Monday, 29 December 2014


Security – a new vision: “It is easy to spend hundreds of billions in response to terrorist threats, but the reality is that the resources needed to disrupt a modern economy are small… The challenge is not to provide a high-tech response to terrorism but to build a global society that is environmentally sustainable and equitable – one that restores hope for everyone. Such an effort would do more to combat terrorism than any increase in military expenditures or any new weapons systems, however advanced.” Plan B 4.0 P. 265. Martin Luther King’s Nobel Lecture 1964

Karen Armstrong “Religion is at its best when it helps us to ask questions and holds us in a state of wonder – and arguably at its worst when it tries to answer them authoritatively and dogmatically.” P.108 “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”. 

 From Prof. Richard Falk’s Peace Lecture, 7 Nov. 2014:
 “On the legacies of World War I it is certainly appropriate to note that for the first time in history the impetus to form a global institutional mechanism with the overriding mission of preventing future wars entered the mainstream, at least rhetorically.”

  “The terrifying turmoil now going on in the Middle East can be traced back to some fundamentally wrong decisions made in the peace diplomacy that followed the war, and cannot be properly understood or addressed without appreciating its World War I roots. ‘
 “There is no doubt that the unresolved Palestinian quest for self-determination has caused frequent wars, as well as inflicted on the Palestinian people both the catastrophic dispossession of 1948, the nakba, and a brutal occupation that has continued since 1967, increasingly assuming an apartheid structure of military administration. The United States has assumed the role earlier played by Britain in protecting Israel’s interests in what has been a hostile environment regardless of Israel’s frequent violation of international law and elemental morality, above all, its unwillingness to cooperate in reaching agreement with Palestinians based on equality of rights as the foundation for a sustainable and just peace.”

 “The kind of war making that occurred in World War I and took new technological forms in World War II is a virus that continues to lie dormant in the body politic. It is exhibited by the refusal to seek the abolition of nuclear weaponry or the globalizing of the rule of law, and by the insistence that our side in every war is essentially innocent and good and our adversary is evil, even barbaric.”

From Richard Rohr’s book “Eager To Love”:
“It is important to know that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but in fact, certitude and the demand for certitude.” P. 172

 “The common variety of church life in most denominations could be called ‘fast-food’ religion instead of deeply nutritious meals that feed and change people at deep unconscious levels… Christianity has largely reflected current cultural values, and even bourgeois values, during most of its history. Alfred North Whitehead, however, put it somewhat unkindly: ‘Modern religion has tended to degenerate into a decent formula whereby people can embellish an otherwise comfortable life.’ I wish that were not true.” P. 195

“We all know love’s absence as hell, and its presence goes by the name of heaven.” P. 263

“Only love can move across boundaries and across cultures. Love is a very real energy, a spiritual life force that is much more powerful than ideas or mere thoughts. Love is endlessly alive.” P. 267

Ends and Means: “As soon as means which would ensure an end are shown to be evil, the end will show itself as unrealizable.” Milovan Djilas

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Thinking About God

Ian Harris      Otago Daily Times     Dec. 12, 2014

DO people begin with a worldview and find a place for God within it (or not, as the case may be?) Or do they begin with a view of God and mould their worldview around that (or not, as the case may be)?

A lot will depend on what they mean by “God”, and that is infinitely variable, both between religions and within them. Priests, rabbis and mullahs naturally seek to pass on the received orthodox view: their concept of God then becomes the starting-point for the worldview they teach.

There is a danger inherent in that, however. A God that can be made “official” in this way may become an instrument of power and repression in the hands of those who define him. The history of all religions sadly shows that.

In the freer modern air of the West, it may help to begin with the worldview rather than with any preordained understanding of God.

The worldview is the lens through which people make sense of their experience, the way they come to terms with everything around them. It develops out of all their learnings and experiences, first as children and then as adults, usually without their even being aware of it.

