New Zealand historian against government’s glorifying of World War I


By Tom Peters in New Zealand:

New Zealand historian discusses government’s book glorifying World War I

7 June 2014

The World Socialist Web Site recently spoke to historian Stevan Eldred-Grigg about the government-produced book, New Zealand and the First World War 1914–1919, published last November. The Ministry of Culture collaborated with the Defence Force and hired the ardent militarist Damien Fenton to write the book, which is one of about a dozen being produced as part of the country’s centenary commemorations of WWI.

Stevan Eldred-Grigg

Stevan Eldred-Grigg

The WSWS review characterised the book as pro-war propaganda, based on falsifications, omissions and distortions, designed to numb the consciousness of workers and youth in order to prepare them for future wars. WWI was an imperialist war, caused by the breakdown of the capitalist system, expressed in the struggle between the major powers in Europe, Asia and America for domination of colonies, markets and profits. More than 10 million people were killed, including 18,500 New Zealanders, and millions more were maimed. New Zealand’s ruling elite joined the war, as a junior partner in the British Empire, in order to expand its wealth and colonies in the South Pacific.

Fenton falsely presents the war against Germany and its allies as an altruistic endeavour. He celebrates New Zealand’s involvement, including its seizure of German-held Samoa, and its share in the plunder from Nauru. He concludes that WWI was “largely successful and profitable” for the country.

Eldred-Grigg is the author of The Great Wrong War: New Zealand Society in WWI (Random House, 2010), which examines the disastrous impact of the war on the country. He has written several other works of history and novels, including The Rich: A New Zealand History, New Zealand Working People, and Oracles and Miracles.

Tom Peters: As a historian, what do you make of Fenton’s book as a whole?

Stevan Eldred-Grigg: The fact that such an uncritical text is one that gets the official imprimatur is, of course, depressing—deeply depressing. It’s not surprising that it’s got the government, or the prime minister’s backing. But they [the researchers at the Ministry of Culture] should know better than that. They’re proper historians. Basically, he’s not a historian. He’s an antiquarian. Antiquarians are those who gather all the information they can about a subject and don’t know what to do with it, don’t know how to argue, how to critically appraise or analyse.

TP: There’s virtually no discussion of New Zealand’s invasion of Samoa at the start of the war.

EG: It gets one little box, and the carve-up of Nauru gets half a line—where it’s described as beneficial, as you pointed out in your review. No mention of the gross exploitation that was going on in Nauru. By the end of the war, one Samoan historian argues, Samoa had just become one big prison camp. There were curfews and very strict racial segregation of four groups: the whites, the Cantonese coolies (who were the bottom of the heap), the Samoans and the afekasi (part Samoan, part white).

Until The Great Wrong War, no New Zealand historian had discussed—in any mainstream history of New Zealand or about the war—our seizure of Samoa. Fenton should have integrated what I said about it. He hasn’t taken any account of my book. It’s not in the bibliography.

TP: You point out that there were long-standing designs on Samoa, Nauru and other places throughout the Pacific, even Hawaii at one stage.

EG: The New Zealand governing groups, the Liberals and Reform, both seem to have been equally strong on the idea of a New Zealand colonial empire in the Pacific. That actually seems to have been quite an important strand in the political elite’s thinking when we decided not to join the Federation of Australia—the sense that New Zealand should look towards the Pacific, that we had our own “manifest destiny.”

TP: Fenton claims New Zealand went to war partly because it faced a naval threat from Germany and relied on Britain for protection.

EG: That’s of course nonsense. Historians of the right have argued that our trade depended on Britain. Fenton accepts that. I went to a great deal of trouble to show that the largest market for our wool exports may well have been Germany, and they were also an important market for frozen meat. The German shipping line Norddeutscher Lloyd, one of the largest in the world, was also going to break the British shipping monopoly between Europe and New Zealand.

Then there’s the military defence argument: that we depended on the British navy to keep the seas clear of other navies, because if they didn’t do that, all those other predatory powers that wanted us would take us. Who exactly were those predatory powers? The only ones that had the capacity were the US and Japan. Japan was an ally, the US was neutral and became an ally. France, Britain and Germany were of no account in the Pacific by 1914.

Then they always add: the great majority of New Zealanders emotionally identified as British.

TP: Which is what he says.

