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..."

Latest

The key to long-term success after weight-loss surgery
107438 2019-06-26 00:00:00Z Health

The key to long-term success after weight-loss sur…

by Nicky Pellegrino

Weight-loss surgery is becoming more common, but lifestyle and attitude changes are needed for long-term success.

Read more
Matariki feast: Kasey and Karena Bird's family recipes
107605 2019-06-25 11:39:22Z Food

Matariki feast: Kasey and Karena Bird's family rec…

by Lauraine Jacobs

Māori food champions Kasey and Karena Bird share traditional family recipes that are ideal for Matariki.

Read more
Julie Anne Genter on bicycles, babies and what's going to make a better world
107579 2019-06-25 00:00:00Z Profiles

Julie Anne Genter on bicycles, babies and what's g…

by Emma Clifton

The MP made world headlines when she cycled to hospital to give birth. She talks about how this put her and what she stands for in the spotlight.

Read more
Toy Story 4: The beloved franchise reaches a Forky in the road
107472 2019-06-25 00:00:00Z Movies

Toy Story 4: The beloved franchise reaches a Forky…

by Russell Baillie

The fourth Toy Story instalment is clever, enjoyable and refreshingly weird.

Read more
Mitre 10 living wage ruling sets precedent for retail staff - union
Apple set to offer sign-in service to rival Facebook and Google
107596 2019-06-25 00:00:00Z Tech

Apple set to offer sign-in service to rival Facebo…

by Peter Griffin

In the wake of data-privacy scandals, Apple is beefing up protection for owners of its devices.

Read more
Understanding New Zealanders' attitudes to paying tax
107563 2019-06-24 16:28:59Z Business

Understanding New Zealanders' attitudes to paying…

by Nikki Mandow

We are pretty good about paying our taxes here, so why would we willingly go along with avoiding GST?

Read more
Border tax rort: Could you be caught by a Customs crackdown?
107530 2019-06-24 10:19:12Z Business

Border tax rort: Could you be caught by a Customs…

by Nikki Mandow

New Zealand retailers hit by a GST rort that has been going on for at least two years hope officials, Trade Me, ministers and even customers will...

Read more