Wednesday, 25 April 2018
War... what is it good for?
I did'nt attend any dawn service this morning, as I have done more than my fair share of those over the years, and I pay my respects to those who fought whenever I visit my grandparents at the cemetery*.
And on this most revered of days in the mythos of New Zealand its seems more than appropriate to discuss the fire from which one of the pillars of Kiwi culture was forged; that of war.
And for starters consider that just over 100 years ago most of this country responded with enthusiasm for the prospect of going off to fight in World War One and that it was there in places like Gallipoli and Passchendaele where some believe that that the identity of this nation was born.
But while we are feeling all warm and snugly with that thought make space for the grim fact that of the 100,000 young men that went to fight over 18,000 died and many more were wounded meaning that from a population of just over one million at the time one in four of those men that fought was either killed or wounded.
Put in context today that would mean if some war in a foreign clime was declared New Zealand would not only have to respond with the same level of fervor we now display only for an All Blacks game or the latest episode of the The Block followed by 400,000 men of age being shipped off to fight and that of that 400,000 roughly 80,000 would have to die or be wounded.
So if you ever wanted to know why NZ is littered with memorials to World War One from the small cenotaphs and memorials that every rural town and hamlet has to the Pukeahu National War Memorial in Wellington (looking like something out of Flash Gordon) you now have a big part of your answer.
Contrast that with today where the NZDF is mired in scandals over Iraq and Afghanistan and Defence is a political backwater for muppet MPs (like Gerry Brownlee), those with some background in it (Like ex soldier Ron Mark) or those wishing to make a buck (like National MP Mark Mitchell) and you get an idea of the scale and scope of change in not just how Kiwis view war but also about how we conceive our identity in relation to war.
But unlike 100 years ago when it was fervent enthusiasm for going off to fight in what many perceived as a great adventure today what allows the NZDF to waste time and money chasing "terrorists" in the Middle East and lying about what its actually doing and who its actually killing is a deeply rooted apathy that the public has to both conflict and war in general due to the horrors of the First and Second World Wars but also the immense defensive barrier that our physical isolation in the South Pacific gives and allows us to retain such views.
For most of the planet war is a much more direct and tangible reality with no immense barrier to attacking forces that our surrounding seas give us. For many nations their neighbor is immediately physical on their border and unlike our views of our biggest neighbor, Australia, can have a hostile history and military posture to boot and that is something Kiwis often fail to grasp.
We piss and moan about Syria and why killing children with chemical weapons is terrible rather than why killing children (or for that matter anyone) in Syria is terrible. We think North Korea is a threat but spent decades trying to appease the beast until Donald Trump spoke to the North in a language that they can truly understand (that of one crazy strongman to another) and suddenly they are talking about officially ending the war (rather than the hyper tense armistice that has existed since 1953) and even possible de-nuclearisation**.
Kiwis view war always through the lens of distance and its an almost unique perspective in the world today. We are in words of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now dilettantes in war with our views of war shaped more by movies like Saving Private Ryan, video games and what I consider to be an unhealthy strain of pacifism running through this country. We can afford to be against war because we have the luxury of choosing if an when we fight where most nations do not.
The last generation to experience war in any tangible manner (that of WW2 generation) is almost all gone and our views today more reflect that of the Baby-Boomers and those who came after. For those who fought in the Pacific and Europe the threat was real and tangible and the result of failure the destruction or enslavement of not just their nations but also of their political and social systems (liberal democracy and free markets). In short it was a war worth fighting.
So, with this blog post am I explicitly arguing for more military spending and NZ declaring war on some nation just so we can "know what war is really like"?
The answer is no I am not BUT what I am arguing for, and so have others, is that we have enjoyed the fruits of a political and economic system without having to pay the true cost for a long time and it shows in our apathy and how we approach this day. It shows in how we have allowed our physical isolation to also create a mental isolation from the rest of the world and the problems it faces.
But most dangerously of all its allowed us to avoid choosing sides and making a commitment towards preserving what we cherish and that sentiment has spread well beyond our views of war and conflict to our failure to defend our near pristine environment, to be lax in guarding our once excellent health, education and social welfare systems, to watching like sheep while we sell our country out from under us and set aside our values so we can trade with nations which stand in opposition to those values in the belief that we can pick them up again later and they will be untarnished.
Its not that I think that the system we live in is all perfect and we are as bad as other parts of the world (places referred to by Trump as "s**t-holes"); I criticize not to tear down our democratic system or maintain our plutocratic elite but to promote the change we need to keep our system strong and able to avoid being like those places which are infected with war and which we so happily ignore by changing the channel or bury under a false consciousness attained by once a year getting up early and going to a dawn service.
