Fight to keep wars in history

My grandfather was a kid of 20 when he signed up for the war to end all wars.

Smartly married off to a decent young woman, he left her pregnant with my dad, who in his turn fought with Britain in World War II. All wars were ended for just 25 years, long enough to grow a fresh crop of men to sacrifice.

We'll hear a lot about World War I this year, but it's hard to imagine the state of mind needed to willingly fight for empire. You could start with old Chums annuals, which lay about many Edwardian households for bored Sunday reading.

Within their pages a handful of noble British lads, lovingly pictured in pen and ink, typically outwit legions of angry natives while casually shooting marauding tigers, or single-handedly capture crooks – usually foreigners with funny accents – making off with the family silver.

It was glorious to be part of the British Empire, you gather, and going to war, and if you were lucky you'd come home again with all your arms and legs, neither blind nor deaf, nor bonkers from shell shock. Then you were expected to forget. History moves briskly on.

The sacrifices made by Anzac troops in World War I (62,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders lost) were slowly erased from the minds of younger New Zealanders, and faded in political memory.

Young men like my grandfather were no longer needed to fire the big guns in France, and the European Union became more attractive to the seat of the old empire. Now there's an issue of how we'll be acknowledged in Britain's commemorations this year for the start of the war.

We've been reassured that we'll get a pat on the back, and I hope that's true. But I have the impression that we could have been deftly sidelined if it weren't for stroppy reporters in Britain asking why there were no events planned to mark the Anzacs' contribution. British Culture Secretary Maria Miller has been slammed for instead choosing to highlight the sacrifices made by Asian and African Commonwealth countries: A new multicultural Britain likes the look of that better, and for her government it's probably better spin.

The issue here isn't who sacrificed the most, or has the deepest suntan. It's about how history is endless rewrites and deletions. We used to aspire to being what historian James Belich has called a "Better Britain", but now we're just a very small country near Antarctica that burbles about becoming a republic and getting a new flag.

We've made a national legend out of Gallipoli, the Anzacs' heroism there eclipsing the stupidity of British military strategy, but I doubt that legend resonates much in Britain. We trace our ancestry, even our surnames, to its towns and villages, but we're no longer welcome to live there.

In the long shadow of World War II we heard about Japanese cruelty in the Pacific, and the Japanese were often the bad guys in playground games.

Emphasis has shifted, if the schools my kids went to are an indication, to regretting being among the victors in World War II, thereby sharing guilt for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meanwhile people who remember what the Bridge on the River Kwai was all about are fast disappearing.

I've outgrown playground games, and I think Japan is delightful. But for all that, I was taken aback briefly when I came across what my translator told me was a memorial to Japanese soldiers of the Pacific War. You can forget that both sides have heroes.

This wasn't the Yasukuni Shrine where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently paid homage. That shrine is a memorial to all Japanese involved in Japan's wars from 1867 to 1951, including war criminals. China's ambassador to New Zealand, Wang Lutong, has spoken out against this gesture being an implied shift in Japanese policy.

It would be great if we – all countries – could just forget and forgive last century's wars, but that's impossible.

Vague as our own memories may become, we should make sure we get the credit for what other New Zealanders did because they thought it was right. All old soldiers are owed that much

The Dominion Post