Might and rights, Elspeth Sandys

Field Punishment No 1: Archibald Baxter, Mark Briggs and New Zealand’s Anti-Militarist Tradition
David Grant, paintings by Bob Kerr
Steele Roberts, $34.99,
ISBN 9781877448461

In his introduction to Field Punishment No 1, David Grant expresses his satisfaction that New Zealand has evolved from “one of the most conformist, subservient, insecure, bellicose, dependent, and martial of countries … to one of the most humanitarian, principled, independent, and least militaristic in the western world.” In the light of the present Government’s decision to send SAS troops to Afghanistan, in support of a regime of dubious legality, whose record in regard to the treatment of women has brought it dangerously close to the practices of the perceived enemy, I’m not sure such a rosy picture can be justified.

Which is not to say that a case can’t be made for New Zealand’s evolution from a tub-thumping friend of Britain and the Empire to an independent nation prepared to challenge the “might is right” philosophy practised by certain recent occupants of the White House. Grant does indeed make such a case, at times ponderously, but always with conviction, and a mass of detailed evidence to back up his thesis.

My problem with the book is that I’m not sure for whom it’s been written. If for the informed reader, then much of the history of protest in two world wars will be superfluous. If for the more general reader, then I doubt he or she will persevere with the sheer accumulation of facts and figures that make up the bulk of the text.

Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs, whose personal stories illuminate the larger history of New Zealand’s anti-war protests, were, according to the author, “not heroes” but “ordinary men caught up in extraordinary circumstances”. Therein lies the problem. In seeking to portray Briggs and Baxter as “ordinary”, Grant diminishes the impact of his story, so that the – for my money – extraordinary and heroic actions of, not just these two men, but others who shared their fate, are seen as less worthy of praise than the actions of a Charlie Upham or a “Tiny” Freyberg.

This is in part due to the men themselves, who freely acknowledged the courage of the fighting soldier, and to the end of their lives never once claimed any sort of special status. Baxter had to be forced to write his now classic tale of his wartime experiences, We Will Not Cease, arguing that all he needed to record were the facts, and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.

Briggs, who rose to national prominence as a member of the Legislative Council, chose, in the face of the nation’s silence about its treatment of conscientious objectors, to stay silent himself. When he died, in March 1965, only one obituary mentioned his heroic resistance to war. Similarly, when Baxter (an Otago man) died, in August 1970, the obituary printed by the Otago Daily Times was rendered almost invisible by the number of column inches allotted to the coverage of the All Blacks’ third test win against South Africa.

That there was an orchestrated campaign of silence about New Zealand’s treatment of its conscientious objectors following the end of WWI no one now disputes. To explain why this nation suffered such a collective loss of memory we need only think of post-WWII Germany. But New Zealand, unlike its former foe, did not insist that uncomfortable facts be kept in the public domain. Even as late as the mid-1960s, when Baxter’s son, the poet James K, was campaigning against New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the government saw fit to remove all references to his father’s “punishment” (“torture” is the more accurate word) from the National Archives, for fear it would further inflame the already angry author.

So what was it, in the story of Baxter and Briggs, and the history of New Zealand’s protest movement from the mid-19th century till the mid-20th that needed to be so carefully hidden?

In a world that has grown weary of hearing denials from governments, supposedly on “our” side, about their suspected use of torture, it will come as a shock to many reading this book that torture, as a means of breaking a man’s spirit, was routinely used by the New Zealand Army in WWI. Field Punishment No 1 (when a man is strapped to a pole and left to endure the elements), originally intended as a punishment for miscreant soldiers, was only one of a number of methods employed to bring men like Baxter and Briggs into line.

Solitary confinement without light or exercise, bread-and-water rations, public humiliation, repeated death threats, forcible removal to the front line – the list goes on. Reading the account of the torture of Mark Briggs, dragged half a mile across a duck-walk lined with nails and barbed wire, then almost drowned in a water-filled shell hole, cannot fail to bring the recent atrocities at Abu Ghraib to mind. “Drown yourself you bastard,” the sergeant in charge of the detail yelled. “You’ve not got your Paddy Webbs and your Bob Semples to look after you now.” “Never as long as I draw breath,” was Briggs’s defiant reply.

That this torture was officially sanctioned may to some extent excuse the men ordered to carry it out, but it can never excuse the men and women who persisted in seeing conscientious objectors as “malingerers, shysters, ne’er-do-wells, cowards, ingrates and shirkers”. Some even went so far as to call for the death penalty, describing the men who resisted war as “traitors”. Yet some of those same “traitors” – Bob Semple, Paddy Webb, Harry Holland, Peter Fraser – would go on to become MPs,  Semple and Fraser rising to the heights of Cabinet Minister and Prime Minister respectively.

Field Punishment No 1 tells a salutary story of the ways in which a nation can be persuaded into supporting activities and attitudes which later generations will find repugnant. If Grant’s prose sometimes lacks sparkle, there is ample compensation in the cartoons scattered throughout the text, and in Bob Kerr’s brooding paintings, which bring alive the bleakness and horror of the punishments meted out to the resisters.

The book is well-produced, with clear reproductions of both cartoons and paintings, but closer editing might have detected the repetitions (information in the chapters about Baxter and Briggs is repeated later in the book), corrected the occasional howler (“At death (Christian) believers ascended to God’s right-hand side”), and tidied up the infelicities of style (“a narrowly prescribed formula of what bureaucrats and politicians believed what was right and what was wrong”).

“I wonder that any sane person who knows the destruction, the degradation, the misery and the sorrow caused by war, can regard it as anything else than diabolical,” Baxter wrote. “Passive resistance to evil is the power that will yet conquer the world.” If Baxter and Briggs were alive today, I suspect they would tell us we still have a long way to go before we can truly call ourselves, “humanitarian, principled, independent, and [non-]militaristic.”

 

Elspeth Sandys is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction and Review
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