds of work. Military service is noble; it has a great and tragic history; it helps guard national security; it involves high risk and trauma, and so forth. But none of these categories are exclusive to serving in the military.

Let’s examine other examples of employment necessary for our country to function. Entering the mining industry arguably poses a higher risk of life than the military—compare the military’s five casualties in Afghanistan over a decade to Pike River Mine’s 29 deaths in one day, not to mention the overall health risks involved in mining. A profession like stay-at-home parenting also has a long historical record of safeguarding national security (can you imagine the societal pandemonium if such a workforce went on strike even for a day?) And yet although many conservatives wax lyrical about the nobility of parenthood, economic policy discourages the practice. Social workers or mental health advocates are employed by the state just like the military, and willingly engage in difficult work that may bring about some personal trauma. Ex-social workers, however, do not rake in millions for their subsequent care on annual collection days.

Many of these professions, however, at least have the advantage of belonging to a union. Unusually among formally recognised professions, the NZDF does not have an official union and is not covered by usual employment law. I would be happy to donate money towards providing an official union for the NZDF, although I do not agree with its activities. Every individual deserves to have their human rights upheld within whatever job they do, even if the job itself is undesirable. However, the RSA is not strictly involved in a union-providing capacity for the NZDF, nor are they agitating for the establishment of one. Of the 5,000 new members of the RSA last year, 300 were returned soldiers, 650 were in service, and 4,050 were ‘associates’.

Although such membership does not render the RSA representative of the current military overall, they are arguably better placed than many NGOs to advocate for soldiers’ rights. But a collective that advocated for the rights of those who had suffered trauma (going to war, of course, is not a cakewalk) would presumably want to see that trauma end. Most feminists, for example, would be thrilled if women became equal and their work became redundant. However, the RSA has helped create conditions wherein their services would still be required; they worked closely with the government to re-introduce conscription in 1949. In response to my question on this, Clarke put forward the usual position of military advocates: that war is horrible, but sometimes necessary. “The last thing [WWII veterans] wanted to do was to send their sons to another world war, but there was that sense of commitment to national security.”

Would the RSA prefer if violence were rendered unnecessary? Clarke seemed edgy about providing a firm position on war. This is partly because the RSA professes to be a non-political organisation. When asked about the RSA’s position on the ideological battle of the War on Terror, Clarke told me the subject had never really come up. “It’s so focused on the individual impact on those that serve. Its policy would be that it supports the New Zealand government’s decisions around the defence, and to ensure that the serving personnel are not unnecessarily put in harm’s way in the sense of not having tools and support,” he said. But having an official position of not commenting on a political issue is a political position in itself, especially when political decisions to place military personnel in harm's way are involved. Other advocacy groups protest when a government takes action that puts their workers in danger; the Public Service Association, for example, speaks out when government policy deprives their members of support. The stakes of the RSA’s beneficiaries are much higher; governmental decisions to send troops to war may well deprive them of their lives If the RSA lets this happen without comment, they have arguably failed in their duty as an advocacy group.

If the donations from Poppy Day fail to help safeguard the future wellbeing of New Zealanders, there’s little chance of it producing tangible results for those in foreign countries. In all likelihood, the actions of our soldiers may harm civilians either directly or indirectly by tacitly supporting foreign colleagues who commit atrocities. This is war we’re talking about here, after all. Clarke made a few concessions to this. “The RSA have a great deal of sympathy for civilian populations…that have been impacted in war zones, and have no problem around raising funds for that impact,” he said. He told me the RSA supports the Red Cross, for example. However, no funds from Poppy Day are directed towards making reparations abroad.

Red Poppy Day, then, is not really utilised for promoting pacifism. White Poppy collection, on the other hand, is. The White Poppies for Peace campaign, organised by Peace Movement Aotearoa, sprung up in New Zealand in 2009. It presents itself as an alternative to the red poppies collection, but states that it can also be seen as complementary. The proceeds go to the White Poppy Peace Scholarships, which assist with research into militarism, warfare and non-violent collectives. At least one scholarship is given to a Maori student. In 2011, the scholarships went to Audrey Wong, whose Masters degree is titled “Gender-Based Violence during Military Presence and Occupation: A Case Study of Timor-Leste 1974 to 2010”, and Karly Christ’s Masters degree “Maihe Koe? Kihe Koe? Rapa Nui women, land and the struggle for sovereignty”. Unlike the RSA, who this year have moved their poppy manufacturing from New Zealand to China, white poppies are manufactured by the Peace Pledge Union in Britain, pending finding someone to make them in New Zealand.

