When will we ever learn?


    If I inventory the things I do with an admittedly small amount of discretionary personal time, I find it’s usually taken up with reading the sometimes-stunning  array of new novels and films that illuminate the last century’s cycles of war and peace. Alongside an obsessive interest in news of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

    I suspect the two are inter-twined, the 10-month-long, real-life war posing an existential threat not just to geopolitics but to the entire world order. Along with the glaring flaws that capitalism (and arms races) have inserted into human affairs.

    I once visited Nottingham, a city suffering all the ills of modern life including boarded up shops sold to global land-banking opportunism but also visibly adhering to a bone-deep civic rejection of wealth and privilege that has lived for a thousand years since Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham’s bully boys fought it out and citizens claimed rights.

    Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy also knows his history, national and global, and the golden spires, traditional architecture, big skies over wheatfields and the Maidan with its fierce uprising are now familiar around the world.

    Netflix gives us former actor and comedian Zelenskyy in the Ukrainian television series Servant of the People in which he plays a history teacher whose tirade against corruption goes viral and gets him elected to the presidency. It ran to four seasons of east European history, oligarch gameplans and that mesmerising spaciousness before the trained lawyer stood for president in real life.

    I have seen him described as the most influential statesman at this time and his vital information ecosystem and motivational messaging has maintained morale and defiance throughout a slogging war with global famine and worse on the cards.

    Subways carry advertisements familiar from 20th century wars including “Bravery is carrying on” having a nostalgic ring from Britain’s war years.

    We’ve been learning that arms races do the work of the Devil the hard way for millennia now.

    At the end of the First World War, after four years of industrial warfare that killed more than 15 million people, Imperial War Graves Commissioner Sir Fabian Ware estimated that if the British Empire dead were to march four abreast down Whitehall, the parade past the cenotaph would last three and a half days.

    More than 102,000 New Zealanders served in the Great War, about 10 percent of the population, and New Zealand’s contribution to that army of the dead, in proportion to population, was the highest in the Empire.

    “The public and the troops were told that this was ‘the war to end all wars’,” Waiheke city councillor Mike Lee said in an Armistice Day service at the Auckland War Memorial Museum last weekend where he spoke on behalf of mayor Wayne Brown.

    “To the public and the troops – this proposition was entirely believable. Most found it hard to imagine something so disastrous, so destructive and in the end so meaningless, would ever be allowed to happen again,” he said, quoting Ormond Burton, born in 1893, a young teacher who was a stretcher bearer at Gallipoli. He transferred to the new-formed New Zealand Division which became one of the elite formations on the front lines in Belgium and France where he was much decorated and was asked to write the battalion’s history.

    Much later in a clerical life that included caring for the down and out  victims of the Great Depression in Wellington Burton, a charismatic orator, told an interviewer: “When the First World  War ended there came, for many of us, the Great Betrayal. . .

    “The disillusionment was rapid and complete. Victory had not brought a new world, and we saw in a flash of illumination that it never could. War is just waste and destruction, solving no problems but creating new and terrible ones.

    “It is now evident that the settlement has not removed any of the causes of war, and that another conflagration is inevitable…
    “Action is imperative. The future belongs always to the prophets and dreamers, and those who have faith and vision sufficient to be fools for the sake of the kingdom of God.”

    Can I even type that last phrase in this day and age? No more than GDP measures citizen wellbeing does it mention faith or stability or honourable governance and human dignity.

    In the week since the commemorative service, world leaders have been swirling across our screens trying to create stabilising blocks of power in a world where trench warfare, filthy bandages, forced evacuations of children and civilian cities looted of national treasures are the new normal.

    Under all the clamour, jostling to keep profits flowing and unfit-for-purpose politics teetering to the edge is the need to reassert human and natural values.

    Mindless corporate greed and power mongering has to be checked. • Liz Waters

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