Scars on the Heart: Two Centuries of New Zealand at War
Chris Pugsley with Laurie Barber, Buddy Mikaere, Nigel Prickett, Rose Young
David Bateman in association with the Auckland Museum, $69.95,
ISBN 1 86953 301 1
New Zealand and the Korean War: Vol II, Combat Operations
Oxford University Press in association with the Historical Branch Department of Internal Affairs, $69.95, ISBN 0 19 558343 4
Mates and Mayhem
Harper Collins, $29.95, ISBN 1 86950 204 3
Into the Sun
David Bateman, $17.95, ISBN 0 9583498 1 9
The main impression one gets from most accounts of New Zealand at war is the assiduous industry of the participants. This can be seen in their determination to get the job done, their dedication to combat tasks (sometimes at great personal cost) and their enthusiastic responses to the impulses and platitudes of patriotism and popular sentiment.
Scars on the Heart contains plenty of material to sustain this sense of tenacious assiduity. It is a heavily illustrated chronicle of our wartime military involvements from 1845 to the 1990s. It doesn’t fully live up to the implications of its provocative title but its generous 285 x 210mm format enables its authors to deal boldly with selected images while augmenting their text with a variety of smaller reproductions mainly from museum and other archival sources. So, if you want to know what a Schmeisser machine pistol, a 60-pounder Armstrong gun, a hospital train in France, a trench on Gallipoli, a charcoal-burning machine gun warmer, or Governor Grey’s dispatch box looked like, you can find out here.
But the work has a more ambitious claim. As a handbook for the Auckland Museum and War Memorial standing exhibition it is intended to present an “emotional” experience of self-discovery and a story of ordinary New Zealanders “doing their bit” as they evoke a national spirit and consciousness.
Unfortunately, this ambitious scheme does not appear to have inspired all the contributors. An account of conflict against the pakeha has little to say about the concept of warrior-like deeds and what has become of it in the twentieth century, while a treatment of relationships between settlers and Maori concludes with the highly unremarkable discovery that “in one form or another the struggle between Maori and newcomers in this country may be with us for a long time yet”.
However, Laurie Barber surveys participation in the Boer War and uncovers an early worm of dissent. He finds that some of the New Zealand contingent thought it was an adventure, others thought they were helping the British Empire maintain its hegemony but doubters noted the similarity between themselves and the Boers. The war that had begun as an outburst of patriotic excitement ended “with scars on the veldt and the heart and with the Last Post”. He cites a cogent observation by a Catholic priest to the effect that hacking and hewing at each other, boring into each other’s anatomy with bullets and blowing each other to smithereens with lyddite and shells is no necessary evidence of manhood.
Many unanswered questions flow from this insight. The authors have assembled an impressive pictorial treatment backed with an informative text that amply describes a great number of people “doing their bit” and indulging their patriotic sentiments. Where necessary they have used snapshots taken by participants and have augmented their narrative with extracts from letters and diaries to add depth and something of the sensibilities of the times to the story. But readers have to form their own opinions about the emotional consequences of war and construct whatever conclusions they may about the national zeitgeist.
The difficulty with much of our official war photography is that it was carefully controlled and heavily censored in the interests of security and morale. Consequently some of the best items in the book are from people who had private cameras in spite of standing orders to the contrary. Although the resulting body of material lacks the stark integrity of the best comparable German and American documentary sources, what comes out of these pages is a curious mixture of enthusiasm, endurance and perseverance that may be the most distinctive feature of our warlike adventures.
But these adventures are ambiguous. Their fun side emerges in illustrations of troops playing crown and anchor, having a singsong with the Kiwi Concert Party, being presented with medals and bringing home “the girl of my dreams.” The downside is touched on more obliquely with publicity shots of hygienic casualty wards, an idyllic convalescent home, the occasional battlefield burial or funeral service, a few casualties and a moving account of the difficulties of stretcher-bearing in World War I.
There are no candid shots of demoralised troops with the thousand-yard stare, while caricatures of the Digger, Grim Dig, Private Clueless, Johnny Enzed, the Bloke and other famous World War II stereotypes have been quietly maaleished along with all vestiges of the rich argot we spoke. The close connection between sport and war in our armed forces is not explored. Neither is the important subject of pain. There is understandably little attention paid to the surgical realities of the big military hospitals. Soldiers don’t usually write home whingeing about the scars they have endured and the materials lodged in museum archives tend to be silent about them.
Occasionally a popular song is quoted or a few lines from somebody’s letters but there is very little of the ribald expression of anger, protest or subversive derision on the part of the rank and file. Auckland museum perceptions of war seem sanitised and emasculated. This may be inevitable, given the feeble literary talents of naive letter writers and the gagging effect of military censorship in the interests of morale.
