Friday 30 April 2010

In Harm's Way

"And there's another country": Stoicism and sacrifice, the virtues that permitted a nation of barely one million citizens to bear the loss of 18,000 of its children in the First World War, are no longer much valued in the hyper-sentimentalised mass culture of the 21st Century.

THREE YOUNG SERVICEMEN die when a RNZAF Iroquois helicopter crashes into the hills above Pukerua Bay on ANZAC Day, 2010.

The bare facts: Who? What? Where? When?

We’ll wait a little longer, I suspect, for the How? And the Why?

And behind the bare facts – as always – are the torn and floating webs of family and friendship. Stories that could fill volumes. A private grief that never wholly departs. That aching sense of absence, that bitter taste upon the tongue, every time April 25th rolls ‘round.

For the families, friends and comrades left behind, ANZAC Day will never be the same.

There was so much we could have learned from this accident. An opportunity to follow the vivid threads of history back to the events that gave birth to the whole tradition of ANZAC Day commemoration. Tragically, however, we allowed this chance to link the raw emotions of the present with the thoughts and feelings of the past to slip through our fingers.

Instead of displaying the stoicism that a soldier’s death demands, we have been encouraged to wallow in the worst kind of public sentimentality. Our heartstrings have been worn to breaking-point by the news media’s relentless bows. Our capacity for sober reflection overwhelmed by the insistent journalistic clamour for everyone – from the Prime Minister on down – to emote, emote, emote!

We are told that our armed services are "like a family" – whose members have been "stricken" by the ANZAC Day crash. When interviewed shortly after the accident, Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae, Chief of the NZ Defence Force, seemed close to tears. The Prime Minister instantly cut short his planned visits to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in order to be present at the funeral.

What does this tell us about New Zealand’s soldiers and citizens in the 21st Century? What does it say about our resilience? Our willingness to sacrifice? Our capacity to endure loss?

If this past week’s outpouring of grief at the accidental deaths of three servicemen is indicative of New Zealanders’ collective grasp of the brutal realities of military service, then we’re all in very big trouble.

Every nation, for its own safety and security, must regularly and ruthlessly send a percentage of its young men and women into harm’s way: harm from which not all of them will emerge unscathed; harm which an unavoidable and irreducible number will not survive at all.

A defence force that cannot take casualties simply isn’t worthy of the name. And a nation which is no longer able to stoically endure its losses has laid itself open to every kind of enemy assault.

This is not a popular line of argument in 2010. In an age of rampant individualism, the virtues of stoicism and sacrifice are scorned. The idea of "laying down one’s life for one’s friends" only makes sense on Facebook.

But just pause for a moment, and try to imagine the New Zealand which, in the days, weeks and months that followed the landing at ANZAC Cove, was flooded by a never-ending stream of fatal telegrams.

Imagine a nation of just over a million citizens, asked to absorb the loss not of three – but of three thousand – of its children. Imagine the families which, day after day, were torn asunder: the sons, brothers, husbands and sweethearts for whom there could be no funerals, no front pages. Imagine the enormous – the almost superhuman – effort required to hold up one’s head; to dry one’s eyes; to place one foot stubbornly in front of the other. To carry on.

Imagine a grief so vast, so unrelenting, that it escaped altogether the power of ordinary speech. Imagine its dreadful weight as each year’s ANZAC Day services drew near.

We look at the great memorials to the fallen, and we sense in the cold marble, in the endless lists of names, something awful. There’s a terrible void where life and talent should’ve flourished; the abiding absence of a whole generation which, with a stoical endurance that simply outdistances contemporary imagination, traded their present for our future.

Perhaps it’s this, the sense of being part of their country’s unending story, that makes even remotely bearable the sacrifices of military families.

And yet, as those three young airmen are borne to their final resting-place, I ask myself:

Could 21st Century New Zealand survive another Gallipoli?

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 30 April 2010.


Sanctuary said...

"...Could 21st Century New Zealand survive another Gallipoli..?"

We didn't survive the first one.

Victor said...

A beautifully written piece, Chris. But I'm not sure I share your scepticism about the ability of present generations to endure great suffering
for the sake of a perceived higher cause

Grave doubts were expressed about the fortitude of young, upper class Brits in the 1930s, following the famous (or infamous) Oxford Union debate on Pacifism. Yet a few years later, they were disproportionately numbered amongst the fallen.

