Breaking the silence

by Pamela Stirling / 28 April, 2007

New Zealand has come to be known as a nation that likes to lop its tall poppies; to take its heroes down a notch or two. Do not believe it. The growing power of Anzac Day, of Poppy Day, is testament to the very contrary. The hunger for heritage is fuelled by a growing urgency to acknowledge and honour the sacrifice of New Zealanders at war. And most importantly, before it becomes too late, the achievements of the generation who experienced World War II.

That is not to say that the deep Kiwi reluctance to highlight individual feats of bravery does not persist. New Zealand has won a greater number of Victoria Crosses, as a proportion of its population, than any other country in the world. And yet Charles Upham - the only combat soldier in history ever to have won two Victoria Crosses - refused always to do anything other than epitomise the modesty of all New Zealand's combatants in both world wars.

The deep reticence of those returning soldiers is understandable: this country suffered extraordinary losses - Jock Phillips in our cover story tells of his awed realisation, for example, that "about every 50 yards" in Invercargill there was a home that had lost a soldier in the First World War. The only way to deal with heartbreak on such a horrific scale was to suppress our emotions - far more so than other societies. New Zealand simply "anaesthetised" itself.

But we are now emerging from that deep silence. It has been difficult: at the very moment when the WWII generation might have been willing to talk about their experiences, it became fashionable for the student generation to disparage war. They were not wrong to do so: our own history bears witness to the carnage. But it was wrong to assume that the war generation was unthinkingly militaristic. Anzac Day has never been triumphalist. The battles on which we have most concentrated our thoughts - Gallipoli, Crete, Cassino - were not glorious victories. Indeed, part of what makes Anzac Day so special is the sense of shared occasion between the Anzacs and the Turks; their bones inseparable on the ground.

Anzac Day, quite simply, embodies a spiritual touchstone so clearly missing from our Waitangi Day celebrations. It is telling that what has become our most sacred site, the one to which young New Zealanders travel across the world in pilgrimage, is one over which none of us has ever held legal title. And from which none therefore feels disposessed. Anzac Day thus has been free to become the chosen day on which to observe our shared affections and loyalties; our universal pride in such things as the distinguished record of the Maori Battalion; our heartfelt sense of what it is to be a New Zealander.

The achievements of this country's servicemen and women have given us a moral authority - first observed at the United Nations conference in 1945 and later evident in our anti-nuclear stand. But it's only now, with our growing love affair with history, that we are truly lifting the silence to honour the individuals who served in our name. One of the stories on page 34 tells of a family just recently discovering that their grandfather lost a brother who never came home from the war. My own family in our small way is retelling its stories: that of the great uncle who came home paralysed; another so damaged by his experiences that he never married. But it is the impact of the great New Zealand silence that somehow resonates: my father as a young fighter pilot serving on an aircraft carrier off Japan wrote home to "dear Mum and Dad" exactly the kind of letters Jock Phillips talks about. What he was not to know, however, was that his father had been killed. It was thought best not to tell him, a young pilot engaged in risky manoeuvres. And so it was that he found out in the worst possible way; a well-intentioned letter from someone who assumed he knew.

The voices in so many of the letters from the 100,000 Kiwis overseas in WWI and the 70,000 abroad in WWII now resonate very clearly. And most especially, the voices of men like Colonel William Malone, whose letters are featured in our cover story, and tell of the bravery of New Zealand's troops at Gallipoli. His words, written days before his heroic death at Chunuk Bair in 1915, echo down the years and will forever shape our attitude to true tall poppies: "I know you will never forget..."

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