We don’t hear much about “Bill Massey’s Army”, the plaintive “Please May I Have a Pension”, “The Lousy Lance-Corporal”, the “Dugout in Matruh”, “The Army in Fiji”, “Peter Fraser’s Conscripts”, “They’re a Pack of Yankee Bastards” or the mournful dejection of “When They Send the Last Yank Home” — all in their way as significant as most of the claptrap peddled by patriotic enthusiasts and the music industry in two world wars and especially by the government-controlled radio in World War II.
Warfare in the twentieth century generally is a form of technology-dependent behaviour that requires skills and disciplines that are not unlike those needed in factory, mill, mine and shop floor, with the difference that war consumes its participants in more spectacular quantities. New Zealand seems perfectly to illustrate this analogy with its ferocious casualty rates as well as the enthusiasm and regularity with which we export docile, live, male “products” for consumption in foreign “mass markets”.
Our readiness to go to war may be a natural outcome of our economic development and may be stimulated by the popular culture with its hyperbole of manliness, honour, patriotism, adventure, travel, risk-taking, romance and having a good time.
War can be considered one of our most important export industries, especially if we accept Chris Pugsley’s comment that, in a sense, World War II did not really end until 1972 with the withdrawal of our forces from Vietnam. That means we have been involved in military operations of various kinds during the twentieth century for something like 41 years, as well as sending troops on peacekeeping missions around the globe.
The national character has seemed enormously gullible, absurdly patriotic and well-conditioned by socialisation and work experience to endure sacrifices in the defence and security of the homeland so long as actual hostilities are conducted in somebody else’s backyard. There is not a lot of oppositional content in Scars on the Heart that might question this viewpoint. The book briefly touches on conscientious objection, the famous furlough draft mutiny in World War II (though not the mass exodus of the disgruntled thirteenth reinforcement draft from a troopship in Wellington harbour in 1944) and the battle of Manners street (when Kiwis fought Yankee occupiers).
Chris Pugsley mentions gambling, but not the extent to which two-up was a consuming passion with some soldiers; nor does he deal with looting, theft of civilian property, black market trading and womanising, though for many warriors overseas service was a grand sexual odyssey, while for some lucky others in rear echelons it was also a tourist trip. Drunkenness, desertion, detention barracks and violent crime have been left discreetly under the carpet, with only a brief mention of the high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among soldiers in both world wars. (One wonders why? Do some of us become wild animals when uniformed? Or is the homeland so sexually repressed that absence leads to licence and excess?)
Rex Fairburn once declared that our national vice is stupidity. As things turned out, we might have managed to stay out of both big wars and to profit by our isolation at some risk to imperial commitments and whatever fragile protection they offered. But this would have denied the cultural imperatives of manliness and honour as well as the romantic aspirations of our popular culture and the pretensions of our politicians who yearn for distinction as statesmen on the world stage. Are we any the wiser today? What have we learned from scratching our scars?
Ian McGibbon’s account of the Korean War and Lawrence Watt’s interviews with World War II veterans, draw attentioon to the informal style and adaptability of the troops. Discipline and training were tempered by the habits of informality and the capacity to improvise. This imparted a special elan to New Zealand formations. The best of them were like the Israelis, the Finns and possibly the Boers who could attain efficiency without over-authoritarianism. The New Zealand style of war has important implications for us today.
Though war is regarded with repugnance by most western nations, New Zealand’s relative remoteness, innocence and symbolic purity have encouraged the demand for its peacekeeping services. Scars on the Heart concludes with an account of our participation in these operations and with the laconic comment that “we are seen to be good at what we do”. This is the military’s currently fashionable role.
Here the Korean War is relevant. Our artillery contribution was packed off hurriedly with clothing and equipment left over from World War II. It encountered freezing cold and had to bludge on the United States army. If troops are liable to be despatched to help keep the peace anywhere around the globe, surely the least we can do is stock an appropriate range of state-of-the-art equipment in the supply stores and give them the training to be able to operate globally, expensive though this may be.
In view of our commitment to peacekeeping, Ian McGibbon’s scholarly and highly readable account of operations in Korea has a topical significance. He deals with our first major involvement with a United Nations peacekeeping effort. It required a long period of coalition warfare in a multinational force that included up to 17 countries. McGibbon follows the fortunes of K-force, the Commonwealth brigade in which it fought, as well as the naval activities of New Zealand frigates off the coast of the Korean peninsula. Most official war histories suffer from a kind of institutional dullness but this one is enlivened by the use of letters and interviews that go into questions of morale and problems of coalition warfare.