People whose minds are open and curious are constantly absorbing new information and experiences, and modify their worldview accordingly. Those with closed minds do not. Either way, a person’s worldview is central in helping him or her to see things in relation to each other. It provides a framework in the search for meaning and wholeness.

Language and culture have a huge bearing on the worldview that people form. That is apparent, for example, in divergent Maori and Pakeha attitudes to land, Waitangi Treaty issues and the foreshore, or in Israeli and Arab perceptions of Palestine. On top of that, everyone brings to it something uniquely personal, and each person’s worldview is his or her own.

Since earliest times, religions have provided a unifying, stabilising focus for society, helping to shape the worldview of people loyal to them. One obvious example is the Jews’ conviction that they are God’s chosen people, blessed with a divine destiny despite all the setbacks and suffering they have endured over the centuries. All Jews can say: “I was born into a story.”

So, too, can Christians and Muslims, though those faiths seek to transcend the racial identity which is a hallmark of Judaism.

American theologian Gordon Kaufman was in no doubt about the primacy of a person’s worldview in making sense of life, and of the importance of the God-symbol in this regard.

For 3000 years the monotheistic faiths have understood God as a supernatural being existing apart from the world and human beings, though impacting directly upon them. That understanding is still widely affirmed in western societies, but as they become more secular it is losing its pulling power. That need not be the end of God, however, for as a human creation the God-symbol can and does evolve.

So Kaufman suggests that in the modern world “God” is to be understood not as a distinct object or being, but as “an important constituent of an over-arching worldview”. The function of the God-symbol is then to bring meaning and fulfilment to human life, because “it sums up, unifies and represents in a personification what are taken to be the highest and most indispensable human ideals and values”.

For Kaufman, the God-symbol in the Christian tradition conjures up essentially humane images, as seen supremely in Jesus.

He speaks of a “cosmic movement” toward the fuller realisation of human possibilities, regardless of race, sex, nationality, culture or anything else. The purpose of religious institutions is to tune in to this humanising drive, and when true to their founding vision, they do so by creating communities of openness, love and freedom.

Obviously, cultivating a worldview with such a God-symbol at the centre will influence profoundly the way a person perceives the world and behaves in it. That is because it removes the central focus of life from oneself and one’s own race, culture and destiny: when the God-symbol is the focal point of a person’s worldview, everything else becomes relative to it.

A cameo in Lloyd Jones’ The Book of Fame illustrates the same dynamic in more traditional form. The 1905 All Blacks are standing in the glow of a fire in their Welsh hotel for a Christmas service, and Bob Deans prays: “God be in our thoughts, and in our words . . .”

Sending troops to protect dictators threatens all of us

 Seumas Milne                      Guardian/UK                    10 December 2014

Britain’s new military base in Bahrain will deliver a toxic message

We may have known the outline of the global US kidnapping and torture programme for a few years. What has been published is in fact only a small part of a much bigger picture, including an estimated 100 or more prisoners tortured to death in US detention. Added to the rampant lying, cover-ups and impunity, it’s a story that the champions of America’s “exceptionalism” will find hard to sell around the world.

There is of course nothing exceptional about states that preach human rights and democracy, but practise the opposite when it suits them. For all the senate’s helpful redactions, Britain has been up to its neck in the CIA’s savagery, colluding in kidnapping and torture from Bagram to Guantánamo while dishing out abuses of its own in Iraq and Afghanistan. So you’d hardly think this reminder of the horrors unleashed in the name of the war on terror was the time for Britain to announce its first permanent military base in the Middle East for four decades. The presence of western troops and support for dictatorial Arab regimes were, after all, the original reasons given by al-Qaida for its jihad against the west.

The subsequent invasions, occupations and bombing campaigns led by the US, Britain and others have been endlessly cited by those who resisted them in the Arab and Muslim world, or launched terror attacks in the west. But last week, foreign secretary Phillip Hammond proudly declared that Britain would reverse its withdrawal from “east of Suez” of the late 1960s and open a navy base “for the long term” in the Gulf autocracy of Bahrain.