After World War Two, it was often remarked that the increasingly individualistic and culturally diverse population of London might not stand stoically up to danger, the way that Londoners largely had done during the Blitz.

But the July 7th bombings, whilst, of course, nowhere near as horrific in scale as the Luftwaffe's efforts, provided some evidence that
Londoners had not lost their stiff uppers or, for that matter, their sense of humour.

New Yorkers, for all their intense individualism, cultural variety and proudly displayed neuroses, found the courage to carry on after 9/11 and so on.

I actually think its not much more than a new fashion to emote publicly. It's intensely embarrassing and annoying for old guys such as you and me. But I don't think it tells us all that much about the presence or absence of intestinal fortitude.

I also think the fashion owes something to the way our lives have been drained of communal meaning and significance by the workings of market forces.

It's only in these instances of public mourning that we can relate to our fellow citizens in a non-transactional way. And so we give way, almost thankfully, to the shared emotionality of the moment.

Lew said...

Sanctuary, the fact that you're here to post that glib assertion rather puts the lie to it.


Anonymous said...

Any deaths that are the result of a helicopter or plane crash are tragic. However, I was irrirated by the kind of rhetoric that followed this one.

I heard several comments in/through the media that equated this with the way our service,men and women take risks in war zones. Making a journey from one part of New Zealand to another in a helicopter or small plane is as risky for the civilian passengers and pilots as for military personel. It really is a long bow that equate these sad ANZAC Day deaths with those that occur on (extremely dangerous) active service.


RedLogix said...

"I actually think its not much more than a new fashion to emote publicly. It's intensely embarrassing and annoying for old guys such as you and me."

Being a few years younger I'm of an age that's sort of half way between... part of me gets exactly what you are saying Chris. For me there's a fine, and hard to define, line between the legitimate expression of emotion in public, and the point where I just want to close my eyes and wait for it to be over.

Yet another part of me is cognisant of the enormous harm visited upon those generations who endured WW1&2, bottling up their fears and griefs in order to survive the experience...only for it to post-traumatically ooze acidly upon their children and families generations after.

As you have mentioned in earlier articles, prior to WW1 NZ was, given our relatively primitive pioneer status, a reasonably liberal, open-hearted nation. One of the worst legacies of those two catastrophic wars was the deeply buttoned down, conservative "passionless people" syndrome that pervaded the nation for several decades after. A syndrome that left multitudes of men unable to express deep feelings without triggering anger, violence or destructive grief, and planted the seeds of intergenerational dysfunction whose poisionous fruit we continue to harvest to this day.

As unseemly as public emotion feels to men of our age, as dangerous as it is to allow it to be stoked into mob madness; on balance it seems to me that there is a place to sanely acknowledge them, in order to allow those carrying their acute burden permission to share and assuage as best they might.

Nick said...

My son serves in the military. Should he fall in some peace time accident I only hope that we will be left to mourn away from the glare of the media and the self serving photo opportunity aspirations of the Prime Minister.

Should our children fall in some conflict I hope to hell it is one our leaders can justify to us. Their is a cost to defending what we see is right, falling to some conflict that only bennefits sectoral material interests would leave only bitterness.

Could we as a nation stomach another major loss of life, probably so long as the media and the politicians were in the front line. Otherwise we might just be a little too selfish.

Anonymous said...


Post WWII New Zealand has become a very secular nation, where the spiritual and the transcendent have been systematically removed from public life, and almost completely removed from the private lives of most New Zealanders.

This spiritual void has been replaced with a romanticized, emotive nostalgia for heroism and sacrifice which is best and most recently expressed most by our ANZAC's, and attested to by the revival of attendance at dawn parades.

While my father fought in North Africa and Italy for 'God, for King and for Country', very few of the generation that has followed are prepared to get out of bed for any of the above, let alone lay down their lives.

Perhaps in America alone their still remains a remnant of the faith, patriotism and respect for freedom that motivated our parents and grandparents to the sacrifices they made, and for which we now remember them, albeit without really understanding their motivation or the context in which those sacrifices were made.

