web analytics

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 1.1.1.1

          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 1.1.1.1.1

            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 1.1.1.2

          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 1.1.1.2.1

            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.

    http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/modern-anzac-day

     
    Still having problems getting the anti-spam word recognised, even when I refresh before commenting.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

  • Worsening housing crisis must prompt action
    A growing public housing waiting list and continued increase of house prices must be urgently addressed by Government, Green Party Co-leader Marama Davidson said today. ...
    16 hours ago
  • Twenty highlights of 2020
    As we welcome in the new year, our focus is on continuing to keep New Zealanders safe and moving forward with our economic recovery. There’s a lot to get on with, but before we say a final goodbye to 2020, here’s a quick look back at some of the milestones ...
    3 weeks ago

  • Jobs for Nature funding will create training and employment opportunities
    A major investment to tackle wilding pines in Mt Richmond will create jobs and help protect the area’s unique ecosystems, Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor says. The Mt Richmond Forest Park has unique ecosystems developed on mineral-rich geology, including taonga plant species found nowhere else in the country. “These special plant ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 days ago
  • Pre-departure testing extended to all passengers to New Zealand
    To further protect New Zealand from COVID-19, the Government is extending pre-departure testing to all passengers to New Zealand except from Australia, Antarctica and most Pacific Islands, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said today. “The change will come into force for all flights arriving in New Zealand after 11:59pm (NZT) on Monday ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 days ago
  • Bay Cadets learn skills to protect environment
    Bay Conservation Cadets launched with first intake Supported with $3.5 million grant Part of $1.245b Jobs for Nature programme to accelerate recover from Covid Cadets will learn skills to protect and enhance environment Environment Minister David Parker today welcomed the first intake of cadets at the launch of the Bay ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 days ago
  • Cook Islanders to resume travel to New Zealand
    The Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern and the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands Mark Brown have announced passengers from the Cook Islands can resume quarantine-free travel into New Zealand from 21 January, enabling access to essential services such as health. “Following confirmation of the Cook Islands’ COVID ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    6 days ago
  • Supporting communities and landowners to grow employment opportunities
    Jobs for Nature funding is being made available to conservation groups and landowners to employ staff and contractors in a move aimed at boosting local biodiversity-focused projects, Conservation Minister Kiritapu Allan has announced. It is estimated some 400-plus jobs will be created with employment opportunities in ecology, restoration, trapping, ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    7 days ago
  • Border exception for some returning international tertiary students
    The Government has approved an exception class for 1000 international tertiary students, degree level and above, who began their study in New Zealand but were caught offshore when border restrictions began. The exception will allow students to return to New Zealand in stages from April 2021. “Our top priority continues ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    7 days ago
  • Tiwai deal gives time for managed transition
    Today’s deal between Meridian and Rio Tinto for the Tiwai smelter to remain open another four years provides time for a managed transition for Southland. “The deal provides welcome certainty to the Southland community by protecting jobs and incomes as the region plans for the future. The Government is committed ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    7 days ago
  • New member for APEC Business Advisory Council
    Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has appointed Anna Curzon to the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC). The leader of each APEC economy appoints three private sector representatives to ABAC. ABAC provides advice to leaders annually on business priorities. “ABAC helps ensure that APEC’s work programme is informed by business community perspectives ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    1 week ago
  • Govt’s careful economic management recognised
    The Government’s prudent fiscal management and strong policy programme in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic have been acknowledged by the credit rating agency Fitch. Fitch has today affirmed New Zealand’s local currency rating at AA+ with a stable outlook and foreign currency rating at AA with a positive ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    1 week ago
  • Additional actions to keep COVID-19 out of NZ
    The Government is putting in place a suite of additional actions to protect New Zealand from COVID-19, including new emerging variants, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said today. “Given the high rates of infection in many countries and evidence of the global spread of more transmissible variants, it’s clear that ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    1 week ago
  • 19 projects will clean up and protect waterways
    $36 million of Government funding alongside councils and others for 19 projects Investment will clean up and protect waterways and create local jobs Boots on the ground expected in Q2 of 2021 Funding part of the Jobs for Nature policy package A package of 19 projects will help clean up ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago
  • New Zealand Government acknowledges 175th anniversary of Battle of Ruapekapeka
    The commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Ruapekapeka represents an opportunity for all New Zealanders to reflect on the role these conflicts have had in creating our modern nation, says Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Kiri Allan. “The Battle at Te Ruapekapeka Pā, which took ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago
  • Better care for babies with tongue-tie
    Babies born with tongue-tie will be assessed and treated consistently under new guidelines released by the Ministry of Health, Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall announced today. Around 5% to 10% of babies are born with a tongue-tie, or ankyloglossia, in New Zealand each year. At least half can ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago
  • Prisoner disorder event at Waikeria Prison over
    The prisoner disorder event at Waikeria Prison is over, with all remaining prisoners now safely and securely detained, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis says. The majority of those involved in the event are members of the Mongols and Comancheros. Five of the men are deportees from Australia, with three subject to ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago
  • Pre-departure COVID-19 test for travellers from the UK and the US from 15 January
    Travellers from the United Kingdom or the United States bound for New Zealand will be required to get a negative test result for COVID-19 before departing, and work is underway to extend the requirement to other long haul flights to New Zealand, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed today. “The new PCR test requirement, foreshadowed last ...
    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    3 weeks ago