The official talk is about protecting Britain’s “enduring interests” and the stability of the region. But to those fighting for the right to run their own country, the message could not be clearer. Britain, the former colonial power, and the US, whose 5th Fleet is already based in Bahrain, stand behind the island’s unelected rulers. No wonder there have already been protests against the base.

Bahrainis campaigning for democracy and civil rights, in a state where the majority are Shia and the rulers Sunni, were part of the Arab uprisings in 2011. With US and British support, Saudi Arabia and the UAE crushed the protests by force. Mass arrests, repression and torture followed.

In reality, the British base’s main job won’t be to prop up the Bahraini regime, but to help protect the entire network of dictatorial Gulf governments that sit on top of its vast reserves of oil and gas – and provide a springboard for future interventions across the wider Middle East. British troops never really left the region and have been part of one intervention after another.

The US itself controls an archipelago of military bases across the Gulf: in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the UAE, as well as Bahrain. And despite Barack Obama’s much-heralded pivot to Asia, they are also clearly there for the long haul. After the US accepted the overthrow of the Egyptian dictator Mubarak three years ago, the Gulf autocrats are looking for extra security, which Britain and France are glad to provide. For the London elite, the Gulf is now as much about arms sales and finance as about oil and gas – and a web of political, commercial and intelligence links that go to the heart of the British establishment.

On a larger scale, the return of western-backed dictatorship in Egypt, the Arab world’s most important country, has helped re-establish the conditions that led to the war on terror in the first place. Obama has traded the CIA’s Bush-era kidnap-and-torture programme for expanded special forces and CIA drone killings, often of people targeted only by their “signatures” – such as being males of military age. And British forces have this week been accused of training and providing intelligence for Kenyan death squads targeting suspected Islamist activists.

But with its new commitment to station troops in Bahrain, we can have no doubt where the British government stands: behind autocracy and “enduring interests”. Just as the refusal to hold previous US governments to account for terror and torture laid the ground for what happened after 9/11, the failure of parliament even to debate the decision to garrison the Gulf is an ominous one. Britain’s new base isn’t in the interests of either the people of Britain, Bahrain or the Middle East as a whole – it’s a danger and affront to us all.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Dorothy Brown Memorial Lecture: “Looking Back on World War I”

Prof. Richard Falk             APF & Peace and Conflict Studies              7 Nov 2014

The following excerpt is taken from Dr Falk’s lecture in Ponsonby, Auckland.

This idea that there was a moral and legal dimension to warfare that must be factored into post-war arrangements surfaced in the war crimes trials held in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, most spectacularly in the prosecution of the surviving leaders of the two countries in the much studied Nuremberg and Tokyo trials. The Nuremberg approach was generally vindicated by the consensus view that the Nazi experience was such an unprecedented assault on European values, first by so overtly launching a major aggressive war and then by the commission of numerous atrocities in its course, especially genocide against Jews and other minorities. The Tokyo trials were far more controversial as the onset of the Pacific theater of warfare was as much prompted by the deliberate encirclement and squeezing of the Japanese economy as it was by the surprise attack in 1941 on Pearl Harbor.

This moral and political ambiguity is heightened as soon as one takes into consideration the failure to impose any accountability on the victors for the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or for the fire-bombing of Tokyo. The cry of ‘victors’ justice,’ the title of a book by the historian Richard Minear, seemed understandable, if not justifiable. In the German case the American prosecutor, Robert Jackson, tried to soften the one-sided approach toward individual criminal responsibility taken after World War II by declaring a Nuremberg Promise, namely that in all future wars those governments sitting in judgment in relation to the Germans would submit themselves to the same discipline of international criminal law.

This Nuremberg Promise was broken by each of the victors, none of whom have ever accepted the application of a procedure of criminal accountability being applied to themselves, and have opted out to the extent possible from the activities of the International Criminal Court. The United States and Europe continue to make a political use of international criminal law by staging prosecutions of their recent enemies, including Slobadan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Muamar Qadaffi, and finance the ICC in its focus upon the criminal wrongdoing of sub-Saharan African leaders while granting de facto impunity to the West.