EG: First of all, you have to take out the 10 to 12 percent Catholic Irish, who certainly did not see themselves as British, and saw the British Empire as a very dodgy enterprise. You have to take out most Maori, who—unlike what he says—did not flock to the colours, but stayed away in droves. You have to take out German and Scandinavian New Zealanders, for the most part, and a large number of Croat New Zealanders, and you have to take out Chinese New Zealanders.

Then there’s our colonial peoples, who had to be shovelled in to fill the recruitment quotas. Kalaisi Folau and Margaret Pointer have written a really moving work about the poor Niueans. Some of them volunteered, some got brow-beaten. They had terrible experiences. Most of them just got sick. In return, the whole community of Niue got a type-written letter with a mimeographed signature from the war minister, and some portraits of the king and queen to hang in a village hall.

You’ve still got an overwhelming majority of Anglo-Scots, something like 75 percent. But then of course you can start doing your class analysis.

TP: Fenton doesn’t discuss class at all.

EG: No, of course, class doesn’t exist, we’re all one united people. He talks about “New Zealand” as though it’s an organic unity.

It was really polarised. If you read the private papers of wealthy, conservative people before the war, there was a widespread anxiety about revolution—as there was everywhere in the capitalist world. There was also the very strong idea that “the people”—the working class—had become too prosperous, too demanding, and had lost touch with reality, and that war would restore true values. That was very widespread in New Zealand among conservatives, just as much as it was in Prussia, England, France and St Petersburg.

TP: And it was a very militarised society, as you explain.

EG: It was. One of the things I was struck by, when I first began looking at newspapers before the war, was the salience of military and naval images. The governors wore military uniforms. Children, boys and girls, wore naval uniforms. There was a lot of anger about compulsory military training among working class people and among Methodists and Baptists from the middle class. Those were the stalwarts of the peace movement.

In fact, in the years before the war, pamphlets were being published back in Britain, by New Zealanders, warning British working class people not to accept the blandishments of the New Zealand government giving them assisted migration, because their sons would end up being turned into cannon fodder.

TP: One of the shocking aspects of the book is that he completely endorses all the repressive measures taken by the government.

EG: Yes. Ostensibly, of course, a war fought for democracy and freedom, that’s what they kept banging on about. And the first thing you do, as soon as war breaks out, you bring in a whole lot of regulations to suppress democracy and freedom. As the war went on, the measures got sterner, and sterner, and sterner. They were continuing to strengthen them towards the end of the war.

TP: Anti-war meetings were prohibited.

EG: Anti-conscription meetings were prohibited as well, once it was introduced. And you couldn’t even speak in private against the war, so people were self-censoring.

Amelia Turnbull, an ordinary citizen, while seated at the family breakfast table, heard her son-in-law say something about not caring if Germany won the war. She dobbed him in, and he was sent to prison for twelve months. A bewildered old Norwegian woman, on the railway station at Palmerston North, who was having trouble with her baggage, began to abuse “you Britishers”, and she was sent to prison for six months.

So you couldn’t speak out, even in your own home. Of course, people did anyway, not everyone had that sort of mother-in-law.

The tradition which I grew up in, in my mum’s family, the unskilled working class, was that the whole thing was stupid: a stupid war. Mum had about eight uncles and of them one got into uniform. The others wagged, they ran away, they messed up the medicals. These were not idealistic conscientious objectors. These were just men who felt: this is stupid, it’s a fat man’s war, nothing to do with me.

A lot of people ran away to Australia or the US, especially the Irish. That’s another thing Fenton doesn’t touch on, the Catholic Irish opposition.

TP: He says there was a tiny proportion of people who resisted conscription.

EG: He doesn’t make any reference to the women’s riot in Christchurch that I looked at [1]. The government was very careful to phase in conscription: first of all targeting the single, then later on the young married with no children. By the time the married with children were being conscripted in 1917, the anger was widespread, and you got those huge crowds protesting about conscription and wartime inflation.

I was born in Blackball, a working class mining town, and in Blackball there’s a well-known story. There were a lot of men running away from conscription, or who’d deserted from the army. Some cops arrived in town to try and track some of them down, and some people from the miners’ union led the cops to the top of a big limestone bluff over what’s called Coal Creek. And they said, “See down there? It’s a long way, isn’t it? If you come back here doing this again, you’ll find yourself at the bottom.” That was the feeling in places like that.

There were quite a lot of strikes, because there was this increasing sense as the war went on that the working class were being shafted to pay for it. So they began to try to claw back some of their losses.

