Editorial : Those Medals

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 44, Easter 2008

Few stories have created more furore in recent times than the audacious theft in December 2007 of 96 war medals from the Waiouru Army Museum. They included nine Victoria Crosses, the highest award for war action in the British Commonwealth. Everybody from the prime minister to the lowliest army recruit weighed in with an opinion as to the sanctity of the stolen objects. ‘The very soul of the nation has been stolen and desecrated,’ was one opinion, and rewards totalling $300 000 were offered for their safe return. At one stage forty police were on the job.

In recent weeks a secret deal brokered by Auckland lawyer Chris Comeskey saw the return of the medals and reward monies paid out, it seems, to the thieves themselves or allies of them. This created a further furore in parliament as politicians sought answers in accordance with their political stance.

I must say I was intrigued and somewhat stunned from day one of this event as to the symbolism many placed on the medals. I know they represent an important dimension of our history. I have no desire to belittle those who won them. But what part do the medals really represent in our national psyche? That is what concerns me. After all, we are supposed to be a nation that has led the world in opposing nuclear developments. We have just hosted an international conference to ban cluster bombs. Peacemakers not warmongers. That has been the part I have been most proud of whenever I have been overseas. It was positive, sane and Christian. I stood tall on that and took all the kudos as it was handed out. Now I sense a creeping sense of militarism emerging, undermining our identity as a modern peacemaker nation.

Of course it is fitting and right that the medals be returned to their rightful place in the Army Museum. I appreciate that for many ‘the medals are priceless with infinite emotional value,’ as columnist Rosemary McLeod says. ‘Their values lies in their associations, the stories of heroic deeds, knowing who handled them, who wore them, who kept them modestly in a box.’

But I am still worried as it seems the medals symbolised something bigger than their reality. It is to do with the psyche of our nation. You see, I am worried too by the revitalisation of ANZAC day observances over the past decade. It is not that I want to belittle the efforts of soldiers, mostly conscripted, who went to war and died in the process. That is what war does. It is bloody. It is deadly. It rips families apart. It creates generations of orphans, widows and maimed people. It produces huge numbers of drug addicts and alcoholics among returned servicemen and women. When I worked at the Catholic Worker in 1982 in New York, one third of the 30 000 homeless people in that city were Vietnam vets, mostly with injuries, addictions and mental health issues. War has no glory. The inscription on the war memorial, ‘the glorious dead’ is, I am sure, not how the dead see it.

But those who propagate war and make money from it are happy to sentimentalise annual remembrance ceremonies. None more so than in the US where so-called patriotism is a national disease which blights so much of what is good there. So much patriotism is built on propaganda. Remember the weapons of mass destruction which led to the current war in Iraq? Didn’t exist. Straight propaganda. Remember the Gulf of Tonkin in ‘68 where the US engineered an ‘incident’ which allowed their politicians to consider a full scale invasion? The US economy has been a permanent war economy for so long now that most take it for granted. In a war economy, the needs of the military take precedence over all other needs – schools, hospitals and clinics, housing the homeless, programmes for the poor. There is a need for a continuing number of wars to keep the economy ticking over. Iran looks to be next in line.

Thank God we don’t have a war economy here in New Zealand. The current government is to be commended for keeping our troops away from Iraq and not being sucked into the demonic continual round of war that the US empire engages in. There are other hopeful signs. Maybe the UK and Australia with new leaders will pull back from their commitments to foreign theatres of war as well? Rest assured the arms industry will fight such a move. We need to be careful about ANZAC Day being hijacked by similar sentiment and interest groups.

Which leads me back to those medals. I am glad they are back. They should never have been stolen. But forty police? Perhaps what is more disturbing is how easily our status as a peacemaking nuclear-free nation is being stolen subtly by the propaganda that surrounded the medal theft and continues to surround each ANZAC day. We need to be vigilant about that.

—JC

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