As part of the approach to the 100th anniversary of ANZAC day, ‘Field Punishment No.1’ has been scheduled to air on April 22nd at 8.30pm on TV One.
To watch the trailer, click HERE.
Wilfred Owen wrote “All a poet can do today is warn.”
Despite their philosophical differences, I think there were many similarities between Wilfred Owen and Archibald Baxter, whose story is told in Field Punishment No.1 – not the least of which was their fierce and public condemnation of war. One of them fought and one of them objected, but both protested as loudly as they could.
Baxter’s story is both harrowing and inspiring. Despite his actions being seemingly at odds with those of the soldiers fighting in the trenches, I don’t think it’s inappropriate for his tale to be told while we celebrate the men who fought. All of these men were fighting for what they believed in. They all had to find, within themselves, superhuman reserves of courage and strength. I’m sure all of them would have ended the war in an instant if they could have. The motivations and machinations of their generals and leaders must have seemed very distant abstractions to them as they lay sick, injured and lice-infested in the trenches.
1914 – British and German troops celebrate Christmas together having put their guns down and stepped out of the trenches to share some beer and cigarettes for a day. (Photograph taken from Eyewitness to History)
War commands people to cast aside their humanity at the same time as commanding them to fight for it. It orders people to kill other people’s children to protect their own. But just as I can understand Baxter’s refusal to engage in such a brutal event, how can I not be grateful to the soldiers who endured it in order to defend their freedom and way of life – and mine, 100 years later? The circumstances of war aren’t simple and if there were clear solutions to the problems at the heart of these conflicts, surely they would never begin. I feel that the subject is big enough to allow room for us to embrace more than one view, more than one story, in our attempts to better understand it.
So I am asking myself, in honour of this bittersweet anniversary – what am I doing to defend my freedom and my way of life? And I think that, if I want to honour the memory of the people who fought for those things on my behalf, I need to keep asking myself that question every day.
A hundred years have passed and wars continue to be waged all over the planet – no longer in trenches but now with drones, computers, satellites and, not least, the global media with its capacity to influence, persuade, distract and – horrifyingly – its directive to entertain.
In New Zealand, we live in peace. But here, and in many other parts of the world, issues like racism, widening economic gulfs, the corporate conquest of nature and the environment, and the pursuit of profit without social accountability are things that compound and conspire to threaten the peace we are so fortunate to have. If we fail to consider how fragile this luxury of peace really is, how vulnerable our civility is in the face of violence, injustice and deprivation – and how high the standards to which we hold our leaders and politicians must be in order to protect our freedom – then I don’t think we are honouring the memory of our soldiers.
Every time we find ourselves distracted by celebrities, by clothing labels, by how we look, by how much we weigh, by how big our cars are, by how much we earn, we should ask ourselves; Why we are being distracted? Who is distracting us? And in whose best interests are we being distracted? I’m not talking about conspiracy theories – I’m talking about the ways in which we’re conditioned to make the meaningless meaningful so that we slowly lose our power, our autonomy, our self-esteem and our perception of value. We should ask ourselves whether we are awake to the ways in which our most basic freedoms are being threatened – quietly, insidiously and on a daily basis. And about how complicit we are in allowing this to happen – how willing we are to give our freedom up.
I don’t think the political forces that create wars appear suddenly, from nowhere. I think they gestate in the deep, discontented corners of ourselves. They reproduce themselves in living rooms, schools, offices and churches…
So when we remember our soldiers and the people who loved them, opposed them, were killed by them or saved by them, we should also think about the tightrope we walk during times of peace – what peace means and why we must never take it for granted.
Baxter survived being sent to the front. Owen was killed in action, exactly a week before the Armistice. Owen was a soldier as much as he was a poet – he wanted to fight, to defend “the language of Keats” as he put it. But he wrote not of patriotism and glory, he wrote about the truth of what he saw – horror and waste – just as Baxter did.
None of us are as different as our shadow selves would have us think. Delegations from New Zealand and Australia will be travelling to Gallipoli this month – to stand together with their former enemies in the place where their ancestors fought and died. In Memorial Cove there is a commemorative wall with these words, written in 1934 by Ataturk, who commanded the Turks military response to our Allied soldiers:
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”