WW100 – New Zealand's First World War Centenary Programme ran from 2014 to 2019

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"Why do we commemorate?" – The military historian

Matthew Buck - Senior Advisor Heritage with the New Zealand Defence Force

Matthew Buck, Senior Adviser Heritage with the New Zealand Defence Force, asks why we would want to remember something as horrible as a war.

Matthew Buck (centre) at a service to commemorate the NZ Tunnellers at Arras, France

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, Armistice commemorations will be taking place around the world. As we mark the anniversary of Armistice Day during the First World War centenary period, it is timely to consider more deeply the act of commemoration, and ask ourselves how, why and what we commemorate.

To start this conversation, the WW100 Programme Office invited four people with different perspectives to share their thoughts about the way New Zealand commemorates its role in wars and conflicts. Join in the conversation, and share your own thoughts through our comments section below.

Why do we commemorate?

Stripped down to its essentials, war is the selective application of lethal force against human beings. Since early-modern times nation states have trained, armed and uniformed designated sections of their populations to carry out this activity. These designated individuals are known as the armed forces. It is the purpose of the armed forces not only to wield this lethal force, but to shield their populations from the lethal force wielded by others. If they are successful in this shield role, the armed forces will also end up as the principal victims of the lethal force applied by opposing armed forces.

Why should we commemorate this activity? For the populations that emerged victorious from the ordeal of the First World War, commemoration was an urgent imperative. The purpose was to give thanks and to honour those who had willingly and successfully shielded the nation, at terrible personal cost, from what was held to be an illegitimate attack by the German empire and its allies. It was urgent and imperative because such was the scale of the mobilisation that the distinction between the armed forces and the rest of the population had vanished. It was the whole nation which had consented, participated and paid the shocking price.

The main elements of the commemorative narrative were thus consent, victory, service, sacrifice, shielding, honour, legitimacy, thanksgiving and consensus. They have proven astonishingly powerful and enduring. It is from these bases that our military histories have been written and against which they are judged. The status we accord veterans is also directly derived from them.

Where commemoration begins to attract unease is when one or more of these elements seem to be missing or is called into doubt, or if the narrative has somehow been allowed to stray. In New Zealand, where all wars from the South African War through to modern times are commemorated simultaneously on Anzac Day, the potential for such deviations is minimised. The inapplicability of parts of the narrative only becomes apparent when individual wars and campaigns are examined in isolation.

Three major wars or campaigns in New Zealand history have struggled to conform to the standard commemorative narrative set by the First World War. They are the Vietnam War; the strategic bombing campaign against Germany during the Second World War; and the New Zealand Wars. Vietnam lacked victory or consensus, and without consensus it could not lay claim to legitimacy in the public mind. In what was a limited war against an enemy only indirectly of any threat to New Zealand, it was also difficult to frame the actions of our armed forces as shielding. Doubts about legitimacy, or that armed force was being deployed as a shield, were also raised against Bomber Command. Such charges were bitterly contested, not least by the veterans of those campaigns. They too had served and sacrificed and, in the case of Bomber Command, suffered devastating casualties.

It is in remembering the New Zealand Wars, however, that the traditional narrative fails catastrophically. Where is the victory, honour, consensus, shielding, legitimacy or thanksgiving? All that we are left with is service and sacrifice. We require new narrative elements: atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation and restitution. These new themes are already beginning to affect they way we commemorate other wars.

Matthew Buck (centre) read the address at a service to mark the contribution of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company during the First World War at La Carrière Wellington at Arras, France

Date added: 08 November 2016 | Last updated: 09 November 2016