ANZAC Day Address 2010

Anzac Day Service 2010

 Thank-you for giving me the honour of addressing you today.

 Today I am going to try to answer two questions.

 What is it about New Zealand that made this country worth the sacrifices made by its people in wartime?

 And what does this mean to us, especially the young, in the New Zealand of today?

 I am going to start with three short stories and then show you how they relate it to us now in New Zealand.

 Firstly a story about my wife’s uncle, Vince Peterson.  I will then tell you about a birthday party in China.  And after that I will talk about how some men and women are making peace right now.

 The first story goes like this.  In 1941, during World War II, NZ forces were amongst Commonwealth and Greek forces defending the Mediterranean island of Crete against German attack.  After fierce fighting, the allies were forced back and were in retreat across the central mountains so that they could be evacuated to Egypt.  Amongst those soldiers was my wife’s uncle, Vince Peterson.   For a considerable part of that journey he carried a wounded mate.  As they were getting close to the embarkation point, they were strafed by a German fighter aircraft.  The mate was killed and Vince Peterson badly wounded.  Although he lived into old age, he was severely physically disabled for the rest of his life.

 This, I think you will agree, is a story of sacrifice and comradeship.  There is much that is ugly about war, but there is also much that is noble.

 The second story is set three years ago when my wife Marilyn and I were visiting the city of Suzhou in China, where the main attraction is a number of famous gardens – which is why we were there.  We became aware that on the same floor of our hotel a children’s birthday party was in progress.  They were occupying two rooms or suites – there was quite a large gathering of adults and children and there was a lot of laughter and running around, just as kids do at birthday parties all over the world.

 But why was it in a hotel?  The reason was that large unauthorised gatherings of people in private places are regarded as a potential threat to the government and are banned.  The Chinese government fears that people meeting together like that might be plotting against them.

 The third story is about peace-making and it is set in Afghanistan.  In the province of Bamyan you will find the New Zealand Defence Force’s Provincial Reconstruction Team In late February this year a district of that province was declared a peace district.  This means that all illegal weapons and munitions have been gathered up by the Afghan Police and handed over to the New Zealand  Provincial Reconstruction Team for destruction.

 Now that this has happened, aid money from the United Nations, New Zealand, United States and Italy is able to be used for health, education, agriculture, roads and the like.  Only one District in Bamyan has yet to be declared a peace District.  Our service men and women are playing an important part in creating the conditions that will make that province a place free of war.  They are peace making.

 So how are these stories connected and what do they mean to us today?

The birthday party in China was taking place because of rules that we would find unacceptable.  In New Zealand we can gather as we wish, form clubs and associations as we wish – and some of those clubs and associations will criticise the government and even work to change the government of the day.

 We regard freedom of assembly as a democratic right – in fact, so ingrained into our culture that we probably don’t think about it very much at all.  Alongside that we have a range of other freedoms – of speech, of movement, to choose our governments, to have a fair trial if we are arrested, and so on. 

 These are freedoms that come largely from the British heritage that most New Zealanders have, but are also confirmed in the histories of many other countries from where many of our ancestors have come.

 Alongside those freedoms, many would argue, come responsibilities.  And our first responsibility is to protect those freedoms.  These freedoms are very much part of what makes us New Zealanders and part of the democratic world – Australia, Britain, the United States – and, indeed, the Germany that our soldiers were fighting against in Crete.

 I think that Vince Peterson’s mate who died on Vince’s back, and Vince himself, were probably in the New Zealand Army and in Crete for a number of reasons. 

 One of those reasons was a sense of responsibility towards what makes New Zealand a country that is worth protecting.

 All countries have flags, all soldiers, aircrew and sailors have families and home towns, villages or farms to return to. But not all have the freedoms that we enjoy.  That, I hope, is a message for today.

 I expect that the little boy or girl who was having their birthday party that afternoon in Suzhou will grow up thinking about their responsibilities towards their country – but, unless things have changed in China by then, it won’t be for the sort of freedoms we enjoy in New Zealand.

 Maybe having to stage a birthday party outside one’s home doesn’t seem too much of a problem.  Sometimes, however, the consequences of a denial of liberty can be much more serious.

 In the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, you can today visit a former school that had been turned by the Khmer Rouge government in the late 1970s into an interrogation and torture centre, known as Tuol Seng or S-21.  There, thousands of people were tortured and then killed (either there or outside the city).  Almost all the victims were Cambodian, although there were some foreigners, including at least one New Zealander.  As you walk around the rooms, many of which are nearly empty, some divided up into crude and tiny cells, you are struck by the silence of the tourists.  There is almost no talking. 