In effect, the idea of criminality associated with war could have taken either of two forms, as an emergent branch of the rule of law that would apply the same standard of accountability and judgment to the victors as to the vanquished or it could accept the double standards of imposing accountability on the defeated and granting impunity to the victor. Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” expresses such a choice in more personal and universalistic language:

“Two roads diverged in a wood,
And I took the one less travelled by,
 And that has made all the difference.”

Unlike the poet, the statesmen of the world have chosen the more traveled road of political realism and geopolitics, which had long been accustomed to the amoral dualism of one law for the strong, another for the weak. This realist was concisely set forth long ago by Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue in his History of the Peloponesian Wars: “The strong do what they will, the weak what they must.” What World War I initiated was a moral/legal translation of this political tendency that liberals viewed as a step forward, conservatives generally regarded as a risky departure from realism, and progressives viewed as a hypocritical and misleading effort to seize the high moral and legal ground.

The impulse was renewed after World War II, but individualized by way of war crimes trials thus abandoning the war-provoking practice of World War I that consisted of imposing onerous burdens on a defeated country at the very time when its population was struggling with the urgencies of survival in the ravaged conditions of postwar realities. It is regrettable that this idea of a punitive peace was revived in dealing with Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991 as if the lesson of World War I’s misbegotten breach of comity was irrelevant when dealing with the global South that never had enjoyed the benefits of comity.

 Walid Khalidi, the noted Arabist, recently called the Balfour Declaration “...the single most destructive document in the twentieth century.” This may be hyperbole, but there is no doubt that the unresolved Palestinian quest for selfdetermination has caused frequent wars, as well as inflicted on the Palestinian people both the catastrophic dispossession of 1948, the nakba, and a brutal occupation that has continued since 1967, increasingly assuming an apartheid structure of military administration. The United States has assumed the role earlier played by Britain in protecting Israel’s interests in what has been a hostile environment regardless of Israel’s frequent violation of international law and elemental morality, above all, its unwillingness to cooperate in reaching agreement with Palestinians based on equality of rights as the foundation for a sustainable and just peace.

For several reasons it seems correct to view World War I as the biggest rupture in global history since the French Revolution, and more revolutionary in its impact than subsequent major wars. Perhaps, most notable is the degree to which World War I exhibited interconnections between mobilizing the resources and enthusiasm of national societies for engaging in war and the decline of the capacity to rely on diplomatic compromises to bring wars to an end in a manner that minimizes the suffering experienced and the dislocation caused. As Raymond Aron expresses this idea, “ was peculiarly difficult to end by negotiation in the traditional way a war that had become a war of peoples and of ideas.” [The Century of Total War, 27] The public had to believe in the war, which fed the claims that the issues in contention were of fundamental importance and that the enemy was pursuing evil ends, and this is what Arendt meant by the end of European comity.

In line with this observation are the elaborate commentary of Gabriel Kolko set forth in his important study, Century of War. Kolko insisted that the World War I initiated a process of war making in which the leaders and citizens anticipate and plan for a short war, and instead experience a long and far more destructive, alienating, and costly war that brings vast human suffering, creating serious societal dislocations. Kolko writes of both the specific deforming impacts of the conflict and its patterning of the successive major wars that have subsequently taken. He writes, “ is so desperately imperative that we escape from the present uneven yet steady descent along the path of war on which the mankind has been locked since 1914.”

He indicts political leaders for their “ignorance that has cost humanity a price in suffering beyond any measure.” In effect, World War I initiated a modern tendency for what Kolko calls “the consummate irresponsibility” of leaders who are “playing with the lives of anonymous people...who are sent off to die” without any appreciation of or concern about the societal costs that will be incurred.

