Our honouring of the sacrifices made during World War One is absolutely the right thing to do, and reminds us we should be unashamed to call out tyrants, elected or otherwise, that seek to destabilise the international order in pursuit of their own nationalistic agendas, writes Peter Dunne.

The commemorations over the weekend of the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War have rekindled many memories amongst New Zealand families of the sacrifices of their forbears in that awful conflict.

The small size of, and tight connections within, New Zealand at the time mean that most modern families, and certainly all of our local communities have a direct link in some way or another to the events of that war.

In my case, my grandfather fought at Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele, where he was mentioned in dispatches by Field Marshall Haig, although in keeping with many veterans of the time seldom spoke about those events during his later years.

The enormity of New Zealand’s contribution to the First World War still beggars belief. From a country of just under 1.1 million people in 1914, 98,950 personnel served overseas in the Defence Forces.

That represented about 9 per cent of the total population of the time. Eighty percent of the personnel were volunteers, with conscription accounting for the remaining 20 percent. In addition, thousands more were employed within New Zealand providing either logistical support for the war effort or working in essential industries. Of those who served overseas, just over 18,000 – about 20 percent – were to be killed in action, with a staggering further 41,000 to be wounded or injured in some way.

Stark as those figures are, they become incomprehensibly horrific if extrapolated to today’s population. Were 9 percent of our current population to be involved in a similar conflict, that would amount to more than 427,000 young New Zealanders (about the population of Christchurch) serving overseas. 78,000 of them – equivalent to the population of Palmerston North – would be killed, and a further 175,000, slightly more than the population of Hamilton, would be wounded or otherwise injured.

It is almost impossible to imagine how our contemporary society would cope with such a massive disruption, let alone the economic and social upheaval that accompanied it. And, how when it was all over, we would cope with getting things back to a state of normalcy again. Yet, that was the reality of the disruption and heartbreak faced by so many New Zealand families a hundred years ago.

Of course, the nature of modern conflicts and the current international system means it is unlikely that New Zealand will ever face that level or duration of military engagement again, nor is it likely that the New Zealand people would ever again countenance a New Zealand government committing forces overseas in such an open-ended and unquestioning way as happened in both 1914 and 1939.

The debates over sending up to 500 personnel to Vietnam in the 1960s, let alone the controversy that has attended subsequent questions about deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and our increasing desire to develop a more independent foreign policy, are testament to that, and a mark of our maturity and independence. Today, with the exception of our elite SAS forces, New Zealand personnel are far more likely to be engaged in peace keeping or technical support operations than direct combat.

However, our changing appreciation of our place in the world, let alone the shift in the international balance of power, should in no way diminish the worth of our commemorations of the end of the First World War and the contributions of New Zealanders.

The bleak statistics alone make clear the direct awful impact of the War on so many New Zealand families of the time, especially given the fact that there were only about 250,000 households in New Zealand in 1914, and the increasing number of young people turning out to ANZAC Day ceremonies each year show that its scars still run deep.

New Zealand has every right to be fearless in the pursuit of peace, and unashamed in speaking out against the tyrants, elected or otherwise …

Although the battlegrounds of the First World War were a long way away, the reasons for it in reality of little immediate direct consequence to our country, and the War itself a failure,  which served only to set in train the events for the even more horrific Second World War which followed just over twenty years later, many of the limited social changes introduced here during the 1920s and the more dramatic moves towards the welfare state in the 1930s were in fact direct responses to the privations suffered by so many during 1914-1918.

The more equitable society and unique national identity we have been gradually forging over the last century are direct and lasting consequences of this country’s brutal coming to maturity during the First World War and its aftermath.

Concluding the Armistice Day commemoration in Wellington. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The increasing interest of today’s young New Zealanders visiting the great battlegrounds of the War is a mark of their keenness to understand and honour their equivalent generation’s efforts a century ago, as well as to make their direct family connections. For many, it is now a national rite of passage.

While none of this is an argument for war, and should never be used as such, it is nevertheless recognition of the contemporary relevance of the sacrifices of the men and women who served between 1914 and 1918, and is reason alone for acknowledging their struggles and contribution to modern New Zealand.

While our honouring of their sacrifice and memory is absolutely the right thing to do, it is also an important repudiation of the excessive nationalism and jingoism that led to the war and subsequent conflicts in the first place, and a powerful affirmation of the value of working within the contemporary rules-based international system to prevent similar wars in the future.

As a small nation, that has more than paid its harsh dues over the years, New Zealand has every right to be fearless in the pursuit of peace, and unashamed in speaking out against the tyrants, elected or otherwise, that seek to destabilise the international order in the narrow pursuit of their own nationalistic agendas. Up and down our country, there are too many cold stone memorials to remind us of the folly of doing otherwise.

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