 You are also struck by those rooms that are used for photo displays – quite large photos of the faces of the victims, photographed as they entered this school of horror.  You know that all are now dead and you know that they knew they were likely to die. You look into their eyes – in some you see fear, in some you see defiance.

 And then you enter a room with a display that asks: where are the Khmer Rouge people now? – well, they are there, still, in Cambodia.  They are leading ordinary lives – farming, running small businesses.  In the late 1970s they were only teenagers, manipulated and taught to believe that their victims were enemies of the people.

 The question that is asked in that room is: were they victims too?

 Whatever the answer to that question, one is reminded of what Irish judge John Philpot Curran said in 1790: The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance. Liberty is worth the sacrifice, worth the vigilance, worth the struggle.  Judge Curran was probably not talking about soldiering. Sacrifice, vigilance and struggle can take many forms.  And we need to remember that in the two World Wars, a lot of the sacrifice occurred on the home front, here in New Zealand.

 And what about the defence personnel in Bamyan, Afghanistan?

 They are there partly to maintain security.  That’s what soldiers do.  But they are also there because they, and we, know that war usually comes out of injustice, poor education, desperate living conditions – overall, a feeling of hopelessness about the future and, most importantly, a feeling that the only way that things can be changed is through violence.

 New Zealand has not had a history free of conflict.  In our colonial history, for instance, major wars were fought on New Zealand soil, one New Zealander against another, in the 1840s and 1860s.

 But those days have long passed, we all hope, and what our soldiers are doing in Bamyan in Afghanistan is peace making.

 They are creating the conditions where war will not be the way out of desperate situations – where education is universally available, where the police force and the politicians are not corrupt, where people can have a genuine say as to who their government is going to be and where people can farm, run businesses, work and raise families in safety.

 This is the kind of country we have.  This is the kind of country that is worth protecting and which has the kind of ideals that are worth promoting.  That is the responsibility of the today’s young people, of all ages! – and of each succeeding generation.

 It is often remarked that surprising numbers of young people – in fact, people in general – are turning out for ANZAC Day parades and services.  One cannot be sure why that is, but I would like to suggest a number of reasons.

 The first reason is probably a little trite, so I’ll get it out of the way first. Despite what most of us observe, I believe the media do try to find positive stories and every year the media runs stories about our wartime past and ANZAC Day.  In this media-oriented age, I think that has had an effect.

 I also suspect that there is a generation, perhaps my own, that feels it did not ask enough questions of their parents and grandparents, respectively the World War II and World War I generations – or perhaps those generations were for a long time unwilling to talk. Perhaps, there is a feeling that part of our nation’s story is in danger of being lost, so there is a new searching for it and a determination that the following generations will know something of it.

 I also see the renewed willingness to commemorate ANZAC Day and all that it means as a sign of growing New Zealand nationhood.  New Zealand went to war in 1914 because Britain declared for us. In 1939, unlike Australia, we made our own declaration, but it was still with Prime Minister Savage saying, referring to Britain, “Where she goes, we go. Where she stands, we stand.”  

 In a country where independence came gradually over eighty years or so and as a result we have no independence day, we see ANZAC Day as part of our coming of age. ANZAC Day and Waitangi Day have become our two national days, each being commemorated in different ways to acknowledge different facets of our history. 

The final reason, I would like to think, is really the reason I have started with.  We have built and continued to build, a new nation in the Pacific. Drawing on the heritages of the first Maori arrivals and on those of later arrivals – the British, the Irish, the Samoans, the Dutch, the Italians, the Chinese, the Croatians – and so on – the list now is very long – to create a society where we have democratic freedoms that are worth protecting, as with the soldiers in past wars, like the two in Crete, and worth promoting as New Zealanders are doing in countries like Afghanistan.

 The soldiers and civilians at the time of Gallipoli and Passchendaele in World War I, came to believe that they were fighting the “War to end all Wars”. There were lessons not learned from that conflict.  What we have learned, however, over the ensuing century, is that justice and freedom are almost guaranteed to mean that war is not necessary to bring about better lives.  

The soldiers of our past and present had and have a strong sense of justice, freedom and responsibility, and that is the fundamental idea that the nation of New Zealand is built upon.

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4 Responses to “ANZAC Day Address 2010”

  1. Katrina Hawker Says:

    A great address David. Sorry we didn’t hear it in person but ill health intervened.

  2. Russell Stalker Says:

    Congratulations David on an outstanding and thoughtful address.
    Eila, whose father served in France in World War I, joins me in thanking you.

  3. David Ayers Says:

    Thank-you for the kind comments, Katrina and Russell.

  4. Richard Heal Says:

    As a newly arrived Pommie in Rangiora, I believe your comments and stories explain the pride that my new friends in this country have in their homeland – ‘good on yer’ David.

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