Thursday, 4 December 2014

In the shadow of Gallipoli - review

In the Shadow of Gallipoli: The hidden history of Australia in World War I

By Robert Bollard

Pub. NewSouth 2013

I spotted this book in the display section in Dunedin Public library a few months ago. There's a mountain of literature on Gallipoli, and a fairly large chunk of it seems to revolve around questions of military strategy and personal details about the soldiers who died. I knew nothing about Robert Bollard, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that he was a Marxist historian, and that the book wasn't really about Gallipoli at all. Instead, this book tells the fascinating story of the labour struggles in Australia between the outbreak of WWI in 1914 and the early 1920s.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Some thoughts about courage (part one)

I've been working on this for a while and it's still not really finished - I need to tie it back to Baxter again, so I will write a part two later.

The motivation for this post is a recent article in the ODT about Archibald Baxter and the conscientious objectors. There's an interesting quote in the article by Professor Tom Brooking, who describes both the pacifists such as Baxter and the regular soldiers as brave:

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Robin Hyde's 'Nor the Years Condemn' and the ideology of Anzac Day

The following is the text of a speech I gave recently at the 'War Memorialisation and the Nation' conference at the University of Otago. It turned out to be far too long for the 30 minute time limit, and although I'm reasonably happy with it as it stands, there's a lot more work to be done. The concept of Anzac ideology is just a sketch, which requires a lot more further development. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Anzac – Silver Fern – Security Council Trifecta: Prospects for NZ nationalism in 2015

Our Anzac day has always been a fairly muted and low key version. Compared to Australian version it is nowhere near such a big deal here. But at the same time it has definitely gone under a resurgence of popularity recently. With the centenary in 2015, it will be a big deal – lots of media attention etc etc. At the same time later in the year there will be a flag change referendum. And at the same time NZ has spent millions, and won a place on the UN security council. The spin is we are able to contribute a “unique and independent voice” to the council.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Embarkation Carnival, September 2014

Keeping up with history is hard work. I find myself going through ebbs and flows with this WW1 project of mine – especially since the birth of my second son, I realise that there are many other things I care about a lot more than Anzac day. Having said that, now that we have officially passed the 'starting line' of the centenary, it actually looks like we could be in for an Anzac day which starts in late September and ends – well, maybe it will never end, but we might have to wait until sometime around 2018.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Aitken's Lemnos: a transformative memory of the Aegean war

The words we choose to use have a huge power over our imagination. When I hear words like “Greek islands” or “the Aegean” my mind conjures up visions of beaches, olive trees and sunlight. Even though my knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome is fairly weak, I still sense the evocative and historical power of the ancient place names of the Aegean region. Islands such as Lemnos and Samothrace contain relics of a history which goes back thousands of years, and it is this very ancient history itself which allows our imaginations to wander and dream: myths of figures such as Hephaestus, the Greek god who was cast out of Olympus and fell into water near the coast of Lemnos. Jason and the argonauts also rested here, and were tempted to stay there by the women who ruled the island at the time. Further back in time the mists are even thicker and the legends more enigmatic: the ancient Lemnians worshipped a duo of deities known as the Cabeiri, subterranean figures whose history is obscure. 

Friday, 13 June 2014

WW1 vs. WW2 in 1957

I've been thinking quite a lot about the claim I made in an earlier post that world war one is 'overshadowed' by world war two. Since writing that post, I've watched two films which I think illustrate that claim in an interesting way: The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean's famous movie about WW2 prisoners forced to build a bridge for the Japanese, and Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick's not so famous movie about French soldiers in WW1.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Schools, children, history and values

Not long ago I was walking behind a group of Y13 students on my way to the staff room at the school where I work as a relief teacher. Two of them were prefects, the other was a German exchange student. It was a few weeks before Anzac day, and the German student asked the other two what it was all about. They didn't have a very in depth conversation about it, but the few sentences I overheard “Oh it's about the war … history and stuff …. they get you to read these bits from the bible and do this ceremony” were followed quickly by laughter and a change of topic. There was absolutely no hint of discomfort or anything due to the fact that the student was German. Rather, this was Boring Adult Business: they make you bow your head, read from the bible, sing the national anthem: all that sort of stuff. You, as a teenager, hold your breath and go through all the motions, waiting for the bell to ring.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Three articles on D Day

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of D Day, often presented as the final crucial battle of world war two. Here are three perspectives on the significance of this day:

Alan Woods, writing for 'In Defence of Marxism' (21/07/2004)

Last month's celebrations around the 60th anniversary of D-day were designed to perpetuate a myth. The Normandy landings did not end the Second World War in Europe, which was fought and won on the eastern front.

To say this is not to belittle the courage of the British and American troops. The soldiers who had to endure the Normandy landings went through hell. According to figures issued by Supreme Headquarters, Allied casualties in the first 15 days of battle totalled 40,549. The British lost 1,842 killed, 8,599 wounded, and 3,131 missing. The Americans lost 3,082 killed, 13,121 wounded, and 7,959 missing. The Canadians lost 363 killed, 1,359 wounded and 1,093 missing. This was bad enough Yet it does not bear comparison with the appalling losses suffered on the eastern front. (See Martin Gilbert, Second World War, p. 536.)

