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NZ cannot pretend to be immune from the risk of war

As the 80th anniversary of New Zealand's declaration of war on Germany approaches, are we underestimating the risk that the country could again be caught up in war?

On September 3, it will be 80 years since New Zealand declared war on Nazi Germany and entered World War II, a conflict that would reverberate in the national psyche for decades. About 140,000 New Zealand men and women served in the war, and almost 12,000 were killed. But as the generation that experienced it dwindles in number, so our collective memory of the event fades. Within a few years, the Last Post will have been sounded over the grave of the last New Zealand combatant.

All of which raises the question of whether we are in danger of ignoring, or at least underestimating, the risk that New Zealand will be caught up in war again.

It may surprise even some older New Zealanders to learn that WWII came very close to home. The steamship Turakina was sunk by a German raider off the Taranaki coast with 36 lives lost; 16 people were killed when the passenger liner Rangitane came under German attack off East Cape; and a float plane launched from a Japanese submarine made reconnaissance flights over Wellington and Auckland.

Read more: The great revolution: Historian Jock Phillips on 80 years of change in NZ | The Listener, 80 years on, still living dangerously | The events that shaped New Zealand

Australians have more vivid memories of the war, having been subjected to nearly 100 Japanese aerial and naval attacks. That may help explain why Australian defence spending, as a proportion of GDP, is almost double that of New Zealand.

But as the war recedes further into history, we seem to be in danger of forgetting even its epochal atrocities. A recent New Zealand opinion poll showed that 27% of the 1000 respondents knew “only a little bit” about the Holocaust and 4% thought it was a myth, or at least exaggerated. More worryingly, 30% couldn’t be sure whether it was exaggerated or a myth. There’s a risk that Holocaust denial, once the preserve of a lunatic fringe, will gain currency not so much as a result of wilful anti-Semitism, but of blind ignorance.

Can comparisons be drawn between then and now? New Zealand faces no direct military threat and hasn’t done since 1945. That has contributed to a relaxed – some would say complacent – attitude towards defence. But WWII showed how quickly civilised countries can descend into barbarism.

In the decades that followed the war, politics was dominated by returned servicemen who considered it their duty to ensure New Zealand was combat-ready in case conflict broke out again. But the rise of a new generation of politicians, many of them veterans of protests against the deeply unpopular Vietnam War, brought a sea change in attitudes. The result has been a shift away from offensive capability to a defence policy focused on politically less contentious activities.

As prime minister, Helen Clark justified the decision to scrap the air force’s combat wing in 2001 by saying we lived in “an incredibly benign strategic environment”. But do we today?

US President Donald Trump is sabre-rattling over Iran, an ascendant China is asserting itself militarily in the fiercely contested South China Sea, and there are discomfiting echoes of the Cold War arms race in the belligerent posturing of Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin over cruise missiles. Meanwhile, the ruler of nuclear-capable North Korea keeps the world guessing as to his intentions.

None of these developments directly imperils New Zealand, but our economy depends on trade and the maintenance of open sea lanes, which could be threatened in the event of war. We cannot pretend to be immune from risk.

Under current Defence Minister Ron Mark, the Government has taken long-overdue strides towards upgrading its defence inventory. That will help to blunt accusations that we don’t pull our military weight and will have to rely on Australia and the US to help us in a crisis. But our continuing shortcomings as a defence partner were highlighted by the recent disclosure that we were unable to contribute to naval patrols in the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz because our only two combat ships are being refitted in a Canadian dockyard.

Before the outbreak of WWII, New Zealand had a permanent army of 352 men and was woefully unprepared for the cataclysmic conflict that eventuated. No one is suggesting that we’re similarly exposed now, but the events of 80 years ago should remind us that although we should always hope for the best, it’s wise to prepare for the worst.

80 years of the Listener

The founding editor of the Listener, Oliver Duff, was in no doubt over whether New Zealand should take up arms in 1939. Although the newly launched magazine was from the outset independent in its instincts, Duff took a robust approach on defence. “It is villainy to hide behind the petticoats of peace when duty clearly calls us out to fight,” he wrote in the magazine’s first Christmas editorial. In June 1941, the Listener published an inspirational Māori quote on the cover (pictured above): WHAWHAI-TONU-AKE-AKE-AKE! – “Fight on for ever and for ever!”

This editorial was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.