We in America remember the anger aroused caused by the Bush presidency promising that the Iraq War would be a cakewalk in which the American occupiers would be welcomed as liberators. It was an arduous decade long campaign that ended in failure and there was no welcome in Iraq despite widespread opposition in the country to the autocratic regime of Saddam Hussein.

In effect, the kind of war making that occurred in World War I and took new technological forms in World War II is a virus that continues to lie dormant in the body politic. It is exhibited by the refusal to seek the abolition of nuclear weaponry or the globalizing of the rule of law, and by the insistence that our side in every war is essentially innocent and good and our adversary is evil, even barbaric.

The current global war on terror is inscribed in public consciousness in accordance with the kind of moralizing self-assurance that guided the peacemakers at Versailles almost a century ago. Unfortunately, the imperative lesson involving the dysfunctionality of war has not yet been learned by either the leaders of the most important sovereign states or their publics. The only useful thing that has been learned about war is the importance of exercising caution in the nuclear age whenever a crisis in international relations occurs. We must pause and ask ourselves what seems to be a decisive moral and political question, which may also be an ultimate survival question: ‘is caution enough?’ And if not, ‘What must be done?’ We certainly do not want people coming together one hundred years hence to lament the persistence of war as the defining feature of world history.

Dr Falk’s area of expertise is international law.

Cuba’s extraordinary global medical record shames the US blockade

Seumas Milne                      Guardian/UK                        3 December 2014

Havana’s doctors have saved millions. Obama must lift this embargo

Four months into the internationally declared Ebola emergency that has devastated west Africa,
Cuba leads the world in direct medical support to fight the epidemic. The US and Britain have sent thousands of troops and, along with other countries, promised aid – most of which has yet to materialise. But, as the World Health Organisation has insisted, what’s most urgently needed are health workers. The Caribbean island, with a population of just 11 million and official per capita income of $6,000 (£3,824), answered that call before it was made. It was first on the Ebola frontline and has sent the largest contingent of doctors and nurses – 256 are already in the field, with another 200 volunteers on their way. Hundreds of British health service workers have volunteered to join them. The first 30 arrived in Sierra Leone last week, while troops have been building clinics. But the Cuban doctors have been on the ground in force since October and are there for the long haul.

The need could not be greater.
More than 6,000 people have already died. So shaming has the Cuban operation been that British and US politicians have felt obliged to offer congratulations. John Kerry described the contribution of the state the US has been trying to overthrow for half a century “impressive”. But it’s not the first time that Cuba has provided the lion’s share of medical relief following a humanitarian disaster. Four years ago, after the devastating earthquake in impoverished Haiti, Cuba sent the largest medical contingent and cared for 40% of the victims. In the aftermath of the Kashmir earthquake of 2005, Cuba sent 2,400 medical workers to Pakistan and treated more than 70% of those affected; they also left behind 32 field hospitals and donated a thousand medical scholarships. There are now 50,000 Cuban doctors and nurses working in 60 developing countries. As Canadian professor John Kirk puts it: “Cuban medical internationalism has saved millions of lives.” But this unparalleled solidarity has barely registered in the western media.

Internationalism was built into Cuba’s DNA. As Guevara’s daughter, Aleida, herself a doctor who served in Africa, says: “We are Afro-Latin Americans and we’ll take our solidarity to the children of that continent.” But what began as an attempt to spread the Cuban revolution in the 60s and became the decisive military intervention in support of Angola against apartheid in the 80s, has now morphed into the world’s most ambitious medical solidarity project. Its success has depended on the progressive tide that has swept Latin America over the past decade, inspired by socialist Cuba’s example during the years of rightwing military dictatorships. Leftwing and centre-left governments continue to be elected and re-elected across the region, allowing Cuba to reinvent itself as a beacon of international humanitarianism.

