Why commemorate Armistice?
It is a personal matter in my family. In 1914 my grandfather refused a commission in his father’s regiment; the East Yorkshire Rifles. Instead, he volunteered and served two years in the trenches in France – as an unarmed stretcher bearer. He was wounded three times, awarded many medals, and discharged suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Sickened by the irresponsible politics that caused WWI, and the carnage, he eloped with my grandmother in 1916 to New Zealand. They believed that they were going to help build a “socialist paradise” where the state would care for everyone. He could only find work in the Kaitangata (maneater) coal mine where the conditions were worse than in the trenches.
He believed that bad governments get their power by pretending to represent the “inevitable” forces of nature, history or class, but compared to these forces, each individual life means little.
My grandmother, a Quaker and Suffragette, helped make ends meet by writing for the Maoriland Worker. Some of her ideas became policy when the Labour Party came to power in 1935 and established New Zealand’s welfare state. Although their marriage dissolved soon after they moved to the Far North, she became one of the first female editors in New Zealand, and later, a leader of the New Zealand Movement against War and Fascism.
She stressed two points. After laws and institutions, the most effective means of challenging poor government is a free press. While change agents offer new visions for “the people”, their damage to old institutions usually leads to instability and tyranny.
My grandfather married again, into Ngai Takoto. My uncle married into Te Rarawa. My twin uncles died in WWII. My father survived 17 battles as a machine gunner, often in support of the Maori Battalion. After WWII he helped establish the New Zealand Social Credit Political League.
He despised politicians who used class, race and laissez-faire capitalism to divide the people and mobilise followers. He argued that power in today’s world is diffuse and no longer flows from military might. Those with the best narratives and ideas win. Education, business and trade are therefore the best generators of peace and prosperity.
That is why commemorating Armistice in my family is so personal, and all about celebrating service and sacrifice, because it can lead to learning about good government and how it helps prevent war. Dr Reynold Macpherson served in Ngati Tumatauenga (RNZIR) and in Britain’s Parachute Regiment before an international career in research and leading reforms in public organisations and systems.