Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: World seems to have learned little in past century

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

On Sunday I stumbled on War News, the local attempt to retell the World War I story through the eyes of a radio journalist broadcasting live from the front.

But having just escaped from live television reports of the horror that is the MH17 crash site in Ukraine, War News just reinforced my deep unease about the whole World War I industry that has emerged to exploit the centennial of the great "war to end all wars".

Even ignoring the fact that radio broadcasting didn't emerge until after the end of hostilities in 1918, an actor in an Edwardian tweed suit shouting into a microphone in a fake trench was just farcical, when on Al Jazeera and assorted other news channels you could watch the real thing.

And for those tired of Ukrainian sunflower fields littered with plane and body parts, then cross to Palestine, where the Israeli troops had rolled into downtown Gaza while the world's attention was centred on the crippled Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, on a blitzkrieg, massacring scores of local residents in the process, including many innocent kids.

Until the missile attack on MH17, which killed 298 unsuspecting passengers and crew, a friend of mine had been quite looking forward to the upcoming four years of World War I hoopla.

A keen student of history, he was warming to the endless pointy-headed analysis and reinterpretations to come. But not any more. He feels uncomfortable commemorating "the war to end all wars" when 100 years on, the killing goes on - with the aid of television, in our own front rooms.

Sometimes it's as though little has changed. At the beginning of June, having annexed the territory of Crimea from neighbouring country Ukraine, Russian leader Vladimir Putin joined other world leaders in France for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing. That was not part of World War I, but the similarly ruinous world war that was to follow, 21 years on.

Media reports hinted that relations between Putin and his European counterparts were frosty at the meetings six weeks ago. But not censorious enough to force him to leave.

If as a result of the appalling slaughter of World War I, the world's leading powers had perfected a way of sorting out future differences in more peaceable ways, commemorating the victims of the 1914-1918 conflict might have some point.

It could be argued they had not died in vain. But are the millions of soldiers buried in immaculately manicured graveyards going to feel honoured by gatherings of world leaders who seem to have changed little in their attitude to conflict resolution over the past 100 years?

The biggest difference is that the United States, which was a very reluctant starter in the 1914-18 conflict, is now the hardest to tie down, having over the past 60 years triggered conflicts that have caused devastation to wide stretches of Indo-China and, more recently, Afghanistan, the Middle East and parts of North Africa.

Closer to home, the Government has budgeted $17 million for "one or more large-scale commemoration projects" and for "activities and events which will bring New Zealand communities together".

But the big blow-out is on a trench to underground Buckle St, which runs in front of the Wellington National War Memorial and Carillon. Originally priced at $75 million, the Government admitted last November that the 300m underpass would now cost $120 million. Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee was reported as saying the increase was not astronomical. The underpass will get a lid on it, allowing World War I eventers to gather before the war memorial and spread out over the top of the buried road into a new park.

If there was any good news to report back to those who had died a century before on New Zealand's behalf, perhaps I could justify this spending. But when you see in your front room hooded, armed terrorists posing before the felled Malaysian jet, and film of three terrified boys fleeing along a Gaza beach from a rocket salvo from an Israeli patrol boat that has already killed some companions, you have to ask, what it is we can report back to our martyrs.

The answer is, not a lot. A hundred years on, the world continues to solve our disputes the way we always have. By killing one another. The only advance is that we've developed more efficient, fiendish and deadly ways of doing so.

Until now, I was unaware that one of the five major national commemorations to be observed over the next four years at the National War Memorial will be in October 2017, to commemorate the war in Sinai/Palestine.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage explanatory data says that seizing the town of Beersheba from Ottoman forces "was considered the key to taking Gaza due to its strategically vital water wells".

The New Zealand Mounted Rifles "played a vital role in the Battle of Beersheba" and in "the eventual capture of Gaza from Ottoman forces".

It's such a big deal that New Zealand plans to travel to Israel to participate in Battle of Beersheba commemorations. Let's hope there are no trigger-happy gunboat captains offshore.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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