Mingling the sacred and the profane, Martin Edmond

The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing
Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean (eds)
Penguin Books, $65.00, ISBN 9780143573098

Oddly enough – or perhaps not – when this book arrived at my door I remembered one of the more arcane customs recorded in Te Rangi Hiroa’s The Coming of the Māori: “Warriors before setting out on a military campaign,” he writes, “each in turn bit (ngau) the cross beam (paepae) of the latrine.” These were cliff-side toilets in hill forts and the cross beam was what you held onto while you shat into the void below. There was a strong tapu upon it, to prevent the theft of faecal matter for the purposes of sorcery; and the ceremony of the biting of the bar was attended by a tohunga chanting karakia considered protective of Te Hokowhitu a Tu as they went off to make war.

Pre-European Māori warfare is sampled just twice in this fascinating book, inevitably in post-contact versions: once by Māori writer Heretaunga Pat Baker (1975), once by Pākehā Tom O’Connor (2006). But some of the selections that concern the New Zealand Wars of the 19th century include passages in which traditional practices, like whangai hau, are evoked. This is when the spirit of an enemy, along with those of his ancestors, is consumed, by singeing the still beating heart, ripped from the chest of the dying man, and inhaling the vapours. In the James Belich version of the battle before Te Ngutu o te Manu in Titokowaru’s war, the flame applied to the heart comes from a Vespa match, and the smoke is used for the purposes of divination.

The detail is apposite and engaging. The violence and strangeness of pre-European Māori warfare seem to linger on, like a bass note, beneath most subsequent endeavours by New Zealanders at war, while Peter Buck’s ethnographic recovery encapsulates the mingling of the sacred and the profane which all accounts of warfare, from the Iliad on, must acknowledge. War is a matter of death-dealing and of dying: of blood and gore; of rape and pillage; of broken bodies, deranged minds, degraded souls. Yet it is also, our traditions tell us, a theatre in which men, particularly though not exclusively, find themselves most fully engaged, most alive, most able, by losing themselves in action, to fulfil their potential for nobility or heroism.

This book is in five sections: “Domestic Wars”, which runs from Abel Tasman’s 1642 visit until the invasion of Parihaka in 1881; “The Wars of Empire”, taking us from the Boer War to 1919; “The Second World War” (which section begins in “the uneasy thirties”); “The Cold War and After”, where “after” goes as far as the New Zealand military involvement in Afghanistan; and a short final section called “Reflections”. It is, then, a chronological arrangement which is both innovative and persuasive. I like that the latter part of the first section concentrates upon the settler/tangata whenua struggles, not upon the earlier wars fought against Māori mostly by Imperial troops, and the recognition that the so-called Great War was indeed a war of Empire. The conflicts alluded to in the fourth section – in Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – might also be understood as a series of wars in service of a different empire; but the point is left implicit.

The selections themselves are, however, achronological, assembled according to subject matter, not when they were written; so that we have, for example, Maurice Gee writing in 1986 about the home front during WWI; and Witi Ihimaera, in the same year, describing, in forensic detail, Te Kooti’s 1868 massacres in the Gisborne hinterland. There is a contradiction here. The chronological arrangement suggests that the book is telling a version of our history but, although it includes some compelling documentary material, this isn’t a documentary history. That pieces of fiction and poetry sit alongside reminiscence makes this clear. And the decision to select material written on or about the home front during wars abroad re-enforces the notion that the editors are attempting something different from a war history; and different, too, from a casual assembly of good pieces of writing about war. What might this be?

One of the book’s suggestions is that the reputation of the New Zealand fighting man was formed as early as the South African War, in a battle at what became known as New Zealand Hill, on Slingersfontein Farm near Colesberg in Northern Cape Province. Jock Phillips zeroes in on this event as the inception of the founding myth of the archetypal white male soldier; but what’s also interesting about the South African War is that the New Zealand contingent to that conflict was already multi-racial. Māori, though officially excluded from fighting, joined up in numbers, often under Pākehā names, and went anyway. The same thing no doubt occurred in both world wars; but there, Māori, exempt from conscription, formed their own units, notably the famous 28th or Māori Battalion. Nevertheless, the war in South Africa does, it seems, initiate the tradition of the New Zealand fighting force as an integrated, formidably accomplished, intimidating warrior corps. All Blacks with guns and ammo, perhaps.

This point is emphasised by the editors’ decision to open the section about Gallipoli with an action song composed by Apirana Ngata and Paraire Tomoana, even though that song was written a little later, in 1916-17. And it reaches its apotheosis in the famous passage by John Mulgan in Report on Experience, here quoted by Tony Simpson: “It was like coming home … they carried New Zealand with them across the sands of Libya … they were mature men these New Zealanders of the desert, quiet and shrewd and sceptical.” Later in the passage, Mulgan makes the analogy with a football team explicit. And yet, some subsequent pieces of writing in this anthology go to some lengths to deconstruct, or at least to complicate, this somewhat romantic myth.

There are some compelling juxtapositions in the Imperial section: the Katherine Mansfield short story, “An Indiscreet Journey”, based on a trip she made in 1915 to Gray in eastern France to see her lover, the writer Francis Carco, appears just before an extract from Archibald Baxter’s We Will Not Cease, in which he describes his experience of the arcane and brutal ritual known as Field Punishment No 1, and his rescue, in extremity, through the intervention of a fellow New Zealander, a sergeant, who was appalled at what he saw and insisted, against the weight of the authority of the army, that it end.