But the island is still suffocated by the US trade embargo that has kept it in an economic and political vice for more than half a century. If Barack Obama wants to do something worthwhile in his final years as president he could use Cuba’s role in the Ebola crisis as an opening to start to lift that blockade and wind down the US destabilisation war. There are certainly straws in the wind. In what
looked like an outriding operation for the administration, the New York Times published six editorials over five weeks in October and November praising Cuba’s global medical record, demanding an end to the embargo, attacking US efforts to induce Cuban doctors to defect, and calling for a negotiated exchange of prisoners.

The paper’s campaign ran as the UN general assembly voted for the 23rd time, by 188 votes to 2 (US and Israel), to demand the lifting of the US blockade, originally imposed in retaliation for the nationalisation of American businesses and now justified on human rights grounds – by a state allied to some of the most repressive regimes 

The embargo can only be scrapped by congress, still stymied by the heirs of the corrupt US-backed dictatorship which Fidel Castro and Guevara overthrew. But
the US president has executive scope to loosen it substantially and restore diplomatic ties. The obvious moment for Obama to call time on the 50-year US campaign against Cuban independence would be at next April’s Summit of the Americas – which Latin American governments had threatened to boycott unless Cuba was invited. The greatest contribution those genuinely concerned about democratic freedoms in Cuba can make is to get the US off the country’s back.

If the blockade really were to be dismantled, it would not only be a vindication of Cuba’s remarkable record of social justice at home and solidarity abroad, backed by the growing confidence of an independent Latin America. It would also be a boon for millions around the world who would benefit from a Cuba unshackled – and a demonstration of what can be achieved when people are put before corporate profit. [Abridged] 

Monday, 1 December 2014

How Western Intervention Fuels 'Terrorism'

By Gwynne Dyer                    Common Dreams                    November 28, 2014

"We will not be cowed by these sick terrorists," said British Prime Minister David Cameron after ISIS produced a grisly video of the mass beheading of Syrian captives by foreign jihadis who allegedly included British fighters. "We will not be intimidated," said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after the recent attacks in Montreal and Ottawa. As if the purpose of terrorist attacks in Western countries was to cow and intimidate them.

You hear this sort of rhetoric from Western leaders all the time, but Harper went further, and demonstrated exactly how they get it wrong. "[This] will lead us to... redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores. They will have no safe haven." Sound familiar?

Sure enough, there are now half a dozen Canadian planes bombing ISIS jihadis in Iraq (although it’s unlikely that either of the Canadian attackers, both converts to radical Islam, had any contact with foreign terrorist organizations). But Harper has got the logic completely backwards.

The purpose of major terrorist activities directed at the West is not to "cow" or "intimidate" Western countries. It is to get those countries to bomb Muslim countries or, better yet, invade them. The terrorists want to come to power in Muslim countries, not in Canada or Britain or the US. And the best way to establish your revolutionary credentials and recruit local supporters is to get the West to attack you.

That’s what Osama bin Laden wanted in 2001. (He hoped for an American invasion of Afghanistan, but he got an unexpected bonus in the US invasion of Iraq.) The ISIS videos of Western hostages being beheaded are intended to get Western countries involved in the fight against them, because that’s how you build local support. So far, the strategy is working just fine.

The "Global Terrorism Index," published annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace, reported last week that fatalities due to terrorism have risen fivefold in the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, despite the US-led "war on terror" that has spent $4.4 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and anti-terrorist operations elsewhere. But it’s not really “despite” those wars. It’s largely because of them. The whole lumbering apparatus of the “global war on terrorism” have not killed the terrorist beast. They have fed it, and the beast has grown very large. 3,361 people were killed by terrorism in 2000; 17,958 were killed by it last year.

At least 80 percent of these people were Muslims, and the vast majority of those who killed them were also Muslims: the terrorists of Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al-Qaeda and its offspring in other parts of the world .That is not to say that terrorism is a particularly Muslim technique. Its historical roots lie in European struggles against oppressive regimes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it gained huge currency in liberation struggles against the European colonial empires after the Second World War. Even the Stern Gang in Israel and the Irish Republican Army can be seen as part of this wave.

