The culture of death – where are the songs? Les Cleveland

Deep Jay: Kiwis At War In Vietnam
Rod Eder
Tandem Press, $19.95
ISBN 0 908884 55 9

Ensor’s Endeavour
Vincent Orange
Grub Street, London (also available from PO Box 2319, Christchurch), $59.95,
ISBN 1 898 697 043

North From Taranto: New Zealand and the Liberation of Italy
John Crawford
New Zealand Defence Force, available from the QEII Army memorial museum, Waiouru,
ISBN 0 9583263 6 3

ANZAC: The New Zealanders At Gallipoli
Christopher Pugsley
Hodder Moa Beckett, $24.95,
ISBN 0 340 57581 6

New Zealand is a dangerous place for young men. You never know when you might be packed off to a foreign war with the prospect of death, wounding, captivity or illness. So far this century we have been substantial participants in six shooting wars around the globe and recently there have been prospects of prolonged embroilment in the Balkan morass.

In World War I we exported about 10% of the total population who sustained some impressive casualties. Some 25% of the males aged 20‑45 were either killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner. In World War II (owing to technical changes in the nature of the fighting) only about 15% of the eligible New Zealand males were casualties. Nevertheless, per thousand of population, we managed to consume twice as many warriors as Australia, three times as many as Canada, and one‑sixth more than the United Kingdom.

All this suggests that New Zealand is a very warlike society with a flourishing martial export industry and a supportive popular culture that encourages a readiness for military adventure, venerates the role of the warrior, espouses the values of manliness, honour and patriotism and enjoys reading books and watching movies about war.

The human costs of our military involvements tend to be obscured by their justifications in the form of alliances and strategic commitments as well as employment and trading payoffs. The rhetoric of national interest and national power is propagated through the iconography of royalty, country, flag, nation and military heroism amid the dismal symbolism of countless monuments, ceremonial observances and anniversaries in which the living try to comprehend the dead and come to terms with their appalling legacy.

Historical chronicles proliferate. For instance John Crawford’s North From Taranto economically compresses the salient features of the World War II Italian campaign into 96 pages. Crawford concludes with General Freyberg’s July 1945 acknowledgment of the division’s “splendid contribution to victory” and its “magnificent fighting record”, but there is no mention of the subversive possibility that we were being used as a kind of human battering ram and might have been better employed on the Pacific front, or peacefully at home producing meat and cheese for profitable export.

Chris Pugsley is somewhat more perceptive in his treatment of ANZAC. He relates the familiar tale of the landing and subsequent events on the fateful peninsula, but he also raises the question of what it might all mean. He comments that ANZAC Day is not so much a commemoration as “a day of discovery for the present generation” and a time to ask “who they were” and “why did they go to war?” He doesn’t answer this latter question but at least he notes the “growing realisation that imperial interests were not necessarily New Zealand interests”.

Both these texts are modestly priced and suitable for teaching purposes. They are well illustrated but ANZAC is better designed and reproduced. It makes the most of some unusual images that Pugsley has been able to assemble.

Popular culture helps define the past and perpetuates our tradition of militarism by presenting our military adventures as a kind of crusading in which battles are fought at conveniently distant locations. These days warfare can also be sampled in television newscasts along with much regular programming that trades in the fictional violence and destruction to which mass audiences have become addicted.

In wartime, the mass media disseminate the policies of governments and keep us supplied with songs, music, entertainments and morale‑building exhortations that dramatise the sentimental and romantic aspects of military behaviour and the expectation of personal empathy and sacrifice. But in actuality, not every soldier in World War II was a dedicated warrior exposed to the fiery hazards of battle. A modern army has a huge supporting tail. Of the 15,000 or so in the division in the Middle East and Italy, less than half at any given time were likely to be engaged in frontline operations. The rest were spread out in lines of communication or involved in rear‑echelon supporting and specialist services. Some troops were in situations of comparative comfort where they could indulge in the pleasures of sightseeing, the novelties of cultural contact with foreigners, and the distractions of whatever recreational facilities could be contrived, including a great deal of organised sport.

Some rear‑echelon warriors set about their personal enrichment by trading on the black market while others spent their free time womanising, boozing, gambling or experimenting with various forms of deviancy. But little of this low‑life opportunism has made its way into the published literature of World War II. In Dark Laughter (a monograph about twentieth‑century warfare) I discuss the social life of the reluctant warrior, but most war histories are silent on such topics. Knowledge of such informal, oppositional behaviour remains, for the most part, submerged in the folklore and oral literature of veterans.

Writers, historians and journalists dealing with the New Zealand experience of war, are, with few exceptions, unaware of the alternative world of the ordinary soldier. As prisoners of their cultural conceptions, they tend to see war in very stereotyped terms. For instance, the popular music of World War II is always recalled as sentimental claptrap of the “Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover”, “There’ll Always be an England”, “Washing on the Siegfried Line” and “Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major” variety. Nothing is heard of “Onward Semple’s Conscripts”, “I Don’t Want to be a Soldier”, “Aiwa Saida”, “Saida Bint”, “One Night as I Strolled Down the Berkha”, the “Dugout in Matruh”, “The Army in Fiji” and “When They Send the Last Yank Home”, a bitter protest at the United States marine corps occupation of New Zealand. Yet thousands of our soldiers knew these songs and sang them vociferously.