All the peoples paid a terrible price for the War. Britain's casualties totalled 370,000, the USA, 300,000. But the Soviet Union lost a staggering 27 millions – about half of all the casualties of the Second World War. According to one estimate, even before the Normandy landings, 90 percent of all young men between the age of 18 and 21 in the Soviet Union had already been killed. These chilling figures accurately express the real situation. They show that the people of the Soviet Union suffered a disproportionate number of casualties, because the main front in Europe was the eastern front.”

Gwynne Dwyer, writing for the Winnepeg Free Press (06/06/2014)

It seems churlish to insist the Second World War was just another great-power conflict on the day when the last survivors of the generation who fought in it are gathering, probably for the last time, to honour those who died on the beaches of Normandy. But there is no other time when people will actually pause to listen to such an assertion, and it is important they understand it.

If the world wars were moral crusades against evil, then our only hope of avoiding more such tragedies in the future (probably fought with nuclear weapons) would be to extinguish evil in the world. Whereas if they were actually traditional great-power wars, lightly disguised, then we might hope to stop them just by changing the way the international system works.”

An anonymous editor, writing for the Guardian (05/06/2014)

The British understanding of D-day has probably shifted more than that of any other nation. At first we thought we British had won the war, with some late-arriving help. Then we conceded, bearing in mind the Pacific, that the Americans had won it. Only later was it grasped that Russia had borne the greatest strain.

Even now, an obsolete view of Britain's role underpins isolationist thinking in this country. What is not disputed is that the way the western allies fought increased the pressures for more democratic and egalitarian societies. The distance between officers and men shrank, engagement and understanding was as important as obedience, men and women worked with equal energy for victory and, as bombs tore at the cities, shared risks.

All this prefigured a different attitude to class and gender after the fighting stopped. The level of solidarity achieved during the conflict, even if somewhat romanticised, has become a standard by which to measure how far we have fallen since.”

Link to full article 

Whereas the first two articles take a critical historical perspective, the Guardian article swiftly and deftly brackets off any concern with actual history ('Only later was it grasped that Russia had borne the greatest strain'), and then proceeds to establish D Day as a repository of timeless values ('a standard by which to measure how far we have fallen since'). Reading the comments BTL on this article and others, the emphasis is often put on the generation itself: the Greatest generation (heroic 1940s people fighting fascism), and the Greatest victory (defeat of Hitler). This is put in stark contrast with our contemporary 'fallen' generation, who have no idea of the sacrifices, the solidarity, the values of the Great 1940s Heroes.

Although I endorse the critical historical engagement of the first two articles, and find the ideological undercurrents of the Guardian article deeply disturbing, I'm not sure that this sort of commemorative ideology is actually challenged by an honest, sober, critical historical perspective. Just like with our own ANZAC Day, history itself is very quickly disposed of: what we are morally compelled to "Remember" is not an historical event at all but a set of moral values. It is very easy for the writers of these quasi religious tracts to accept the charges - eg, 'Yes, OK, it was the Russians who really won the war' - even to the extent that war itself is held up to be a tragic and horrible waste. 

On the other hand, it appears very difficult for people who are suspicious of these hagiographical efforts to denounce them for what they are, without appearing monstrous or insensitive. Of course, Hitler was a very evil man, and fascism had to be defeated. Of course, the men who fought in battles such as D Day displayed bravery. 

What bugs me the most are two things: first, the idea that battles themselves are the most important and significant things we should remember. It's the context of those battles, and the sort of sober, critical historical understanding I mentioned above, which needs to be promoted. I don't completely object to the sentimental commemoration of dead soldiers, it's the fact that this is what dominates our collective "memory" which disturbs me.

Secondly, the idea that we must look to the past for moral role models, and that we can find them in dead soldiers. The subtext - sometimes very explicitly stated - is that we are unaware of the "price of freedom" which has been payed by soldiers such as those who fought in the Normandy landings in 1944. We are morally compelled to remember their sacrifice, which involves assuming a grateful, humble, reverent attitude towards our Heroic forebears. There's a reactionary conservatism here which is dressed up in the clothes of sentiment. We are the ungrateful, spoiled children of the 21st century. We must recognise our privilege, and bow our heads before our morally superior ancestors.

Edit (14/06/2014)
This post was written in a bit of a hurry, and it would have been better if I had included  this discussion between two socialists about the nature of D Day. 

I am relatively ignorant about the historical and military intricacies involved in this sort of discussion. This is partly why I focus on the ideological side of the issue. 