The New Zealanders’ relationships with other nationalities are explored in detail that includes the culture shock they experienced on encountering the poverty, destitution and degradation of the Korean population. Their attitudes to Asians in general were summed up in the contemptuous appellations “Gook” and “Noggie” Though they were grateful for American generosity with rations and equipment, they were also contemptuous of the fighting ability of most American formations. Their attitudes were pungently expressed in a Kiwi version of “The Bugout Ballad” which was widely known during the campaign. McGibbon omits this song from his treatment, though he does reproduce one which expresses angry reservations about New Zealanders fighting for “that bastard Syngman Rhee” (President of the Republic of Korea).
“The Bugout Ballad” (to the tune of Hank Snow’s “Moving On”) satirises the precipitous retreat of American troops when attacked by a Chinese Communist army late in 1950.
Hear the pitter-patter of a thousand feet,
The First Cavalry in full retreat,
They’re moving on, they’re moving on
But a Kiwi version of this song also derides both Australians and Koreans.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
If the Noggies don’t get you, the Aussies must,
We’re moving on
However, the Australians replied with their own version that was equally disparaging of New Zealanders.
Here come the Kiwis on the run,
Picking up the medals that the Aussies won
Run you Aussies, run like hell, Here comes another Kiwi shell!
There’s a Nomma San coming down the track With her titty hanging out and a Kiwi on her back!
When troops travel overseas to colonise foreign battlefields they assemble export versions of the popular cultures of their homelands. The New Zealanders in Korea considered themselves “the forgotten force” but as well as composing satires against their allies, they were not backward in the pursuit of self-entertainment along familiar lines. McGibbon gives an interesting account of the home comforts that were available to K-force as well as the socialising, the parties with group singing, concerts, impromptu sports, cricket and even a K-force rugby tour of Japan.
Leave in Japan was a major attraction but infection with venereal disease became a familiar problem. Some soldiers married Japanese women and others revised their stereotyped opinions of the Japanese race in the light of the hospitality they received. But excessive drinking was troublesome as was blackmarket trading and misappropriation of stores. McGibbon recounts how some bright spirits were even requisitioning beer for the “Cook Strait Rifles” and the “Stewart Island Fusiliers”.
Lawrence Watt in Mates and Mayhem also emphasises Now Zealanders’ ability to “get the job done” and cites John Mulgan’s description of the versatility of practical men “marching into history”. It is almost as if war were some sort of export development project to be accomplished as briskly and efficiently as possible (this is an idea for Treasury theorists to take up). Watt’s interviews with 2NZEF veterans go into attitudes and feelings that complement some of the basic material in Scars on the Heart. An account of the occupation of Trieste is interesting in hindsight because it was our first venture into peacekeeping, in this case between aggressive Jugoslav partisans and apprehensive Italians.
I found the experiences of “self-discovery” in Scars on the Heart not particularly illuminating but there is enough narrative detail to convey intriguing glimpses of ordinary people’s attainments and their responses to some of the curious circumstances they encountered. Perhaps the real emotional truths about people’s experiences of war can be glimpsed only in poetry, music and the occasional piece of creative writing in outcroppings like the poetry of World War 1, books like Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel, John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, Martha Gelhorn’s The Face of War and the anguished explosion of post-1945 choral and orchestral works by Jewish composers responding to the Holocaust. Nor can it be assumed that the current generation wants to know these dark secrets. Perhaps it is better to enjoy war on the television screen or in the convenient recesses of museums where the flotsam of far-off battles can moulder in decent obscurity along with stone age clubs and the salutary bones of extinct birds.
According to General Sherman, “in war food, not death, is the primary subject of conversation”. In the light of this dictum I thought Claude Thompson’s story of his imprisonment by the Japanese from 1942-45 was a salutary tale, partly because it delineates the darker, brutal side of the Japanese character as so many POWs experienced it and also because it is a down-to-earth chronicle of Thompson’s struggles to get enough food to stay alive and eventually return to the homeland. His details of various camp cuisines and his recital of infrequent, but memorable, meals make you realise how lucky even the most underprivileged of us are in this paradise of the overweight.
If I were to attempt an epic of our military experiences that tried faithfully to evoke the consciousness of the ordinary soldier, I would probably relegate the formal historical details to a chronology at the back of the work in order to concentrate on things that really matter, like a concern with food, cookhouses, liquor, sex, clothing, the weather, rates of pay, equipment, loot, amusements, recreation, morale, the techniques of deviancy, how to maintain one’s precious individuality and, above all, how to avoid becoming a grim statistic on one of our grisly war memorials — fanciful voyages of self-discovery and vague notions about national spirit notwithstanding.
Les Cleveland is a retired university teacher who fought as an infantry soldier in World War II. He is now a documentary photographer and a specialist in the connections between popular culture and military life. His book, Dark Laughter (Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 1994) explores this subject area.