"What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in." So said British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, days after the signing of the armistice that ended WWI.
"I cannot think what these men have gone through," he said. "I have been there at the door of the furnace and witnessed it, but that is not being in it, and I saw them march into the furnace. There are millions of men who will come back. Let us make this a land fit for such men to live in.
"There is no time to lose. I want us to take advantage of this new spirit. Don't let us waste this victory merely in ringing joybells."
On Sunday, for the 106th time, thousands of New Zealanders gathered at cenotaphs and in halls to honour those who served and died at Gallipoli. They also remembered those who served, and died, in WWII, in Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, and other armed service abroad. We did this to honour the memory of those who did not come home, and, fittingly, those who did come home but in many cases paid a price that fell little short of the ultimate sacrifice. We honour the men and women who came home broken in body and spirit. We do this on April 25 every year. What do we do for the other 364 days?
New Zealand in 1918, and even more so in 1945, was already close, much closer than Britain in 1918, to being a land fit for heroes. But how it has changed. Is this still the country that thousands of New Zealanders fought and died for?
In June every year, like clockwork, we are told by the Minister of Police, whoever that happens to be, that reported crime over the previous 12 months has fallen. There is a reason for that. We have redefined crime. We now tolerate behaviour that would once have been punished. And many people have stopped reporting it, because nothing happens, or they have lost faith in the so-called justice system.
Meanwhile we have people shooting and stabbing each other. Gang members shooting at other gang members in Auckland's CBD. Wellingtonians, men and women, afraid to go into their CBD at any hour of the day or night.
We have a health system, once the envy of the world, that is failing, not just Māori, as we are told repeatedly, but New Zealanders. Our education system, once arguably the best in the world, is now demonstrably one of the worst. We hear of first-year science students at university who would be unlikely to pass a Year 9 exam. University students attending remedial reading classes.
School absenteeism rates are outrageous. Some schools are reporting regular attendance rates of 20%, a few even lower, 10%. We have schools in this country where 9 out of 10 children do not attend regularly. What do we do about that? Nothing. Well not quite nothing. We explain abysmal attendance rates by accepting that the education somehow failed these kids' parents, so their parents see no value in sending them to school. One thing we are not short of in New Zealand is excuses.
I don't know why my father volunteered in 1939. It might have been to defend our way of life, but I doubt it. Our way of life wasn't directly threatened by a war in Europe. More likely it was because he, like many of his generation, were loyal to Britain. But even if he wasn't offering to die for our way of life, he clearly believed in it. He believed in the family. Mum, dad and the kids. He believed that parents should be married. He believed in commitment. He believed in community. He raised his children to work hard, to take the opportunities that presented themselves, to respect their elders, to be polite and honest. To be true to their word. To avoid accepting charity, another word for social welfare. He believed that everyone had to make their own way in the world. He believed that everyone made their own bed, and had to lie in it.
Dad believed in the value of a good family name. He was not alone in that.
In our final days at Kaitaia College in 1970, my friends and I were told by one of our teachers, Bill Wilson, that when we left Kaitaia, no one would care who our parents were. And he was right. In Kaitaia, people did care. As a child, when I met an adult I didn't know, I would invariably be asked, whose boy are you? I would tell them who my parents were, and would be judged accordingly. Bill Wilson was right. In Auckland no one gave a toss about our families and what they had or had not contributed to their community, or how they had behaved themselves in the past. For the first time in our lives, we were judged as individuals.
That came as a revelation to me. I had grown up, never talking about it, but understanding that the worst thing I could do was to bring our family name into disrepute.
Now we seem to have lost the capacity for shame that was once such a powerful moderator of our behaviour. Our right, as individuals, to do as we please, has superseded our obligations to our community. Who cares?
Dad died in 1980, and in the 40 years that have passed since then this country has changed beyond all recognition. For too many of us now, life is just too hard. Social welfare has evolved from a proper, humane response to genuine need into a poison that has filtered down through every level of society. It has become toxic. It is destroying this country.
Dad left for Egypt in 1940, leaving behind a farm he was still in the process of buying, a wife and two small sons, who spent the war at Ahipara. I suspect he had every expectation of coming home, but that obviously could not be guaranteed. I know he didn't expect to be gone for six years, four of those spent in a prisoner of war camp, and I very much doubt that he expected to come home as broken as he was.
He and my mother had already endured a depression. They spent the rest of their lives enduring the effects of a war. Dad was 67 when he died, with very little, in a material sense, to show what he had achieved. Mum died 16 years later, aged 83, her reward for a lifetime of work being a modest house, a collection of tupperware and some much-loved cats.
Now life is so tough in this country that thousands of us can't feed our children. Even if we can, the state will feed them anyway. Thousands of us can't clothe our children properly. Thousands of us don't have the wherewithal to teach our children how to brush their teeth, and why they should do it. Thousands of us don't bother sending our kids to school.
Is this really what so many fought for? Would you expect them to look at what we have become, and to believe that what they did for us was a good investment in this country's future?
We should honour these men and women, but we should do that every day, not just today. The best way we can do that is to live our lives, and raise our children, in a way that would make them proud. A way that would have them believe that their sacrifices were not made in vain. We should live according to the principles that they fought and died for - for family, respect for others, responsibility for our own lives and for the wellbeing of those who depend upon us.
Making New Zealand a land fit for heroes is not the job of politicians. They wouldn't know where to start. It is a job for us, as individuals, as families, as communities and as a country. We should never forget what others have done for us, and show our gratitude for that in the way we live our lives.