During this emergency New Zealand society has revealed ‘martial virtues’, write the University of Otago’s John Stenhouse and Takashi Shogimen. So what does that mean? 

International media have been hailing New Zealand’s attempt to stamp out Covid-19. The success of the lockdown over the last five weeks has largely been attributed to the leadership of our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. She has led the nation splendidly during this time of crisis, we think, just as she did after the mosque terror attacks in Christchurch last year. 

Yet the lockdown could not have worked so well without the cooperation of the vast majority of New Zealand citizens and residents. The Prime Minister rightly acknowledged the efforts of “the team of five million”.

Many other societies around the world have responded to their lockdowns more reluctantly, even negatively. Thousands of Americans are protesting restrictions on their freedom of movement, rallying around the national flag. Japanese evacuated business districts and railway stations as the government declared an emergency; yet families have been defiantly congregating in parks, beaches and shopping arcades that remain open. 

New Zealand, by contrast, saw little dissent, probably less than across the Tasman, as the country went into lockdown. On the contrary, social media was inundated with remarks such as “happy to be in New Zealand”. 

Why have New Zealanders embraced the national shutdown so willingly?

We think that during this emergency New Zealand society revealed what we will call martial virtues, by which we mean primarily courage, endurance and self-sacrifice for the greater good, not belligerence. These values, we contend, are more deeply rooted in our past – and more alive and well today – than some may be happy to acknowledge. 

Qualities such as courage, endurance, and self-sacrifice are important in normal circumstances but essential to preserving our collective life during emergencies.

We recognise that the phrase ‘martial virtues’ may worry those who think of themselves and their country as progressing by leaving such values behind in our less enlightened – and more conservative, puritanical and militaristic – past. While we understand such concerns, we believe it is impossible to understand what happened during recent weeks unless we acknowledge the persistence of these long-standing ‘habits of the heart’.

Qualities such as courage, endurance, and self-sacrifice are important in normal circumstances but essential to preserving our collective life during emergencies. These virtues, exercised by each and every citizen and resident, created a remarkable level of social cohesion during recent weeks. We did indeed “unite in the fight against Covid-19”.

In the past, martial virtues were powerfully expressed and sustained by the nation’s experience of war. World War I reinforced long-standing values about the importance of courage and self-sacrifice. The Gallipoli exhibition at Te Papa National Museum movingly illustrates the bravery, endurance and altruism of Māori and Pākeha soldiers, many of whom paid the ultimate price. The spirit of “sacrifice” is alive and well today. Our Prime Minister has regularly praised the “sacrifices” all New Zealanders have made during the lockdown. 

The American historian David Hackett Fischer has argued that the ultimate political value for Americans is liberty. In New Zealand, by contrast, the dominant political value is fairness. Discussing the legendary status of New Zealand soldiers during the World Wars, Fischer highlighted the link between “a sense of belonging and a sense of cohesion” and “an idea of fairness”. The notion of “equality of sacrifice” – that everyone ought to be equally committed to self-sacrifice for the greater good – inspired New Zealanders to work together during World War I, not only at Gallipoli and the Western Front but also on the home front. When the supply of volunteers dried up by 1916, New Zealand introduced conscription. Australia didn’t.

During WWI, equality of sacrifice sometimes inspired behaviour about which many New Zealanders today feel understandably ambivalent.

Patriotic women who encouraged their menfolk to volunteer, for example, sometimes handed out white feathers to able-bodied men who did not join up. During that era, both religion and a puritanical moral code shaped belief and behaviour in ‘God’s Own Country,’ as Premier Richard Seddon called it, more strongly than in today’s more secular society. But has the old puritan tradition of ‘brotherly watching’, as exemplified by the white feather distributors, disappeared without trace? 

Several weeks ago, our police force set up a website for citizens to report lockdown breaches. It was so quickly inundated with reports about rule-breakers that the site crashed. The notion that everyone should sacrifice equally for the sake of the common good remains strong today, which explains why so many responded so willingly to the Prime Minister’s appeals. This tradition helps to explain why we’ve coped with crises, in past and present alike, so well.

John Stenhouse is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Otago.

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