On the brink of WWI overload

New Zealand Army reserve soldier Adam Friend carries the regimental sword used by Colonel Cyprian Brereton into the hall ...
Martin de Ruyter

New Zealand Army reserve soldier Adam Friend carries the regimental sword used by Colonel Cyprian Brereton into the hall at Nelson College for the launch of the 2nd edition of Brereton's book, Tales of Three Campaigns.

OPINION: 

Have we reached the point of peak poppy?

With a fortnight to go before Anzac Day, I'm already up to my eyeballs in the centennial commemoration of the Gallipoli landings.

In this week's Tasman Leader, we had six Anzac-related stories and I had to delay a seventh, explaining to the organisers of the Histrionics Gallipoli re-enactment at the Motueka Museum that news of their fine show would get overwhelmed this week and we'd do it justice next week.

A Tri-Service vigil watches over the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Anzac Day services in 2011.
nzdefenceforce / Flickr

A Tri-Service vigil watches over the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Anzac Day services in 2011.

Since I cover the Motueka Anzac service every year and am involved with reporting many other Anzac related stories, I'm more susceptible than most to poppy overload – I don't have the luxury of tuning out.

My concern is that the steady stream of Anzac coverage is sending us the wrong message. The tidy symbolism and euphemisms of the way we pay homage to the soldiers of WWI risks glorifying and sanitising the reality of war and our focus on the events of 100 years ago blinds us to the realities of war now.

It seems perverse that much more ink has been spilled over Gallipoli than our Government's decision, without any public debate, to send soldiers into the war zone of Iraq this year.

I'm not glossing over the horrors of WWI or its importance to our history but I wonder if in all our respect and honour, we have missed the lesson of WWI. New Zealand is said to have come of age as a nation in WWI because it was a cause that united the country. The enthusiasm for volunteering is well documented: of the 250,000 men eligible to volunteer (out of a total population of just over 1 million), 120,000 did so.

In some small towns, such as Ngatimoti, almost all eligible men volunteered, leaving their towns bereft of working age men. Half of all men between 20 and 40 went to war and one-fifth of that population died in the war. But when news of the poorly-planned and disastrous Gallipoli campaign began to filter back to New Zealand, that enthusiasm dried up, and with fewer volunteers, conscription was introduced in 1916.

The story we tell ourselves about Gallipoli is that the Anzac forces fought bravely in terrible conditions, and in doing so, established a reputation of which we should be proud. And so we should. But the other part of the story that is buried under millions of symbolic poppies is that those soldiers fought for nothing. The campaign was abandoned, the surviving soldiers evacuated, and in strategic terms, the deaths of 2779 New Zealanders and more than 8700 Australians, among Allied deaths of 44,000 and 87,000 from the Ottoman Empire, made barely any difference to the war's outcome.

Nor was there any real point to New Zealand joining the war in the first place. The country's sovereignty was not seriously threatened, it faced no dangers, and the main objective of sending troops was to demonstrate our commitment to our colonial superiors. Or as we express it these days, to show we are "part of the club".

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In commemoration we use words like fallen, sacrifice and service instead of killed, starved and diseased. We list the names of the dead on 500 cenotaphs and statues dotted in every small town in the country but we overlook that for every one of the 18,000 who died as a result of WWI, another two were maimed and injured.

When you consider that each of those memorials can be seen as representing not just the fifth of the soldiers who died but also the two-fifths who were injured and the remaining two-fifths who returned from war as profoundly changed men, it shows the incredible depth of the impact of WWI on New Zealand. Everybody would have known someone on the Western Front, where the horrors and scale of war far outstripped even Gallipoli.

But now our armed forces, which number about 7000 uniformed personnel, represent just 0.15 per cent of the population. Aside from perhaps a glimpse of a uniformed firing party at a dawn service, many New Zealanders have no connection with the military at all. That is a testament to the relative peace our tiny, geographically isolated nation enjoys. But I fear it is also a testament to the fact that we pay little attention to our military because we have few personal connection.

As James Fallows argued recently in an Atlantic cover story, the failures of the American military can be traced to a breakdown in the connection between the American public and the military. That may sound odd from our perspective, because the American military is far more central to its politics and society than the New Zealand military is to ours, but his point was that all the high-flown rhetoric that surrounds the military in the US has served to insulate it from meaningful scrutiny. The more we honour the military with ceremonies, bugles and ribbons, the less we see it as an institution that deserves just as much critical attention and debate as, say, how to provide affordable housing.

The Government is sending 143 military personnel to Iraq to help train the Iraqi Army in its fight against ISIS. As enemies go, ISIS could not have cast itself better as the ultimate boogieman. Its tactics of beheadings and burnings have painted them as the ugliest of thugs who will understand only force.

But unlike terrorist groups such as Al Queda, ISIS has clear political goals, and they have nothing to do with New Zealand. It wants to re-establish an Islamic Caliphate that has not existed since the mid-13th century and its strategic aims are to seize territory in the Middle East and to establish a theocratic state that unites Sunnis across the region. As such, its immediate enemies are the Shia governments and populations of Syria and Iraq, where it is based.

Our prime minister has made much of terrorist sympathisers who may pose a threat to New Zealand although as he refuses to give any details, it is hard to know how dangerous such threats may be. But if they are significant threats, they are likely to be unhinged loners, such as the Sydney hostage-taker, not Iraqi or Syrian based ISIS fighters.

In confirming the troop deployment, the PM shouted at the opposition that "This is the time to stand up and be counted. Get some guts and join the right side." But as Gallipoli showed, being on the right side counts for nothing if the strategy is flawed or the goals unachieveable.

This Anzac Day, let's honour WWI's terrible waste of life by spending more time thinking about the living, active soldiers of today than the abstractions of those who died a century ago.

Read more: 

The tragedy of the American military

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