ANZAC day to us is an exciting exhibition at Te Papa and maybe some thoughts about our grandparents (or great grandparents) generation without realizing that war is not ancient history but alive and thriving today; just not here.
ANZAC day should not be something we attend to once a year like visiting an elderly relative or some obligatory social occasion but a 365 days of the year attitude to defending what we think is worth fighting and dying for, and that attitude includes in its lexicon a view of conflict (in whatever form) as an evil thing but sometimes a necessary evil in order to preserve something greater than our mortgage.
Back when I was doing my Masters degree I read Chris Hedges excellent book War is a force that gives us meaning and came away agreeing with much of what he said but also with a sharp splinter of doubt lodged deep in my mind at the concept contained within the book.
Of course the general view of war; articulated through popular culture in songs such as in the title of this post by Edwin Starr, Black Sabbath's War Pigs and World Order's highly entertaining Lets Start World War III is easy and has an essential truth to it but as much as I love these songs and the sentiment found so prevalent today I just could not accept it.
For a long time I wondered why I often found myself of the view that war is bad but still found myself accepting of the mechanics and circumstances of war; was it all those John Wayne movies I grew up watching, was it my own families military background (four generations and counting) or my own experiences as a soldier (in peacetime) that left me unable to accept absolutely the seemingly unavoidable concept that war is a scourge.
And it was not until several years later, when I was reading about the battles in Burma during WW2, that I discovered what it was that prevented me from condemning wholesale the act of war.
It was at the battles of Kohima and Imphal on the Burma/India border in fighting that was dubbed "The Stalingrad of the East" that the Japanese advance through Burma was finally stopped and driven back (much like Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands) and written on the memorial itself, located today in Kohima in India, is the following inscription:
Here in this one sentence is the articulation of what stops me from condemning war as a scourge and leaving it at that because packed inside that single sentence are three very important ideas: consideration of the future, cognizance of a greater good and the idea of self sacrifice.
Many people today can understand the first two but its the third in conjunction with the other two that makes this phrase so resonant and allows it to echo down through history.
Today many of us do we do what we do because we expect to get something out of it and cant rationalize the idea of sacrifice to a greater good, yet it exists.
To the men locked in struggle during those (and all) battles such a sentiment was as probably as far from their minds as could possibly be, their real conflict at the time in trying to stay alive by killing the person who was seeking to do the same to them yet the outcomes of many of those battles turned out to be decisive moments in the history of their country, nation or civilization and had those battles gone the other way history would have written a different chapter.
The greater good in that sense was, for want of a better term, the fate of nations but not in any jingoistic or nationalistic sense but rather in the sense that war, as we know it, lurks in the hearts of all people and this is why despite periods of peace the world so often finds itself at war yet to simply always avoid fighting or profess a desire for peace is not enough to deter all aggressors.
For example, the people fighting for their freedom today in Syria don't always have the option to just walk away or discount fighting because such acts were what brought them to the point where they had to fight in the face of aggression by the Assad regime. Sometimes you have to fight, not for what you believe in but for your life or the lives of future generations rather than just try and survive another day.
Psychologically its the flight or fight response that all life seems to have writ large, its the parent making the ultimate sacrifice to save their child on a national scale or the more intellectual expression of love for something greater than the self.
Also its worth understanding that in past times war was not the portent to the Apocalypse that it often is today and all those young Kiwi men who enthusiastically went off to fight for Dominion and Empire in WW1 had that love of something greater.
Some readers might argue that its nothing more than patriotic delusion but I would ask them how they behaved the last time they were driving and had to swerve to avoid a crash or stepped in to stop a fight or did something above and beyond the impulse of their own insular self.
In New Zealand today, like much of the West we have retreated into the comforting delusion that we will never have to make that choice or take a stand on something bigger than which Marvel movie is better yet the tides of history have turned and those delusions may not last much longer.
ANZAC day as we articulate it today has lost that sentiment because we have the luxury of believing that we are safe in our little corner of the world and outside of war the only thing which has yet to pose a similar level of existential threat is climate change and we still cant agree, or take real action on that.
War is the only thing which does what its does and that is because it presents the clear choice of survival in a situation with few other options. Had World War One and Two not ended with such horrific slaughter would our attitude to war be the same today?
But lest people think I am advocating still for war as we know it I stress that its not war as in tanks, bombs, guns and the like but the need to struggle in situations where its clear that something needs to be done and moral ambiguity no longer exists.
So what are you giving up today for someone else's tomorrow?
*-or pop into the local RSA for a beer
**-and as much as many people love to hate on Trump for the things he does wrong they are strangely silent in regards to this outcome because even if it comes to naught he has had more of an effect on the Korean situation than any other president since Eisenhower