In the sanitised versions of wartime popular culture served up for subsequent generations, there is a huge gap between actuality and the facades and deceits of sentimental memory, prompting the question: what is it really like to be a New Zealand soldier at the front on a modern battlefield? New Zealand at War, a television documentary intended to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, did not get very far with this topic. Many of those interviewed for the programme had served in the meat grinder and knew its realities. But most could not express their inner perceptions, nor were the interviewers equipped to plumb such mysteries. Only occasionally did the truth obtrude through the veneer of convention. We briefly learned of Maori brutality in the treatment of prisoners and we heard how a man had for 50 years bottled up his nightmare of torture by a Japanese execution squad.

But these revelations were not probed, even though it is evident that some of us behaved badly in Italy and it is well-established in the medical literature that many veterans continue to suffer from post‑traumatic stress disorders for the duration of their lives. For them the war has never stopped. On the whole New Zealand at War was a tedious and confusing chronicle. For all its historical significance, much of the archival imagery of World War II seemed stilted and unreal. The psychological dimensions of that distant epic are the most interesting and the least explored.

How did we live? How could a soldier or an airman survive? What was it like in an attack? Why did we thrust ourselves so aggressively into such violent ordeals when all the time we could have been sheltering in comfortable, peripheral detachment from the disorders of Europe? Television as practised in New Zealand is a cumbersome and incompetent medium for the exploration of such difficult matters. Print remains the superior medium.

This is why there is more about the actualities of what goes on in an infantry outfit in a few pages of Rod Eder’s Deep Jay than in most of the footage of New Zealand at War. The documentary makers had little understanding of the social dynamics of cohesion in military groups. Eder knows from direct experience as a professional soldier in Malaysia and Vietnam that the infantry section is the primary group around which all else revolves. Psychologically, what makes it possible for it to function is a combination of its conditioned, disciplined behaviour as part of the greater machine, along with the ability of its individual members to trust and rely on each other. But Eder’s platoon is in trouble because it has a worthless officer. The novel’s account of these internal tensions and the nerve‑racking minutiae of jungle No 3 section make a taut, highly original narrative.

Some of the most graphic and impassioned writing about New Zealanders at war has emerged as autobiography. For example, Jim Henderson’s Gunner Inglorious is a classical treatment of the anguish and distress a seriously wounded soldier faces in captivity. First published in 1945, it has gone through multiple editions because of the honesty and shocking directness of Henderson’s scream of pain and grief in his struggle for survival as a prisoner‑of‑war amputee.

Another classic, The Pitcher and the Well, published by Paul’s Book Arcade in 1961 deals with the death of a young New Zealand airman in a German hospital. He is alert to the war’s only redeeming feature, “the deep and lasting fellowship between man and man”.

Much of the biographical literature is an undistinguished catalogue of historical detail. But Ensor’s Endeavour by Vincent Orange, a professional historian and the author of a number of biographies of distinguished airmen, explores its subject’s personality in some depth as well as covering his remarkable war record.

The high country farms of the South Island supplied some of our best talent in World War II. The qualities of self-reliance, physical hardness, know‑how with machinery and personal integrity of high‑country men made them first-class military material. Mick Ensor grew up adventurously on the family property at Double Hill station on the south side of the Rakaia gorge. His family were interested in flying and on September 11 1928 they were all at Wigram aerodrome to see the arrival of Charles Kingsford Smith at the completion of the first aerial crossing of the Tasman.

I was there myself and I shall never forget the awe and excitement of the occasion. I went home and was inspired to fabricate in the backyard, with the aid of axe, hammer and nails, a crude, surrealistic impression of the mighty trimotor monoplane. But the model made by Mick, aged 6, reproduced among the family photographs, had a much more purposeful resemblance to the original. His parents were staying at Warners Hotel where the crew of the Southern Cross were accommodated. So Mick got to see the great men close up. For all practical purposes my brief flirtation with model aircraft construction was the peak of my aeronautical career but Mick learned to fly and joined the RNZAF in 1940.

Orange describes how he got his wings in 1941 and joined Coastal Command in the RAF. By the time he was 23 he had flown an awesome number of operations, had won both the DFC and bar and the DSO and bar and been promoted to Wing Commander. He married and stayed on in the postwar Royal Air Force but by 1964 he was in trouble with a combination of ill health, “booze and boredom”. He retired to New Zealand with his family in 1967.

At this point Orange’s treatment takes a dramatic turn with an epilogue that describes Mick’s struggle with alcohol and his victory over addiction. His experiences were by no means unique. In the postwar years, thousands of veterans were in the grip of this disease but many were either unable or reluctant to face up to it. Nor was it a subject that conformed neatly to popular culture stereotypes of the returning warrior.

The true costs of successive wars have been enormous and largely concealed by a screen of convenient indifference. However, glimpses of the effects of World War II on the lives of women are featured in Gaylene Preston’s War Stories, a documentary film with many candid insights and revelations about a curiously neglected battlefield of the emotions. Her success with this project suggests that it is time for us to treat the social consequences and realities of war more realistically and to abandon the superficial stereotypes of conventional sentiment with which warfare is customarily depicted in popular culture.

Perhaps we could also stop exporting cannon fodder and address ourselves more imaginatively to the culture of life and the problem of survival in a violent and increasingly conflict‑ridden world.

Les Cleveland formerly taught politics at Victoria University. His book, Dark Laughter: War and Song in Popular Culture, ISBN 02 7594 7645, was published in the United States last year.

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