Editorial: Careful how we test our mettle

22:19, Aug 04 2014

Yesterday we marked the centenary of the Empire's call to World War I, when New Zealand was awash with patriotic sentiment and declarations of confidence in the abilities its ardent young representatives to perform mighty deeds.

It also marked the joyous end to Glasgow's Commonwealth Games. A pleasing contrast.

Some of the 1914 oratory reprinted yesterday does still stand as moving testament to classic bravery. But time and bitter experience have curdled the more jingoistic utterances, however fine they must have sounded at the time.

Back then, war was a call to adventure as well as duty. A rare-enough opportunity for the young to travel, test their mettle, stand shoulder to shoulder with their mates and hopefully return proudly, enemies vanquished, to a grateful country. With hindsight we see the reality was a hot mess. An indecent folly of monumental human harm undertaken for no good reason.

The thing is, 1914 New Zealand was using hindsight too. That was at least part of the problem. Those legions of volunteers who stepped up, and the nation that so encouraged them to do so, were still proudly mindful of the experience of our troopers at the Boer War, which, in perception if not reality, had been a perfectly good outing.

So we need to be careful about how impressed we are with the narrow hindsight of a fondly semi-remembered past - neither to confuse it with a broader, more educated awareness of history, nor to use it to excuse ourselves from the need to maintain an independently critical appreciation of the realities of the times in which we're actually living.

We still send our young people into fields of combat but (at least this is what we tell ourselves) it's in a more measured, considered way. Certainly, compared with 1914, we have much less to say, as our peacekeepers fly out, about whether they will do us proud.

Happily, pride, or more aptly admiration, is justified when the great feats are carried out in events that exist to test admirable qualities without causing harm.. The Glasgow Games were a delight and the closing ceremony was the sort of triumphalism that still has a place in the international community. A contest of fraternity, not enmity.


The Southland Times