Blomfield cartoon, from the National Library of New Zealand

Blomfield cartoon, from the National Library of New Zealand

TP: Fenton claims that this cartoon from the Observer [see left] in December 1916 “illustrates the public anger at the prospect of coal miners and workers in other essential industries using wartime conditions to win higher pay and better conditions.”

EG: “The public anger”! Rather than capitalist anger… It’s worrying. The first task of a historian is to look at a piece of evidence and ask: who wrote it? Why did they write it? Who were they trying to persuade, of what, for what purpose? And he just doesn’t do that. He just accepts the newspapers!

TP: What do you think of how Fenton writes about the fighting itself? He praises the British general Douglas Haig and French general Henri-Philippe Petain, among others.

EG: I just find it so distasteful. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the world of historiography was largely liberal and left, we were being told that these people were wholesale slaughterers of the working class. But then there was a reaction against this. The New Right came in and stripped off, quite quickly, the thin skin of leftish liberalism on a lot of people.

So by the 1990s there were some historians in the old British Empire who were beginning to argue that the 60s and 70s response was just a sentimental, wet response, and a dry way of looking at it was: Britain won the war. That’s good, because Britain is good, it stands for justice. So, how did it do it? By killing millions of its soldiers, but by killing even more millions of the other people’s soldiers. Ipso facto, it was worth doing.

Some historians also began to stress what had previously just been regarded by the liberal left as the British rationale for intervention, which was the invasion of Belgium and the violation of an international treaty. So I went to some pains to point out how Britain violated two international treaties as soon as the war broke out.

TP: By attacking German colonies in Africa…

EG: Also, the British illegally and unilaterally, within a few months of the outbreak of war, defined contraband to mean anything going to the enemy, even to feed the civilians. But that’s not discussed by Fenton.

TP: He generally sanitises the fighting and New Zealand’s role.

EG: He doesn’t talk about the violence and exploitative behaviour of the New Zealand soldiers towards the Egyptians, which was all through the war. It was sustained and systematic.

He talks briefly about what has become glamorised as a romantic interlude: the riot in the Cairo brothel district. This is “our boys” attacking a lot of sex workers, who are making a really crap living. There’s no suggestion that the men, by buying these sexual services, are exploiting them. Then they get beaten up for their pains and have their houses burnt down.

TP: He says there was “mutual hostility” between the Egyptians and the Allied soldiers.

EG: Yes, as though it equals out. Rather than the New Zealanders being in an occupation force, with the population naturally enough not wanting to be occupied. The accounts of people who were there, written subsequently, talk about a lot of nasty stuff: New Zealand soldiers taking pot shots at Egyptians from the trains—things like that.

TP: What do you think of the images in the book, which are a large part of it?

The battle of Chunuk Bair

The battle of Chunuk Bair [2]

EG: The pictures are easy to look at and hardly any of them show the cost. Look at this painting of Gallipoli [see above]. Where’s the blood? Where are the body parts? That was a really disgusting battle. Within an hour or so, there were all these body parts everywhere. This is just total propaganda: good-looking young men, well dressed, not an intestine to be seen, not an eyeball hanging out.

It doesn’t show what it’s like to be killed or maimed in a pointless, bloody war. And what’s it like for the people left behind, who’ve got to carry the can. It’s just so heartless, it’s emotionless, its passionless, it has no real love of people.

TP: Why hasn’t it been criticised by anyone? The reviews all praise it.

EG: The Great Wrong War was my most unpopular book ever. All the reviews were very, very hostile. Because what you’re implying is that “our boys” suffered needlessly.

People haven’t really been encouraged to think critically about the two world wars. In the 1990s there was a lot of anxiety about how boys were not succeeding in the education system. So the content of New Zealand history was looked at, and it was decided to try to hook in boys by putting war in there. One unfortunate consequence has been that all these kids are now being taught war history in a quite an uncritical way.

A unit called “The Origins of the First World War” was taught at School Certificate level in the 1960s. It was great! It looked at imperialism, capitalism and all states aggressively manoeuvring, and all equally culpable.

The way it’s taught in schools now is that the war was like a tsunami, a natural force that came to New Zealand. Sort of dark, sad, but at the same time there were elements of heroism, and it drew us together and we did well and were brave. I think that’s a big part of why young people turn up in growing numbers for Anzac Day. It’s social engineering.

Note:

[1] See The Great Wrong War, pp. 373–374. Thousands of women rioted one afternoon in May, 1918, outside the King Edward Barracks in Christchurch. They shouted down officers who were attempting to take a roll call of conscripts, and called on the men not to go to camp.

