Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Cringe: 4 years of WWl flashbacks

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Bringing in the casualties in the first stage of the Third Battle of Ypres. Photo / British Imperial Museum
Bringing in the casualties in the first stage of the Third Battle of Ypres. Photo / British Imperial Museum

If you're starting to worry about the Rugby World Cup-like hysteria slowly building around the upcoming centenary of the Gallipoli defeat, be very afraid.

The Ministry of Culture and Heritage wants to expand the "lest we forget" commemorations to embrace the whole four years of World War I.

Four long years of Kaiser Bill and Ypres, the Somme, Mons and Passchendaele and Flanders fields, and yippee we won. By the end of it, even Sky's "Hitler" channel will seem like a blessed escape.

My degree is in history and politics, and my fascination for the past has never waned, but this fixation we have on the final great apocalyptical struggle between the great European empires is slightly unhealthy. If there's money for nation-building milestones in our history, isn't it time we climbed out of the muddy and bloody trenches of the old world and started identifying with events closer to home?

Today, Auckland councillors at the parks, recreation and heritage forum are being asked to support "a leadership and co-coordinating role in the centennial of World War I."

This follows approaches from the Wellington bureaucrats. Proposals include ensuring war memorials and cenotaphs and RSA cemeteries "are well presented and fit for purpose" and an "Our Boys", project allowing Aucklanders to research men who fought in the Great War.

There's talk of establishing a "Great War Heritage Trail", with plaques identifying sites related to the war, and of "a significant work of art for the Auckland Domain." There's even mention of a "heritage festival".

The ministry's briefing paper to incoming Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson last December says the World War I commemorations it is planning "will provide [him] opportunities and some potential challenges". It reminds him of his cabinet colleagues' adoption of a "commemorations policy" in 2009, with a prioritised list of "major" and "other" national events.

"Military events and anniversaries dominate the list over the next five years, particularly those connected with the centenary of the First World War, 2014-18, in which there are opportunities for you as minister to play a leadership role."

Of course there's a cast of thousands, including "an ad-hoc ministerial group" chaired by the minister, "an eminent persons" panel which will be the public face of the commemorations, a programme office within the ministry, and "an interagency officials' steering group", with a representative from, it seems, anyone who has missed out belonging to any of the first three groups.

Details of the budget have been withheld , under section 9 of the Official Information Act.

On October 4, 2010, the Cabinet approved the official "prioritised list of major and other anniversaries" through to 2016. Major events are categorised as "nation-changing".

Apart from this year's Diamond Jubilee of the Queen, all the events are military.

Last year, the only major anniversary the experts could identify to commemorate was the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal New Zealand Navy. This year, the Queen's jubilee shares the spotlight with the 75th anniversary of the Royal NZ Air Force. None of which seems very "nation-changing" to me. Unlike the choice for 2013 of the 150th anniversary of the Waikato Wars.

The year 2014 has five, including the centenary of World War I, the 75th anniversary of World War II and three other war events. Gallipoli has solo spot in 2015, and the Battle of the Somme takes the 2016 honours.

I'm ancient enough to recall, as a kid in New Plymouth, having to stand in silence in the street when the fire siren went off at 11am on November 11, to mark the 1918 Armistice signed between the exhausted foes.

These days, we concentrate our commemorations for those who served in wars overseas on Anzac Day.

And until now at least, unlike our Australian cousins, we've resisted the temptation to turn Gallipoli into some crucible of the nation-type event. Though whether we'll be able to escape the transTasman hoopla starting to grow about centenary is another question.

The withering away of the November 11 observations was a natural enough response to the passage of time. Life would come to a standstill if the living were expected to come to a halt on the anniversary of every war or natural disaster experienced by their ancestors. There's a time to move on. Which is why I'm starting to cringe at the thought of four years of World War I flash-backs.

The politicians and tourist bosses in the Belgian state of Flanders have an obvious motive for talking this anniversary up. It was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting a century ago and they're pouring millions of euros into "The Great War Centennial Project", aiming "at promoting Flanders' visibility across the international arena ... by conducting this commemoration as a top-level, yet serene event ..."

Their mission is to spread the message of "peace" and "tolerance" and also "to considerably increase peace tourism in Flanders".

If the Belgians can make a buck out of battlefield tourism, then so be it, but it doesn't explain why we would want to rake over the coals of a 100-year-old war. Indeed, what are the motives of a Ministry of Culture and Heritage, to say nothing of the Government that rubber-stamped their list, that can find only anniversaries related to death and killing worthy of celebrating.

If they're hoping to identify the birthplace of our national identity, I'd like to think its origins lie closer to home than the battlefields of Europe.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

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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