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On the glorious dead

Written By: - Date published: 11:00 am, April 26th, 2011 - 12 comments
Categories: war - Tags: ,

It seems to me that as the years roll on and there are fewer and fewer veterans of the World Wars left, our involvement in those wars is becoming glorified into the basis of a national myth: ‘our heroes’ noble sacrifice for us’, which is some distance from the reality . So I was pleasantly surprised by the documentary on TV1 on Friday night.

I can’t find its name, but it was basically a guy recounting his experiences as a member of the New Zealand 2nd Division in World War 2.

His war experiences weren’t exactly Boy’s Own material.

Arriving in Egypt too late for the battles of Greece and Crete, the first duty he had was looking after Italian prisoners, whom he liked. The first action he had was a night bayonet charge against a German position, which turned out to be empty. He was then part of a New Zealand force which held a crucial high-point until German panzers surrounded it and the outgunned Kiwis surrendered. A POW after three weeks. As a prisoner, the ship taking him to Italy was torpedoed by the Allies. He survived and spent the war on working on a farm until the Italian surrender, at which time he went to Switzerland and stayed there a year until the Allied advance got to the Swiss border. Then he went home.

I quite like this story. There’s no real heroism. He mostly got along with the Italians very well and every time he encountered a German he and his mates were in no position to fight – they either surrendered or snuck past.

So, he doesn’t look back on the war as a time of noble sacrifice, by him or by other Kiwi soldiers. It was all a waste in which he and his mates weren’t heroes but small, expendable parts in a machine grinding against another machine.

He said of the Army hierarchy: ‘They didn’t care about anything except that it wasn’t them being killed. We enlisted men, we were just numbers to them.’

That reminds me of Lenin’s saying: A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends

And on ANZAC Day the old soldier said: ‘No, I don’t go in for any of those parades. If I want to remember those days, and especially the mates I lost, I don’t need a special day to do it’

I think there’s a danger that as time goes on, we forget what an utter waste of time, resources, and life war is. Until the 90s, ANZAC Day was a quiet, increasingly quiet, affair mainly for the veterans. People remembered war more directly.

Now, following the Australian lead, it has been mythologised into nationalism. There is an increasing jingoism to the media coverage. We are meant to be proud of our little country and sneer at the British Generals who wasted the lives of our soldiers (all good for the national identity), yet we are also meant to be proud of the sacrifice these soldiers made. Is it something to be proud of? That brave lads were killed (sorry, ‘sacrificed their lives’) over what was basically a scrap between Queen Victoria’s spoiled, stupid grandchildren? Is there anything glorious about this?

Take the liberation of Le Quesnoy on November 4 1918 that Key has been commemorating. If there had been no Kiwi attack on Le Quesnoy it would be been liberated by the Armistice seven days later and 122 men would have been alive. Ordering an attack on a fortified town when the Germans were already entreating for peace was a criminal waste of lives, not something glorious.

And, yet, it seems to me that with every passing year we are glorifying the dead more and more. We pretend they died for something noble and heroic. We pretend that they died for us and this future, not because of stupid, greedy, and evil politicians used them as pawns. We do it because it helps us create the stereotypical national myth: wronged in the past but exceptional and strong, worshipful of our martyrs who died for us and ready to sacrifice again in the future.

I think of the story Mike told us yesterday of his uncles. Brave men thrown into the meat-grinder of World War 2. They shouldn’t have had to fight and die, and calling them heroes doesn’t make their deaths OK. Yes, we had to fight but it’s not something to glorify. It was a waste. A waste of human lives and potential.

To put yourself in harm’s way takes guts but to kill and be killed isn’t noble. It a sometimes necessary evil and more often an unnecessary evil.

The best thing we can do is not create a national myth around our ‘fallen heroes’ but make sure we don’t send more to the same fate in the future.

12 comments on “On the glorious dead ”

  1. Zorr 1

    But… but… Eddie… if the Germans had won we would be speaking a different language…!  

    War is a waste but human life is also overvalued. The issue, lately, is that the wars we wage no longer affects the populace that supports the army so the only people suffering are those involved in the conflict. How easy is it to sit back and support a war if you aren’t facing conscription and are still getting tax cuts?  

    It would be nice to think that humanity could reach a point where war was no longer a dynamic but my feeling on that is it is as realistic as infinite oil in a finite world. We need to ensure that we only enter conflicts where we have a vested interest and that we are willing to sacrifice for.

    War isn’t heroic, it is a sacrifice.

    • odysseus 1.1

      I think what you were watching was Gaylene Preston’s ” Home by Xmas” – based on the experiences of her father. And her father was relating his experiences of WW2.

      It is important though to distinguish between the mytholgising of the 2 world wars. WW1 was a scrap between imperial powers, it was a waste of life and soul, the main sequel to it being the setting of the scene  for WW2.

      But WW2 is completely different. My father fought in that war and it a clear ideological decision on his part and some of those around him to do so. That is, to fight for a better world, a civilised world free of of the extreme barbarism of fascism.

      So Eddie, I don’t see that has a waste of human life at all; a tragedy yes, but we all  know ( or at least we should ) what the alternative world would have been. A permanent death camp for those on the outer.

      Good film though !

      • William Joyce 1.1.1

        Good distinction between wars.
        I had one grandfather who left small town NZ for Gallipoli to fight in a war between empires about who was boss. No glory for him just mental and emotional scars.
        For my other grandfather, while he was fighting for NZ in the second war against the country of his father’s birth, his own cousins were being disposed of in the best way that German industry could provide.
        So, I don’t accept the idea “All war bad, all peace good”.
        Nor do I subscribe to the “enlightened” idea that humans can and will move beyond war – we can aspire to being noble but, as the German’s showed us in the camps, centuries of civility disappear and we resort to our old tribal and primitive origins when there is not enough  bread to go around.