[2] “The battle of Chunuk Bair, 8 August 1915.” The sesquicentennial gift to the nation from the New Zealand Defence Force. By Ion G. Brown, Major, Army artist. [Wellington, New Zealand Defence Force, 1990] http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=40955

Five weeks away from New Zealand’s election, the August 13 release of investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics has thrown a spanner in the National Party government’s re-election campaign: here.

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United States drones kill Australian, New Zealander in Yemen


This video is called Drone attacks in Yemen mostly hit civilians.

By Tom Peters:

Australian, New Zealand citizens killed by US drone strike in Yemen

17 April 2014

The Australian reported yesterday that five people, including Australian citizen Christopher Harvard and dual Australian-New Zealand citizen Muslim bin John, were the victims of an extra-judicial killing by a US Predator drone in Yemen on November 19 last year. This is the first reported instance of Australians and New Zealanders being murdered by a drone.

According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 504 people have been killed since 2002 by American drone strikes in Yemen. This includes at least three US citizens: Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan and 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. The Obama administration has greatly expanded the “targeted killing” program and asserted the right to kill anyone, in any part of the world, including US citizens.

Following yesterday’s revelations, Washington’s close allies in Canberra and Wellington both indicated their full support for the assassination of their own citizens. This sets a dangerous new precedent in the assault on democratic rights by Australian and New Zealand governments, both outside and within their own countries.

The Australian’s report stated that the primary targets were three “militants,” including Abu Habib, allegedly a leading figure in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and former associate of Osama bin Laden.

A “senior counter-terrorism source” told the paper that US authorities notified Australian officials after the drone strike, saying the Australian and NZ citizens were “collateral damage.” The same source described the men as “foot soldiers” for AQAP and said there was “a suggestion they were involved in kidnapping Westerners for ransom.” No evidence has been produced to substantiate these claims.

Harvard’s stepfather Neil Dowrick told the paper that his son went to Yemen in 2011 “to teach English.” The family was only informed of his assassination in December. His grandmother, Jeanette Harvard, said she had “heard three different stories” from government agencies about how her grandson was killed. She said the government told the family they would have to pay $40,000 to repatriate her grandson’s remains.

A spokesperson for Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the paper that she was “briefed on the situation last year” but so far no government minister has commented in public….

Bishop’s Department of Foreign Affairs today defended the drone strike. A spokesperson told Fairfax Media that being an Australian citizen was “not a protection” for people “engaging in potentially criminal activity overseas.”

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key described the assassination as “legitimate … given that three of the people killed were well known al-Qaeda operatives.” In other words, both governments accept and are complicit in Washington’s lawless operations—killing anyone it likes, without any semblance of due legal process, on mere suspicion of criminality.

In a chilling editorial today, the Australian fully endorsed the drone strike program, brushing aside the deaths of bin John and Harvard as “regrettable.” It admitted that “many” of the 3,300 people killed by drones in Pakistan and Yemen were “non-combatant civilians” but justified the murders on the basis that they prevented “the terrorists from committing even more atrocities.”

The Australian and New Zealand governments have not explained why the drone strike was kept secret from the public until now. Both claim that they had no prior knowledge of, or involvement in the strike, but this is highly unlikely. Australian and New Zealand intelligence agencies were undoubtedly informed, if not directly involved.

Last July, Fairfax Media revealed that Washington was “critically dependent” on the joint US-Australian spy base Pine Gap to pinpoint targets for drone assassinations in the Middle East. According to the reports, based on leaked information, there were “personnel sitting in airconditioned offices in central Australia directly linked, on a minute-by-minute basis, to US and allied military operations in Afghanistan and, indeed, anywhere else across the eastern hemisphere.”

Key yesterday told the media he was aware of bin John’s presence in Yemen last year and had personally signed a warrant for NZ’s spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), to monitor him. Key claimed—without providing any evidence—that bin John had attended “some sort of terrorist training camp.”

The revelation that the GCSB was monitoring bin John before he was killed raises the question of whether they provided intelligence to their US counterparts, thus making the Key government an accomplice in the murder of its own citizen. Australia and New Zealand are part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, which includes the US, Britain and Canada.

Until last August it was illegal for the GCSB to spy on NZ citizens and residents, but the law was changed—in the face of overwhelming public opposition—after a government-ordered review found that the agency had illegally spied on more than 85 people. The government can now lawfully spy on anyone it likes. It is not clear whether bin John was monitored before or after the law change.

