Arthur Palmer 9 November, 2014
NZ is generally regarded as a reasonably successful functioning democracy, in which there is widespread acceptance of the body of laws that governs us, with only minor disagreement. Improvements here and there are regularly proposed, debated and sometimes added to the whole body of law and custom, and no one suggests that this process should cease. The only proviso is that all must be done peaceably in an orderly fashion. Any attempt to suppress debate by force is frowned on and, if serious, dealt with by police.
We have become accustomed to seeing our Police Force operate without a show of weaponry, although we know that weapons are there in the background, and can be called upon if the legal authority is challenged by force. But this happens rarely, and when it does there is a strong public reaction condemning the offender. Usually this is someone lacking a sense of solidarity with the society in which he lives – it is normally a male in such cases. Often there is a mental health disability involved. If excessive force from a weapon is called into play by the Police, this will be questioned, and an inquiry may follow. But it is rare for our Police Force to be censured. We pride ourselves that respect for their authority is such that this will win the day.
There is a fundamental difference between the rationale for the Police Force and that for the Armed Forces of the Defence Dept. The police have the responsibility of keeping order in a society that has trained and appointed them to see that all our social activities are conducted peaceably, without hindrance to other members going about their lawful business. The police are there to lubricate and assist the process.
The Armed Forces, on the other hand, have only ceremonial duties to perform in NZ, apart from training in the arts of war. It is presumed that this is important in a world where other nations or groups may see us as unfriendly rivals. Past history, so we are told, warns us that we must be strong to repel attack, and also strong to honour our international obligations to allies. If these should involve us in actual warfare, then we will certainly not be assisting in much progressive activity beyond our shores. Our object will be to inflict sufficient damage to enemy life and their society’s infrastructure to bring about a conclusion in our favour. This is what our armed forces have been trained to do when diplomacy fails to resolve an issue to our satisfaction.
It must be enormously frustrating to spend long years in learning and refining the skills associated with one’s career, yet rarely have the chance to demonstrate how effective these are in real life situations. This is the case with the peacetime soldier and bomber pilot, submariner and weapons designer, military strategist and armaments manufacturer. Their future is likely to be quite humdrum unless there is a call for these skills to be given the opportunity to show what they can accomplish. This is by no means an unimportant factor.
The Police Force in NZ works in a different climate of expectation. We look to them to keep our interactions flowing smoothly, and to defuse potentially explosive and damaging activities before our society is disrupted by unwelcome strife and loss. Creative and educational work is encouraged and given protection by law, while impediments are identified, eliminated or discouraged. So long as our police work along these lines they are honoured and their prestige remains high. This can be a satisfying occupation, where skills are recognised and given space to show what more they can do.
Over centuries of time we have learnt to refine and develop further this skill of using civilians to control and assist the activities of our society, with few confrontations that we have been unable to find answers for. We have even learnt to apologise publicly for committing past injustices that were still causing pain among Maori, e.g. Tuhoe, in the Urewera and elsewhere, and Samoans who suffered when NZ was responsible for their welfare 90 years ago.
Now we stand in need of this patient and humble approach on a much larger stage. A number of commentators who are familiar with the areas of conflict in the Middle East have spoken strongly against the present assumption that the West’s military domination can put things right. The evidence is increasing to show that these strong-arm methods are creating and strengthening the most extreme groups, loosely attached to the Muslim camp. Yet these are the only methods we have prepared our nations to use in these circumstances.
Already both sides in this drama are preparing for a long contest, in which power to inflict death and destruction is seen as the deciding factor. Looking for causes, studying quietly-effective ways to meet human needs and hopes – this is at a minimum in world affairs. Unless the model changes we face a long period of disaster for many millions of people.