Only about 5 percent of the victims of this latest wave of terrorism lived in developed countries, but it was their deaths, and their governments’ ignorant responses to them, that provided the fuel for the spectacular growth of jihadi extremism. So what can be done about it?

 The Global Terrorism Index points out that a great many terrorist organizations have actually gone out of business in the past 45 years. Only 10 percent of them actually won, took power, and disbanded their terrorist wings. And only 7 percent were eliminated by the direct application of military force.

Eighty percent of them were ended by a combination of better policing and the creation of a political process that addressed the grievances of those who supported the terrorism. You have to deal with the particular grievances that obsess specific ethnic, religious or political groups. And above all, keep foreigners out of the process. Their interventions ALWAYS make matters worse. Which is why the terrorists love them so much.



Anniversaries of War, Remembering in 2014

Concluding part of talk by Assoc. Professor Annabel Cooper, Otago University.
On Peace Study Day, Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, Auckland, 8 November 2014.

Ernst Renan said that nationhood relies on people holding a stock of common memories. He also said something more surprising: that a nation must have ‘forgotten many things’. To prioritise memory of one set of past events, like the First World War, is to initiate the relative forgetting of others. It's easy to see how catastrophic, singular events like Gallipoli might crowd out memory of the more prosaic daily activities which my grandparents, and yours, undertook. But Renan’s statement implies something stronger: that forgetting is not a passive, but an active process. So what does building nation on memory of the First World War help us to forget?

The RSA, that handy source of information on all things military and New Zealand, offers a clue. Here's a screenshot taken the other day of the RSA's Timeline of military events of importance to New Zealand. Here it is startlingly apparent that in New Zealand, as in Australia, 'Lest We Forget' has a cutoff date, before which it flips neatly into reverse and becomes 'Lest We Remember'. But the RSA is not the only precision amnesiac.

This year, the juggernaut of World War One commemoration is riding right over the 150th anniversaries of the battles of the mid-1860s – Rangiriri, Rangiaowhia, Orakau, Pukehinahina and others. All the New Zealand Wars commemorations are local events, mostly organized, funded and promoted by iwi and attended mostly by Māori, although of course two sides fought in them. In the Maori world, these commemorations are huge events. Thousands of people have participated in them, planning months and years ahead - creating and rehearsing haka and peruperu, doing all the work of hosting and coordinating large numbers of manuhiri, travelling from all around the country and across the Tasman.

The umbrella committee for the Waikato War commemorations headed by Tom Roa coordinated a sequence of events that rolled down from south Auckland into the Waipa Valley and through to Tauranga, following the course of the war. In Tauranga, Buddy Mikaere also ran a year's events, first raising funds, then coordinating a programme of art competitions and exhibits, gallery events, the carving of new commemorative pou, and school activities as well as the large commemorative occasions at Gate Pa and Te Ranga - a programme aimed at broad inclusion of the very diverse population that is today's Tauranga. The Orakau commemoration received a limited amount of government funding, but the other events have been funded locally, mostly by iwi. Media coverage has been very limited. So here's my question. Why is only one side committed to the commemoration of these wars, when Pakeha have ancestors who fought in them too? Why is the funding and the media concentrated so emphatically on World War 1, and so little, if at all, on what happened right here?

This year the priority was expressed in policy. A new classification of important events and anniversaries has been agreed upon, ranking events as Tier 1 or Tier 2 national events. Tier 1's anniversaries commemorate events with 'significant impact on the nation as a whole or on the pattern of New Zealand life' - these include the commencement of the First World War, the signing of the Treaty, Gallipoli, the Somme and Le Quesnoy. The various conflicts of the New Zealand Wars come under Tier 2's events, defined as 'highly important but not of the same nation-changing magnitude'. Well, I imagine it depends on your point of view.

