Patriotism in action

Guest column by Martin Gibson, as published in Gisborne Herald, Saturday 28 April.

As I listened to the Last Post echo across the rivers I wondered about the best way to be patriotic these days.

Not some elite-approved token patriotism of watching sport, or boorish jealous hassling of our Australian brothers in arms, but action, effort and sacrifice for the idea of New Zealand, and kinship with those who live here.

What would those East Coast Diggers, sailors and airmen have wanted us to do besides turn up at the Cenotaph on Anzac Day to remember them?

When it comes to asking questions about what the veterans we honour on Anzac Day would want of us, I have an advantage, because my neighbour survived WW2.

When I asked him what he thought was the best way for us to be patriotic, he scratched his head, then said it was probably for people to appreciate freedom by standing up for it, even if it’s someone else’s welfare or freedom.

“It’s so easy for us to live in our own bubbles, watch the telly and just think of ourselves. We need to get out of our bubbles and help each other . . . I reckon that’s pretty patriotic,” he said.

The growing crowds of young people at cenotaphs each Anzac Day suggest a desire to follow the example of those men and women who had courage, sacrifice and selflessness extracted from them by the time of their birth.

We know that, by contrast, our time allows cowardice to go mostly undetected. It favours the greedy and fosters the belief that individuals are more important than the health of society.

In our hearts we know this will never bring the best out of us individually or as a community.

Is it possible to get some of the benefit of wartime without the conflict, futility and waste?

We need to keep sifting the wheat from the chaff in terms of the legacy of war, because war is hell.

Servicemen who returned bristling with the tapu of Tu brought wars back into our homes, where they continue to rage even today, spilling out into our streets in gangs and schools, killing and wounding.

Heavy drinking is handy for someone trying to briefly erase horrible memories, but the behaviour of heroes was followed by generations after.

We do not honour our veterans by ignoring the mental and spiritual illness they brought back and in many cases spread around.

As I walked home from the dawn parade, I passed the council chambers and army hall. I stopped a while and thought about the young men who had once stood there.

I imagined them waiting to sign up, trying to appear brave, hands often calloused from building our houses and shops, clearing bush and building fences in the hills around the East Coast. Some barely out of primary school. Excited by how life was about to veer from dull hard work to meaning, heroism, history, adventure. Away from Gisborne, out of Te Tairawhiti to see the world and be tempered in the fires of war!

Perhaps it is that willingness to serve we should begin to honour, rather than bad luck in the roll of the dice, the drop of the bomb, the sweep of the machine gun, or an unexpected talent for killing.

This way we can also honour those who did not see combat, including the women left to do the work, raise the kids and cope with the loss.

We can look with equanimity at those who refused to go and often suffered worse.

Each year, more and more young people turn up to the cenotaphs, signalling the will to step up and serve also evident in Canterbury’s Student Army after last year’s quakes.

Rather than despairing of our young people, it is time we offered them their own testing missions with meaning.

Whether they are combating hunger, declaring war on pests, defending treeless rivers, rescuing polluted water, here or overseas, they deserve some well-organised, well-resourced heroic missions that may echo down the generations to come.

If we can find the will to act decisively without being forced to act, our great advantage is that we can pick our battles, and these have the potential to leave us with more leaders and heroes, not fewer.

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