Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Friday, November 7, 2008

Questioning Armistice day.

Some of you may hate me for this. On Tuesday it is Armistice day, ninety years since the end of World War One. Because of this today's papers are full of World War One nostalgia and tomorrow there is going to be a parade through town. There will be military units marching, military vehicles and a couple of Mustangs are going to do a fly by. I recall at primary school on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month we used to have to stop in the play ground for one minute's silence. WW1 was a fairly substantial for NZ. Something like 100000 men fought overseas out of a total population of about 1.1 million. Casualties were high. I find myself questioning the way we celebrate days like Armistice day though. I guess it is a valid to remember, but I am not sure about how we remember.

Question 1. When does due recognition of a sacrifice made stop us from learning and moving on? I once had a widow in my church who years after her husband's death still kept his toothbrush in the bathroom and his pyjamas under his pillow. Now some would want to say to her, "Isn't it time you moved on?" Now I am not saying forget the war all together, but I suggest we should remember it in a way that shows we have moved on. Perhaps we should have films, shows, services and fundraising that builds international bridges and promotes the ways of peace? I wonder if some of the young men who died would be saying, "Stop strutting around looking back 90 years, move on and celebrate and build the peace we fought for!". Once I was organising an Armistice day service and a vet said to me, "I hope you are not going to go on about how brave we were going off to war! We were not brave! Many of us went to war because society expected it of us and we were too scared NOT to go. While we were there we were scared out of our minds most of the time. There were a few who went for the adventure. It was for them like going off on an extended hunting trip, they would be back in a few months. Reality hit them when they arrived in action. Most of us certainly did not understand the 'causes' we were fighting for. It was a blind patriotism." How do we celebrate honestly those emotions? Perhaps if they were truly brave, in some wars they might have stood against the crowd and questioned the war effort?

Question 2. When does valid remembrance cross the boundary into glorifying war and what war stands for? I recall once being involved in a civil Anzac service and the speaker from the RSA spent his time promoting spending money on the war machine and promoted the ways of militarism, in spite of the fact that I had read about the lion lying down with the lamb, and turning swords into plow shears. I nearly walk off the stage. But tomorrow's parade seems almost a promotion of the ways of war. It says that when there is conflict the way to resolve it is to fight? It says that real men fight for their rights by killing, maiming others? It affirms violence as a way of life? In our society, in which there is already too much violence, we do not need those messages affirmed. I bought a book when I was a teenager. It was a history of the second world war in photos. I read and re-read this book, I loved military things and was and still am, proud of my dad's war service. It's title was "Our Finest Hour!" But if "Our finest Hour" was when we went overseas and killed and maimed our brothers and sisters, then God help us! Our Prime minister talking about Gallipolli said that then, "as a nation we came of age." Again, if the military disaster of Gallipolli was when we came of age, and "grew up" then God help us! We are proud of some pretty terrible activity! Surely there are other more constructive things to be proud of? War, if it is justified should be remembered sadly, as a necessary evil, that we reluctantly we had to be involved in... not "our finest hour"!

Question 3. What about all those who have given themselves sacrificially for the benefit of the community in peaceful ways? My mum was left a widow with five teenage children. For years she got up, got us moaning lot out of bed and off to school, then went to work and cared for elderly people, to come home again, feed us and do the laundry, and take in sewing to make ends meet. All the time she had to try to cope with the grief of losing a loved husband. We have a solo mum in our church with two teenage girls. Her ex-husband was and is a loser, worse than useless to her and the girls. She has work cleaning but it is particularly hard. She has arthritis in her knees and a bad back. Yet day in day out she gets up and goes cleaning, hurting like hell in the process. We suggested that she go to a physio or Doctor for the pain, but she said she cant. If she does she would take time off work and if her boss knew of her ailments he would give her reduced hours, and so she would lose an income she depends on. So day in and day out, year after year she goes to work in pain. Fiercely independent in her personality, she is giving herself for her girls and for her community. Many people in their spare time and in their work, give themselves sacrificially again and again, in constructive ways, that make our society the place it is. No one marches in remembrance of them? No one truly celebrates their constructive sacrifices? Perhaps we should have a day celebrating these people as well? But no, like most of us, a generation after they are gone they will be forgotten. Perhaps incorporating some remembrance of positive sacrifices built into Anzac day or Armistice day would be good? Or maybe another day in which such giving is remembered, celebrated and affirmed?

Anyway, I find myself asking such questions of the way we remember. I do not want to undermine the memory, or diminish the enormity of their sacrifice. I am just saying that we may indeed be perpetuating some unhelpful values and perspectives in the way we remember and celebrate. Some different ways of remembering might be good, ninety years on.

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