Monday, April 24, 2006

Dean Parker: The heroes who did not fight

Anzac Day commemorates that Sunday in 1915 when the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces landed to take part in the invasion of Turkey.

In a curious conflation of opposites, the mass grave that followed became the cradle of our nationhood (although with the rival for this title currently being the tour of the 1905 All Blacks, you do have to ask: what is it about historians and a whole lot of blokes going overseas?).

An untried people (us) went and held their ground (actually someone else's), thus proving themselves worthy of whatever it is you prove when you cravenly follow some British Lord of the Admiralty's cunning plan and spend seven months getting massacred and then abjectly slink away in the dead of night, whipped by those you considered racially inferior.

Commemorate? Oh, come on. Rather gather at the crossroads at midnight and collectively vomit.

On Anzac Day we should remember those who tried to resist war.

"There is no conception more inspiring, no condition nobler, no call that rang more grandly in the ears than that of war!" trumpeted the New Zealand Herald in 1914.

So half of all eligible men volunteered for nobility. But half didn't.

By late 1915, the casualties from Gallipoli were such that the New Zealand Government began preparing to conscript the able-bodied.

The anti-war movement responded. A national anti-conscription conference was held in Wellington in January, 1916, with delegates representing 18,500 trade unionists. The conference gleefully decided that if the ruling class wanted to have a war, it should be done properly.

Soldiers should be put on the same pay rate as the highest wage-earner. All incomes above that wage should be appropriated for the war effort. All industry should be seized by the state and operated for the benefit of a people at war.

This was going to the heart of the matter, of course, for there were those happy enough to give their sons to the war but not their property.

The Government went ahead in August, 1916 and introduced conscription of manpower, but not of wealth, and among the conscripts were those who refused to serve - conscientious objectors.

There were four types of conscientious objector: Christians who took the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" at its word; socialists prepared to fight in a war against capitalism but not one between imperialists; Irish who, understandably, would fight for anyone provided it was against England; Waikato Maori, who found it ironic to be asked to fight for King and country as they had once fought for their own King and lost their country.

Thousands of conscientious objectors were imprisoned and punished in an effort to make them recant. Among them were leaders of the new Labour Party, founded in 1916 by the national Anti-Conscription Committee and the union movement.

A number of conscientious objectors were shipped to the frontline trenches in Belgium and tortured.

So many defaulters and deserters were skipping out of the country that the Government introduced passports. "Your passport originates from a forgotten mass attempt to evade military service," James Belich tartly notes in the second volume of his New Zealand history.

In the Waikato, Te Puea Herangi led a passive resistance campaign against conscription of Maori.

In Christchurch, women from the pro-war White Feather League out on a patrol to abuse war shirkers were assaulted by mill workers' wives.

But here are my heroes in the war resisters' ranks. Of the 34,000 who declined all forms of service in the war when asked, 11 brave souls gave their reason as simply "scared". Let's commemorate them.

* Dean Parker is a member of the New Zealand Writers Guild and the Workers Charter initiative.

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