Key used the revelations of the drone assassination to justify broadening the intelligence agency’s powers, telling reporters that it “shows … the things that I have been saying for quite some time—that we need our intelligence agencies to track our people, that there are New Zealanders who go and put themselves in harm’s way—have all been proven to be correct.”

New Zealand Green Party co-leader Russel Norman criticised Key for “saying it’s OK for foreign governments to execute New Zealanders offshore if they have beliefs about those New Zealand citizens holding views the US government doesn’t like.”

US drone strike kills 3 civilians in Yemen: here.

READ THE LEGAL MEMO USED TO KILL AN AMERICAN CITIZEN “‘This white paper sets forth the legal basis upon which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) could use lethal force in Yemen against a United States citizen who senior officials reasonably determined was a senior leader of al-Qaida or an associated force of al-Qaida.’ So begins a 22-page, heavily redacted, previously top-secret document titled ‘Legality of a Lethal Operation by the Central Intelligence Agency Against a US Citizen,’ which provides the first detailed look at the legal rationale behind lethal operations conducted by the agency.” [Vice News]

Here’s What Drone Attacks in America Would Look Like: here.

Over 400 American drones have crashed since 2001, according to a Washington Post expose.

CIA in Yemen: here.

Former Australian Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has been given prominent coverage in the Fairfax-owned press for his view that Australia should revise its interpretation of the ANZUS alliance with America, shut down US bases, including the crucial communications base at Pine Gap in central Australia, and end the stationing of US marines in Darwin: here.

Saving New Zealand skinks


This video from New Zealand is about Otago skinks.

From Wildlife Extra:

Endangered skinks collected in NZ for breeding

Eighty-five endangered grand and Otago skinks have been collected near Wanaka in New Zealand as part of a as part of a breed-for-release programme

Ongoing decline in western grand and Otago skink populations has prompted the Department of Conservation (DOC) and several other agencies to collect the skinks from their Grandview Range habitat in the Lindis. The skinks will be housed temporarily at zoos, wild life parks and eco-sanctuaries throughout New Zealand, as part of a breed-for-release programme.

“This programme aims to increase numbers of both species so they can be released back into secure sites within their former range,” Grand and Otago Skink Project Manager Gavin Udy said. “It is a great example of conservation agencies and individuals working together to ensure the ongoing survival of an iconic, unique and endangered New Zealand species,”

Grand and Otago skinks are two of New Zealand’s most distinctive and impressive lizards. Known as giant skinks, they are the country’s largest lizards, with Otago skinks growing up to 300mm in length and grand skinks 230mm.

These omnivorous lizards are diurnal, and don’t hibernate. They can live for up to 20 years in the wild, and give birth to live young – two or three a year. Both species are unique to Otago and are two of New Zealand’s rarest reptiles. They are now found in only eight percent of their former range and have the highest possible threat status, ‘Nationally Critically Endangered‘.

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New Zealand Subantarctic conservation


This video says about itself:

Sail south from New Zealand on board the Spirit of Enderby and experience the beauty of the Subantarctic Islands, a birding and wildlife paradise full of unexpected delights.

From Wildlife Extra:

Subantarctic marine reserves get Parliament’s approval

February 2014: Proposed legislation protecting three large marine reserves in the Subantarctic Islands is almost complete is about to become law, the New Zealand Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith announced. It is expected the new marine reserves will then take effect at a formal ceremony on Campbell Island on 2 March.

These three marine reserves expand the proportion of New Zealand’s territorial sea that is protected from 7.1 per cent to 9.5 per cent, and almost the target of 10 per cent, set the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

“This new law, when enacted, will create 435,000 hectares of new marine reserves surrounding the Antipodes, Bounty and Campbell Islands in New Zealand’s remote Subantarctic Ocean. The significance of these three new reserves is their huge size, near pristine state and remoteness. Their marine reserve status means there can be no fishing, no mining and no petroleum exploration within the protected areas,” Dr Smith said.

WWF-NZ welcomed the creation of these marine reserves as a positive step but warned that a comprehensive plan for marine protection in New Zealand waters is needed.

“Legislation to set up a comprehensive marine spatial plan for looking after our oceans should be a priority for this Government and whoever is in power for the next term,” said WWF-NZ Head of Campaigns Peter Hardstaff.

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