Tier 2 events have had limited government attention. Te Ururoa Flavell was the only MP who attended the first of the major Waikato War commemorations, Rangiriri. The PM, looking a bit awkward, and the Governor General - more relaxed - spoke at Orakau and at Pukehinahina. But government has little appetite for seeing these events as commemorations of national significance. At Orakau, Minister Finlayson conceded for the first time that the New Zealand Wars might have some recognition in the new National War Memorial Park in Wellington, but Mr Key thought it unlikely that there could be a national day of remembrance for the New Zealand Wars. It was made clear that the ongoing efforts to purchase the site at Orakau for a New Zealand Wars memorial will not be supported with government funding.

From the vantage point of 2014, it seems almost strange that in 1917-18 the daily impact of the War in Europe helped to get James Cowan's remarkable official history of the New Zealand Wars commissioned, before the remaining veterans passed away. The case was successfully made then for recording and commemorating the experience of both sides of the colonial wars in which about 3,000 people died and thousands more were dispossessed. Soon after, in 1925, Rudall Hayward made the first of his series of feature films about the New Zealand Wars. Cowan and Hayward, in these early decades of the twentieth century, realised that the colonial wars provided grounds for a more searching and complex exploration about ‘who we are’ than wars in Europe did. We might take from them this idea that remembering colonial wars opens up ‘us’ as a plural society, consisting of peoples who have not always stood shoulder to shoulder or seen eye to eye; people who need to look back at where we come from in these searching, reflexive ways rather than papering over the cracks in an appearance of easy unison; including women as well as men, the old and the very young as well as the ‘flower of manhood’.

This more plural remembering can be done and the New Zealand Wars commemorations are doing it. The first day of the Orākau commemoration involved powhiri, speeches, haka and other performances. To me the second day was especially moving: the main activity that day was a hikoi following the path of the people who broke out of Orākau pā on 2 April on their retreat to the Puniu River. The Orakau defenders had had had no water for several days and as you may know many, especially the women and children, were killed or wounded as they fled. As the hikoi followed the 4 kilometres to the river we stopped on the way to listen to descendants’ stories about what happened then but also afterwards. These accounts of aftermath were stories about how people survived, rebuilding families, communities, economies, in the hard decades after the war. They were accounts of dispossession but also stories of recovery - in a word, of nation-building. It was a day of complex emotions for a pakeha but also a day in which the pakeha there were generously included. But there weren't many Pākehā there. There were perhaps more at Pukehinahina, where Buddy Mikaere put in enormous effort to involve every sector of the community. Nevertheless, in striking contrast to the massive national commemorations of the First World War, there is little to encourage Pakeha to see the relevance of the New Zealand Wars anniversaries to them.

As a Pakeha, I feel a bit underestimated by this. In the 1990s, there were a number of efforts to fund a television documentary based on James Belich research on the New Zealand Wars. Several times they were turned down because TVNZ thought no-one would watch it. When the series was finally made, over 2 million people watched it – a staggering level of interest in ratings terms. There was some objection but mostly people, both Maori and Pakeha, were fascinated to know of a past that had gained so little profile for so long. Scratch the surface, and I think there would be many Pakeha now quite ready to give more thought to the colonial past instead of stopping at the RSA’s cutoff date.

I do not think we should define ourselves only by what we did in war. There’s so much more to us. But if wars are to be part of what creates us then it is incumbent on us to think carefully about what it is that memory's selectiveness engages us in. The increasing, unexamined drift toward sanctifying the Anzacs, whether as vigorous young heroes or sacrificial figures, takes us on a path which has more than one set of problems. It does more than enshrine a narrow conception of nation defined by defence. It returns us to the symbolism of a single, emblematic figure: young, white and masculine. There is no denying the tragedy, but we are still far more than that. What I find particularly disturbing is that it offers us such an easy, self-congratulatory emotional response to the past – allowing us to settle once again for noble little New Zealand united in triumph against the big bad guys. Sometimes, some of us were the big bad guys. We have harder, far more important memory work to do than this; and surely we are capable of engaging with the more complex national emotions it demands of us.

If you wish to read the complete Talk, send a request to