Baxter and another conscientious objector had been tied to their respective poles at their prison camp at Oudredoum, near Ypres, during a snow-storm. But it wasn’t the revelation of their nationality which enraged the sergeant (he appears not to have known): it was simply the barbarity of their treatment. There is a devastating coda to this account of Field Punishment No. 1 in the excerpt from Robin Hyde’s non-fiction novel about James Stark, Passport to Hell, which follows. While John A Lee’s description of the behaviour of the rats eating the dead at Le Bizet, on the Western Front, once read, will never be forgotten.

Later in the book, among the “Reflections”, Jock Phillips recalls how pervasive the war, or at least memories of the war, were for those of us who grew up in the 1950s; the sections about the Battle of Britain and about escapes from POW camps in Europe were powerfully evocative for me, because they recalled my compulsive reading of war stories in those immediate post-war decades. And then there were the intimate mysteries of the things my father had brought back from the Pacific: a lemon-squeezer hat, a machete in a leather scabbard, the souvenir fans, from Tonga or Fiji, made out of woven pandanus leaf with coloured wool decorations.

There isn’t much here, however, about the fighting in the Pacific: apart, that is, from a couple of pieces about the re-taking of the Treasury Islands in the Solomons from the Japanese, by New Zealand soldiers of the Third Division; and an excerpt from Errol Braithwaite’s first novel, Fear in the Night. The focus is otherwise upon North Africa, Greece and Crete, Italy and Northern Europe. An extract from that most troubling 1976 novel, A Soldier’s Tale by M K Joseph, features here, followed by a furious denunciation of the book by Allen Curnow: and suddenly we are in the midst of another kind of war, a literary one.

What Joseph’s novel does is invite us to contemplate, in the same frame, barbarity and humanity: with a strong sense that those who are capable of one are also capable of the other. This is another point at which the image of those men, “quiet and shrewd and sceptical”, breaks down into something more complex. Somewhere in the book is a comment, made by a child, to the effect that they always thought that only live men came back from the war. It isn’t as silly as it sounds: many of those who did return, from any of the wars, were highly conflicted individuals and in some sense, you might say, dead inside.

My own father, until the day he died, was bothered by the deaths of his three closest friends. There must have been many others, men and women both, who likewise mourned the rest of their days for friends and lovers of their youth. Still others were no doubt troubled by things they saw or did themselves; one aspect of war that is rarely explored is the way some men come to find intense, indeed irreplaceable, pleasure in killing. The ubiquity of rape in the aftermath of conquest is another aspect that isn’t mentioned much, for causes that are probably obvious. There were, I suppose, many reasons why men of my father’s generation would not talk about the war.

These extremely damaging aspects of men’s war experience – and women’s too – receive more attention in the last two sections of the book. There’s an extraordinary account, gathered by Claire Hall as part of an oral history project published as No Front Line in 2014, of SAS training procedures, and a no less extraordinary description, by an SAS trooper, of events before, during and after the 1971 homecoming parade, from Vietnam to Auckland, for his regiment. The soldiers didn’t want to parade but were ordered to; they were reviled by anti-war demonstrators, and afterwards took revenge upon some of them in a student bar. “There was one humungous scrap,” he recalls and goes on to describe (“I’m not proud of this”) how he smashed a young woman’s face into a door. The police, who knew what was happening, did not show up.

One of the reflections is from a serving army officer who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following a tour of duty “peace-keeping” in Angola; it is a telling insight into the positives and the negatives of military culture and follows an acute analysis in the preceding section, by Nicky Hager, of the often cynical use of military personnel in the service both of propaganda and of the flagrantly commercial purposes for which modern wars, no less than ancient ones, are fought. But war, as Harry Ricketts points out in the introduction, whatever other purposes it might follow, is always about violence. And violence, as we all must know by now, only begets more violence.

I haven’t yet mentioned the hoary old Anzac legend, but will do so now, if only to repeat a poignant fact from a Jock Phillips and Chris McLean article about war memorials. Australian memorials of WWI generally carry the names of all those who enlisted and went away to fight; New Zealand memorials, however, usually remember only the names of the dead. Why? Because in New Zealand there was conscription, while in Australia there was not. In other words, every Australian soldier was a volunteer and hence a hero worthy of remembrance, while the New Zealanders, who had no choice in the matter, only deserved commemoration if they died. The living returned, often enough, if not to ignominy, then to silence.

Perhaps this book might be seen as an attempt to trace the formation of something as nebulous, and yet undeniable, as a sensibility. Or even a national character. As such, it is intelligently put together; consistently entertaining; and gives a multi-faceted, highly nuanced view of warfare as seen from a number of different points of view. Even though the period of time surveyed is not great, there is still a substantial body of writing to choose from, and the choices made here are excellent. I read this 500 page volume from cover to cover, skipping nothing, and that is rare praise for any anthology. Finally, it is gracefully book-ended (more or less) by two works from an enigmatic and powerful poet, Rangi Faith.

Martin Edmond was recipient of the 2015 Creative New Zealand Michael King Writer’s Fellowship.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, War
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