Paul Moon: We need to feel the hurt to know the loss

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Passage of time renders traumatic events remote but it is the grief of communities that mark Anzac Day.

The death of three construction workers touched the Hobsonville community. Photo / Chris Gorman
The death of three construction workers touched the Hobsonville community. Photo / Chris Gorman

The Hobsonville War Memorial Park reclines on the corner of Hobsonville and Ockleston Roads in Hobsonville. It is remarkable solely for being utterly unremarkable, with the only indication of its commemorative role appearing in the form of a set of low concrete pillars at the entrance gate, inscribed with the familiar years "1914-1918" and "1939-1945", prompting those familiar with our past to recall the two greatest traumas of the 20th century.

The prodigious industry in books and films about the world wars testifies to the lasting impact of these international conflagrations on the popular imagination, but at the same time, it is the smallest of monuments, such as this one in Hobsonville, which are mute reminders that global conflicts leave local scars.

The problem with this humble edifice, and hundreds like it around the country, is that as the years go by, the wars they memorialise become less personal recollection, and more historical abstraction. It is no one's fault that this happens.

It is simply that the passage of time eventually renders events too remote to be a part of personal memories. The consequence is that for most young people, World War II is now just as abstruse as the Crimean War.

This is to be expected. How can someone born after World War II comprehend the sense of loss that New Zealand communities felt when some of their number were killed in that conflict? Realistically, we cannot reconstruct a form of grief we have not encountered. To do otherwise would be an act of emotional self-deception.

Yet, a faint semblance of the shared anguish that a community experiences over deaths can be traced in Hobsonville. Because a few hundred metres from the Hobsonville War Memorial Park is the site where, on December 6 last year, three men were killed when a series of tornadoes twisted and churned their way through the area.

As I talked that afternoon to teachers, people at the local shops, and nervous parents picking up their children early from school - with the skies overhead still leaden and threatening - what was palpable was a sense that the entire community was feeling this terrible loss. It was not as though anyone I spoke with knew the dead men personally, but the rumours that three "locals" had been killed were enough for private tragedy to unfold into public grief.

The loss that Hobsonville experienced during the world wars dwarfs the deaths caused by the tornadoes in the suburb last year to the point where direct comparisons serve little purpose. However, the two episodes are united by the way in which the community reacted, and in the sombre solidarity borne of shared despair.

There has been talk of plans to erect a memorial to the three men killed in Hobsonville in the December tornado. It will give cause for those of us in the vicinity at that time to reflect on events, but no doubt, in a few generations, that monument too will recall an event no longer a direct memory for most people.

New Zealanders generally tend to shy away from uninhibited emotional outpouring, and our many modest war memorials echo this restraint. Perhaps there is an advantage to the plainness of these monuments. They allow us to focus not on the grandness of the edifice but the far greater stature of what they stand for: the terrible waste of lives cut short.

But if the refrain that "we will remember them" is to be anything more than a mumbled dirge, then reminding ourselves of the sense of grief at the heart of Anzac Day would be a good start. Above the all homilies to sacrifice, valour, bravery, and so forth, it is grief of communities that shrouds the day, lest we forget.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and the author of several books on New Zealand history.

- NZ Herald

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