        • Colonial Viper

          as the German’s showed us in the camps, centuries of civility disappear and we resort to our old tribal and primitive origins when there is not enough  bread to go around.

          Or when a ruling class needs a scapegoat or underclass upon which to leverage their own agendas.
          Since it seems to me that by the late 1930’s Germany was back on its feet economically and there was enough bread (food) to go around the population.

          • William Joyce

            CV, I take your point on the role of scapegoats.
            I was referring to the dehumanisation process that the victims of the Nazi regime went through. They became de-humanised – all the trappings of culture, identity,education, jobs, family, rights, expectations etc are removed and you are transported to a world where you have no name, the “rules of the world” no longer apply, death is dealt out arbitrarily and your value is only one step away from fertiliser.
            In that world, it doesn’t matter how civilised you are, what your education is, what role in society you once had. You have been reduced to an organism that, in order to survive, must kill for that one piece of bread.
            That’s the acid test of our being “civilised” – will we kill for scarce resources?
            Hence my argument about war – what will happen when clean water becomes scarce? Look at the current wars to guarantee oil supply – Iraq, Libya etc.

        • Draco T Bastard

          Nor do I subscribe to the “enlightened” idea that humans can and will move beyond war

          I’m pretty sure we will – it’s evolution. It’s just going to take awhile.

          • William Joyce

            That’s what we hope for.
            But whether we can evolve beyond war has been the subject of much debate and sci-fi literature.
            If we evolve beyond our tendencies for greed, tribalism, irrational hatred etc to create a world of peace then all it takes to destroy that world is for a random mutant gene to produce war like humans in sufficient quantity that natural selection kicks in and all the peace lovers are impaled on spikes in their millions.

  2. The point of Lenin’s comment on the bayonet was that it needed to be turned so that a boss and not a worker was on the sharp end. We need to say no workers to fight in bosses wars. The only just war is the class war.

  3. Colonial Viper 3

    Its been a continuing trend in an America unwilling to face up to their deep seated financial, political and economic problems directly.

    That is, to rely on patriotic and nationalistic imagery and jingoism to carry the day and to prevent any real examination of what is happening. Criticise the war in Afghanistan? No way you gotta be patriotic to our servicemen and women!

    Is NZ today the generous, compassionate, plentiful NZ that our WWII veterans dreamed of for their grandchildren and great grandchildren?

    Bet you its frakin’ not.

  4. I’ve had similar thoughts to Eddie.

    WWII is always seen as the exception to the rule (that wars are primarily about economic and resource issues). By the time Hitler was entering Poland he needed to be confronted. But, why wasn’t he confronted much earlier

    In Britain it was a National government that presided but which was overwhelmingly stocked with Tories. A government full of wealthy men who were, to say the least, ambivalent about the resurgence of Germany economically. Many, like Chamberlain, thought the Treaty of Versailles was too unfair on Germany. Also, the desire for empire was seen as perfectly legitimate (given their own, somewhat broken, empires) and not an unconscionable demand for a European state to make. 

    Far from the ‘appeasers’ being a bunch of lily-livered pacifists (I don’t think anyone could accuse any British Tory of that!) the calculation was one based on economic opportunities and the fear of Soviet communism spreadingversus the – perhaps unpleasant but bearable – attack Hitler progressively mounted in Germany on human rights and, specifically, Jews, Communists, the disabled, Gypsies, etc.. There may have been some consideration of ‘war-weariness’ but these were not sentimental men for the most part. Even Churchill was relatively ok about the appeasement policy until part way through 1938.

    By contrast, Labour ousted the pacifist Lansbury in 1935 and opposed appeasement by 1937 – partly because of the belief that appeasement was a disguised way of re-arming Germany as a bulwark against communism. (In much the same way, the West has repeatedly ‘appeased’ dictators since then in the hope that it would prevent the spread of the red scourge, inconvenient nationalism and the like.)

    That so many people ended up having to be thrown under the fascist war machines was, sadly, yet another example of how our leaders make these decisions on the application of the wrong criteria (i.e., nothing to do with freedom, democracy, human rights, ‘our values’, etc.).

  5. Carol 5

    The best thing we can do is not create a national myth around our  ‘fallen heroes’ but make sure we don’t send more to the same fate in the  future.

    Yes, it seems to me that it is a pretty recent thing to gloriy ANZAC Day & to relate it to national identity.  I remember the protests in the 70s. when it the use of the day to glorify war was challenged.

    Anzac Day was caught up in the protest movements of the 1960s and  1970s, especially around issues of peace and women’s rights. In 1967  members of the left-wing Progressive Youth Movement in Christchurch laid  a wreath protesting against the Vietnam War. They were later convicted  of disorderly behaviour, but a pattern was set. Similar incidents  occurred at subsequent Anzac Days as protestors tried to bring attention  to their anti-war cause.<

    Anti-war protests at Anzac Day largely died out in the mid-1970s with  the end of the Vietnam War. New controversy erupted in 1978 when a  women\’s group laid a wreath in memory of women killed and raped in war.  Other lobby groups – feminists, gays, anti-nuclear and peace protestors,  and Maori activists – laid wreathes at Anzac Day services during the  1980s.

    The day had become more than a commemoration of New Zealand war dead  and war service; it was being used to make statements about war and  society.


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