I didn't mean to imply that critical historical engagement - whether Marxist, like Gwynne Dwyer, or otherwise - was pointless or irrelevant. I think the exact opposite; it should be relevant and we should do as much as possible to promote a thinking attitude, rather than a reverential attitude, towards history.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Forensic History

There's a recent Sunday TV documentary called Sharidyn's Homecoming, which tells the story of the NZ family of 14-year-old Kiwi-born schoolgirl Sharidyn Svebakk-Bohn. Along with 76 other people, mostly young teenagers, Sharidan was murdered by the far right terrorist Anders Breivik in 2011. I don't usually watch these sorts of documentaries, as they tend to indulge in a form of sentimentalism I do not like. This documentary however was quite well done, and the interviews with Sharidyn's mother made fascinating viewing. Inevitably there were scenes showing photos of Sharidyn with emotive piano music in the background, but this sort of thing was done in a sensitive and relatively restrained fashion, considering the enormity of the horror her family must have endured.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

My Other Blog

Although I'm really fascinated by WW1, I don't want to think about it all the time. So I started a new blog call Psuedo Reality Prevails, which will be for anything I might write which doesn't relate to WW1. My first post is called "The Misery of Statistics", and it examines the reasons why I consider the NCEA statistics curriculum to be fraudulent form of mind cancer. 

Friday, 16 May 2014

Missions and Objectives

I have just been reading through the “Missions and Objectives” of the official government project for WW1 centenary commemorations. You can see for yourself at this website

I was compelled to make some comments of my own.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Inglorious Basterds, a Donkey Bridge and an Ex Nazi

The First World War is fairly consistently overshadowed by its more spectacular and far more deadly sequel, World War Two. Although many historians and intellectuals might regard both wars as being equally momentous and consequential, I think that from the perspective of popular culture in the 21st century, WW2 wins against WW1 in terms of fame and impact by a large margin. I'm not sure what the exact statistics are, but I am quite certain that the number of Hollywood movies made about WW2 far exceeds the number made about WW1. There are some very interesting and notable movies made about WW1, such as All Quiet on the Western Front. Whatever artistic merits these films might possess, they lack a crucial ingredient: the Nazis.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Gallipoli and memory

I was asked to write an 800 word essay for publication in a lifestyle magazine. There's a lot more I could have said, and maybe will say, about the concept of remembrance and the sense of moral imperative associated with the "Lest We Forget" slogan. There's a lot more I could say, and almost definitely will say, about the reification of Gallipoli. Anyway, here is the essay:

Gallipoli and our shifting Anzac memories

Friday, 25 April 2014

Those hideous, bloated corpses: the ideological structure of Anzac day

Imagine a parallel universe in which New Zealanders were violent, warlike and proud of their record of victory over the course of the twentieth century. Instead of focussing on the virtues of the dead New Zealanders, Anzac day in this alternate nasty New Zealand would focus on the evil of the enemies we fought. At the head of the ceremony would be a proud warrior bearing a pole, skewering the shrunken head of German soldier from Kaiser Germany. Next in line would be a preserved Nazi, which would be ceremonially spat upon and cursed by the vicious crowd. Following in the wake of these would be a curious assortment of shrunken heads: Samoan1, Korean, Malaysian2, Vietnamese, Afghani. Now imagine a curious child who asked his parents “Who are the bad guys now?”. Somewhat uncomfortably, a little unsure of themselves the parents reply “The Russians”. Then the child asks “Why do the bad guys keep changing countries?”.

Passport to Hell

The story of James Douglas Stark offers a fascinating insight into the murky and complex contradictions within the New Zealand version of Anzac mythology. I'll start at the end of the story with his obituary in the Auckland Star, 23 February 1942:




James Douglas Stark, bomber in the Fifth Regiment, New Zealand Expeditionary Force during the Great War, brave enough to have been recommended for the Victoria Cross, reckless enough to have served imprisonment, tough enough to have escaped from Le Havre prison, wounded in 37 places, died last night in the Auckland Hospital, aged 42, after a week's illness. He leaves a wife and two children.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Another puff of air

It's somewhat disappointing that the Guardian published this article
But I managed to get in the first BTL comment .... nice to see some conscious Aussies there saying sensible things too.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Field Punishment No. 1

Here's a link to a preview of the movie in case you missed it. 

I should be grateful, I suppose, that a movie based on Archibald Baxter's memoir We Will Not Cease has been made at all. I should be even more proud of TV One for showing the movie last night in prime time. Baxter and the other conscientious objectors are portrayed as proud – and more importantly bravemen of high moral principle. The officers were nasty. The trenches were awful. The nurse at the hospital was pretty. It was a sad and terrible war and this was duly emphasised by the incessant and emotive piano soundtrack.

Monday, 21 April 2014

ANZAC Day and the Politics of Sacrifice

Bold and bloody, set upon the mountain tops of human experience, we dimly perceive through the foggy lens of history moments of supreme and selfless giving. In the biblical tradition the notion of sacrifice is both supremely powerful and supremely awful. Abraham submits to the will of God and comes very close to killing his own son. He was only testing him apparently, but such a test can be viewed as either spiritual triumph or twisted and malicious abuse of power. Jesus dies upon the cross and is resurrected on the third day. Once again God seems to be giving us a mixed message: we are redeemed, but we are also reminded of our fundamentally sinful nature.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Into the Trenches

I recently spent three weeks travelling on my own through Turkey. I was on my back from staying with my partner's family in Finland where we celebrated Christmas together. Money was in short supply as usual, and Europe is an expensive place to travel. Winter was unavoidable, but probably not so bad in Turkey as it would be in more northern countries.