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.