Birth of a nation

17:00, Apr 24 2010
New Zealand writing on World War I initially reflected themes of noble sacrifice, but the tone changed when ex-servicemen wrote their memoirs.

WE INEVITABLY view our military past – 200,000 Kiwis have fought overseas since 1900, 32,000 dying – through the priorities of the present. Our ideas have also been shaped by the mythologies of Gallipoli and of our 20th century culture. We can discover a good deal about how that thinking evolved from the books written about our military past and its place for ordinary New Zealanders.

Writings in the 1920s extolled sacrifice for Empire, assuaging the loss of loved ones with words of heroic comfort, nationalism and duty. That was shortly overtaken by horror stories, as former servicemen penned memoirs which, at times, revealed the darkest side of human nature. It was epitomised by Robin Hyde's novel, Passport to Hell.

In 1939, a second generation of young Kiwi men went out to fight. They left us a legacy of great literature, not least John Mulgan's own work Report on Experience, recently republished in unexpurgated form.

After the war, our government sponsored a colossal war history project – bigger than anybody else's, remarkable for the literary skill with which it was written. Much of it is online today, a wonderful resource for enthusiasts and historians alike.

But in the 1970s and early 1980s a new generation demonised war in emotional ways. We did not remember the realities again until the 1990s, when a people fast tiring of racial divisiveness on Waitangi Day looked to Anzac Day as the de-facto celebration of national unity.

The current wave of military-historical literature was pioneered in 1984 by Christopher Pugsley, whose Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story remains in print today. By the 1990s military history was "in". The high point – numerically at least – was 2005, when 18 local books were released into a red-hot Anzac Day market.


Unfortunately, the crowds flocking to the cenotaphs every Anzac Day didn't quite equate to book-buying enthusiasm. Saturation played its part. But perhaps the main problem was that battle-narratives seldom answered questions about what it was really like to go to war.

Much humanity is found in Charles Glass's 2009 book Americans in Paris: Life and Death under the Nazi Occupation 1940-1945 (HarperCollins, $29.99). It is not a Kiwi book; but there is plenty of interest in this detailed look at the experience of American civilians living in France under the Nazi boot.

Of course, Anzac Day is not entirely about history. In today's post-911 world the spotlight has turned to anti-terrorism wars in the Middle East – and thrown the focus on to the Kiwis there, the Special Air Service. Ron Crosby, author of NZSAS: The First Fifty Years (Penguin), takes us along the SAS's history from Malaya to Vietnam and Afghanistan. Like any corporate history it tends to be inward-looking – the main audience is unquestionably the SAS itself. But it remains a solid and exciting tale of our secretive special service.

All up, it's not a bad crop this year – and with the centenary of the Gallipoli landings just five years off, we're going to see some more great literature coming out over the next while.

Sunday Star Times