It remains to be seen if any Western nation can retain its freedom when it replaces faith, virtue and sacrifice with emotion, nostalgia and materialism.

Kind regards

Mark Unsworth said...

Chris I think you have raised an even more interesting point which relates to the whole way the media cover deaths,especially on TV.If its a death they consider newsworthy we dont just get the news,but the interview with immediate and sometimes wider family and even neighbours.We then often get reporters parked outside a house if its a tangi or a body lying in state then more lengthy coverage of the funeral.meanwhile other important matters are going un-reported.What is this phenomenon ? What drives it ?

Kate kennedy said...

I blame the fuss around the death of Princess Diana in 1997...thats when the Grief Industry really kicked into gear. And when we Pakeha began to express our own intangible Western angst through others genuine and relevant pain and loss. A good article.

Anonymous said...

How very eloquent was this article by Chris Trotter. I wonder how eloquent it would have been if it had been one of his family members who had died.
You may feel confident commenting on military deaths from your safe little writers office, but for those of us who serve, I must say (less eloquently) that it is a load of bollocks. The country is barely mourning these three awesome men- the only ones who truly mourn are their friends and family (being part of this circle, I feel I can comment) - and such hypocrisy I have never seen - criticizing the media for emotionalizing the event - as if you were not capitalizing on it by preening around with your cynicism as if it were a medal worth wearing.
I can tell you this. To have the prime minister come to the service, to have a drink in the bar with him, to talk to him about our friends - it meant a lot to us. What have you contributed?
Im sure your well immune to criticism now after years of producing drivel - however the family and friends of those men, are not so immune. I pray to the God we recognize at those same Anzac services that Kim, Sarah and Pip have not read your article. But I will leave you with this - how resilient will we be? We will be as resilient as we need to be. Have some pride in your country man.

Chris Trotter said...

To "C".

Nowhere in this posting do I question, or seek to diminish, the contribution which the three young men who lost their lives in the ANZAC Day accident made to the RNZAF.

What I do question is the wider community's response to their deaths - and what it says about 21st Century New Zealand.

Asking questions is the duty of the journalist, just as putting him or herself in harm's way is the duty of the soldier, sailor or airman.

There are many ways to serve. Sometimes it requires as much courage to criticise one's country as it does to defend it.

Tiger Mountain said...

@ Anonymous ‘c’ Rather sanctimonious Mr soldier man, members of my family served in WWII, one blown to bits in Italy, they taught me growing up to always use the freedom of speech, however unpopular that might make me, that Uncle Bob had died defending.
Who determines what having some pride in your country should mean? Perhaps it should have applied to RSA members that abused vietnam protestors, when democracy in New Zealand was under attack by Muldoon in various ways only a smattering of old soldiers ever weighed in. An NZ Army that builds infrastructure for and better relations with other peoples as in Timor Leste appeals to me, an Army mainly scoring brownie points with the US as in Afghanistan should be recalled asap.
It is unpleasant to lose workmates for sure, but do we really want the Army mimicking tearfest antics of popular media apologia?

Victor said...

Kate Kennedy

I agree. The Dianaists have a lot to answer for. Perhaps predictably, that egregious phony, Blair, elected himself their High Priest and Tear-Jerker Supreme.

The question, to my mind, is whether this is just a change in manners or a deep seated change in the psyche of such hitherto tight-lipped, stoic nations as the UK or NZ.

I suspect the former but I would share Chris's worries if it was the latter.

Anonymous said...

"There are many ways to serve. Sometimes it requires as much courage to criticise one's country as it does to defend it."

Cost of criticizing one's country - nasty comments in your blog which are moderated.

Cost of defending your country - possible death, injury and maiming.

Don't even think about equating the two because they are NOT the same.

Chris Trotter said...

A gentle word of advice, Anonymous: read a little history.

You'll discover that what so many men and women fought and died to defend in the Second World War was precisely the freedom to criticise: the democratic right to dissent.

The regimes which denied their citizens that right and which encouraged a belief in "my country right or wrong" were New Zealand's enemies.

Fascism is what we were fighting.

What would you fight to defend, Anonymous?

Chris Trotter said...

To Anonymous:

Please read Bowalley Road Rules (above).

Chris Trotter said...

Correspondence on this posting is now closed.