Critics of White Poppies for Peace, including Clarke, resent its proximity to the Red Poppy collection; perhaps Peace Movement Aotearoa could denounce war on another occasion. But far from being antithetical to ANZAC fundraising, anti-war ideals should form an intrinsic part of Anzac Day proceedings. To most military historians, the Gallipoli campaign is to be regarded as a resounding failure, a tactical blunder that cost many New Zealand lives. Anti-war activists are there to remind us of the often terrible outcomes of putting lives in the hands of unscrupulous politicians and incompetent military officials, lest we forget. ANZAC Day is the perfect time to have an open discussion about war, and arguably pacifist views are just as important as those of military supporters. Attempting to silence anti-war activists to the point of pursuing legal action against them is, as David Lange put it, “to take the moral position of totalitarianism…which is exactly the evil that we are supposed to be fighting against”, theoretically something that our army in the past went abroad to oppose.

Many who do not support war may nevertheless object to anti-war activism on ANZAC Day. The occasion is, by some definitions, meant to honour those whose lives were taken in war, and such activism is often perceived as denigrating the troops themselves. But giving support to someone does not necessarily mean approving everything they do without question. Rather, support often involves directing a person away from behaviour that harms themselves and/or others. Seeing as going to war involves harmful behaviour—at times we are talking about rape and murder here, not to mince words—to denounce war is to support the troops. Demanding that our government stops employing people to perpetrate and/or receive violence is part of supporting the troops. In a global sense, working to throw out a political and financial system in which weapons manufacture and trade, not to mention forcible oil acquisition, is good for the economy is part of supporting the troops.

Clarke said the RSA “are there to welcome [the troops] back and make sure they are rehabilitated into society, and for the rest of their lives that we’re there to support them in whatever way that might provide.” Much of the RSA’s current work is pragmatically directed within existing systems. “They’re currently advocating for a rewrite of the War Pensions Act, which hasn’t been rewritten since 1954. We continue to advocate for the service personnel both in and out of uniform,” says Clarke. The Act could certainly do with updating; the idea of a war widow’s pension seems anachronistic when women can a) have their own income and b) serve in the military themselves. But again, why do the military need a separate pension to everyone else? Road workers do not get a special construction pension on retirement, nor do foreign humanitarian workers (and their widow/ers) receive a special NGO benefit. Although war veterans may require assistance with war-induced physical and mental problems, such trauma—PTSD for example—is not exclusive to military service. The necessary medical assistance for military should be handled through the same healthcare systems as everyone else has, albeit with the specialist training required for dealing with people from any particular vocation.

In light of all this, giving charity to the NZDF may be a little redundant. But the RSA is a charitable organisation, something that does not necessarily denote charity itself. The word originates from the Latin ‘caritas’, which in Christian theology became the translation of the Greek word ‘agape’, meaning ‘brotherly love’. However, contemporary usage often refers to the practice of giving money to voluntary groups which rely on public donations to survive. A voluntary organisation that endorses or condones violence of any kind ultimately is not one that promotes the concept of charity. Although the RSA has helped many victims of violence, work to eliminate future violence is not its prominent feature.

If funds from Poppy Day go to veterans regardless of whether they have voluntarily perpetrated violence, donating may result in directing funds away from the concept of charity itself. The RSA, so Stephen Clarke told me, takes no official policy or position on war crimes committed or condoned by the NZDF. Veterans reading this may be outraged, and suspect that I am levelling a blanket accusation of heinous war crimes against them all. I am not; many veterans sign up for the army from a genuine desire to protect their country from perceived threats, display admirable conduct in the field, and contribute to humanitarian work. However, some ex-officers helped by the RSA may have committed rape and murder abroad. So until the RSA explicitly encourages investigation of the war crimes of some of their beneficiaries, the charity will assist the impunity of rapists and murderers simply because they have chosen a particular profession in which to carry out such activities. We do not openly say “Thou shalt not kill unless in uniform”.

No matter if we’re discussing the RSA, the Red Cross, Oxfam or Kony 2012, I strongly urge everyone to thoroughly examine each charitable organisation before donating to it. Charity does not mean passing money along to someone who appears to have good intentions. It is at least necessary to place several checks and balances to ensure that those using money spend it well, and work to end all forms of oppression against everyone, rather than a select few.


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