This is a speech I gave to the Paraparaumu RSA Dawn Service on 25 April 2005. It’s posted as part of my archival effort on this blog.
It is a great honour to be invited back here for a second opportunity to speak at this commemoration. The Kapiti Coast is blessed with fantastic weather and a relaxed lifestyle. Notwithstanding recent development, it still represents, in many ways, the New Zealand of our childhood memories. Those same memories – of endless summers, beaches and entertaining friends have sustained young Kiwis from their first days in Devonport, Waiouru and Wigram through the privations of Gallipoli and a thousand other scenes of conflict from Bloemfontein to Flanders, Tobruk to Panmunjom, Sintang to Dili and Basra. To understand what servicemen and women thought during the hours of boredom between battles you need only look around you.
Many of you know the horror of war. While TV can now take us into battle scenes, it cannot take us into the hearts of those who choose to be there. There are still as many reasons for volunteering to serve your country as there ever was. From adventure to mateship, deep philosophical and political beliefs to family pressure or the wish to prove adulthood, young Kiwis have unhesitatingly put their lives on the line decade after decade. So too have our Australian neighbours and the best young people of every country in the world. We who have served can look into our own hearts and draw deductions with confidence about what the fallen would want us to remember. Amid the chaos and discomfort, the exhaustion and the boredom – one desire rises above all others – PEACE.
But if peace is simply the absence of war, then we have let the fallen down badly. More people have died in conflicts since the end of the Second World War than during it. As it says in the book Animal Farm “all it would have taken was for the horses to act, but they did not, and so the pigs ruled”. Eliminating conflict and bloodshed is a noble goal and one we should continue to pursue. But its achievement will not bring peace – for the same reason that the TV and movies cannot actually show you anything about war. Peace only exists in the hearts of men and women. And it does not come because they live in a place free of war but when they have freedom. Ultimately, our mates died expressing that freedom and in its service. But freedom cannot exist without personal responsibility. They are two sides of the same coin. If ever there was a time to renew the struggle for freedom here and overseas it is now.
How do we achieve that? How do we ensure that our children’s children enjoy that hard-won legacy? Freedom exists where strong, effective leaders stand. But we must be careful about what we think is effective leadership. A colleague at university told me of his study into leadership. The findings showed that leaders should ideally be tall and strong, of dark complexion with a loud deep voice and steely gaze. While presenting his findings, a member of the audience asked “so a myopic, skinny, bald person with a squeaky voice couldn’t lead then?” The researcher nodded agreement. “So how do you explain Mahatma Gandhi?” the questioner retorted. Everyone one of us here today has a leadership role in our community – to imbue the legacy of freedom. Gandhi’s closest aide was asked once “Why is Gandhi so effective at delivering his message?”
“That’s easy to answer,” the aide replied. “Everything Gandhi thinks, and feels, and says, and does is in perfect alignment.”
We are all at the front line of the war for freedom every moment of every day. During the reading of the lines and at commemoration services, we openly show our respect for the fallen. For the rest of the year, I believe we need to work consistently to honour the memory of the fallen by ensuring, like Gandhi, that we act consistently towards freedom’s achievement. Being horse or pig is our personal choice every day.
We cannot legislate freedom any more easily than we can pass laws that demand people to be tolerant. But we can demand that our law makers remove the barriers to freedom. Each and every one of us has a duty passed on from those who have served before us to demonstrate tolerance and respect for freedom. With that comes the responsibility to be able to take action against those who would try to take our freedom away. You might think that you can’t do anything much. But your life is your message to the world. Mandela is a person who knows the price of freedom. He is often mistakenly quoted as saying this – “Making yourself small just so others around you feel comfortable does not serve the world”. So stand up and be counted veterans.
A group of veterans that knows all too well about deprivation of freedom is POWs and internees. Their ability to fight for what they believed in was taken along with all but the most fundamental human rights. Sometimes even the latter were snatched away. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the camps wrote “the people who survived the camps were not necessarily the strong or the collaborators. They were the people with unfinished business. It may have been a promise to take their son fishing or to teach their daughter to ride a bike. It sustained them and gave their survival purpose. Once they had a meaning, they could cope with anything. We who value freedom also have unfinished business, both in this country and overseas.
That brings me finally to capability. The hairs on my neck stand up when I visit Pa sites, or the old US Marine base at McKay’s Crossing or the multitude of closed facilities like RNZAF Base Levin. I sense the old warriors there shaking their heads sadly and saying “Has this country learned nothing?” A lot has been said about defence expenditure over the years. But we know not to mistake spending on hardware with capability. Capability is not about hardware but about coherent policy, strong alliances and most of all, us – he tangata, he tangata, he tangata: the people.
The Defence Force is struggling more than ever before to attract and retain staff. Why? As Frankl said “without meaning, effort and struggle has no purpose.” The Territorial Force and Naval Reserve, society’s main link with the forces, have been all but destroyed largely through intransigence. We ignore or insult our traditional allies and allow that to be presented as us stamping our national individuality on the world. Some kid themselves that getting rid of links to the Crown and Union Jack will somehow define us better as a nation. These changes may come to pass but they will not be the path to national individuality, only a reflection of it after the event. If we have one major piece of unfinished business to perform as veterans and in memory of those who have fallen, it is to stand firm every day against attacks on freedom, whether they come at the end of a gun or in more guileful forms.
As the old Scottish saying goes…whas like us? Damn few and they’re mostly daid! Enjoy your day. I look forward to singing a few songs with you all later.
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