Memorial an effort to redress gap in national narrative

An impression of what the proposed conscientious objectors' memorial in Dunedin might look like....
An impression of what the proposed conscientious objectors' memorial in Dunedin might look like. IMAGE: SUPPLIED.
Richard Jackson and Kevin Clements explain why they Dunedin needs a memorial to conscientious objectors. 

Gerald Cunningham's article (Is Dunedin's planned memorial an affront?, 10.7.18) raises an important question: why are we erecting a national memorial to conscientious objectors here in Dunedin, and would such a memorial dishonour those who gave their lives in war?

As members of the trust overseeing this project, we do not think it dishonours those who fought and died. On the contrary, it is an acknowledgement of the deep values of freedom and democracy that sustained those who made the supreme sacrifice.

We memorialise war and the tragedy of war in all sorts of ways, but we do not remember all those who made different kinds of sacrifices for the same values. This memorial is one small effort to redress that balance.

Politicians and historians have long emphasised the role of war in the forging of our history and national identity, some even suggesting New Zealand came of age as a nation in the fires of World War 1. Promoting and supporting this narrative are many hundreds of war memorials in virtually every town centre.

But this is only a part of the story. This land and its people are also home to many long-standing peace traditions, both indigenous and settler, which have also shaped the nation's character and identity.

Anti-militaristic, nonviolent peace traditions can be seen in the history of Moriori, Waitaha, Parihaka and other indigenous groups, as well as in conscientious objectors and war resisters, the anti-nuclear movement, local activism and many other peace groups operating today. As often as Kiwis have volunteered to fight, just as many have mobilised to oppose war and violence.

Arguably, Aotearoa New Zealand's national identity today is as much defined by its pacifist and anti-nuclear traditions as it is by its involvement in past wars.

The proposed memorial also recognises conscientious objectors were brave, principled and patriotic. In this respect, they were similar to those who fought; the only difference was that they felt the mass killing of war was neither ethical nor in the interests of the country.

Although most did not lose their lives, many of them suffered greatly, including the most appalling torture and abuse which was meted out to try to force them to renounce their values. And when the war was over, they and their families continued to be abused and discriminated against for decades.

Thankfully, society has begun to acknowledge that the way we treated both deserters and conscientious objectors was wrong. This monument recognises and acknowledges these historic wrongs, and respects those who suffered for their principles and the good of their nation as they saw it.

World War 1 was meant to be ``the war to end all wars'', and yet its primary effect was to lead directly to World War 2, and more than 95 other major wars in the following decades. The current wars in the Middle East can in many respects trace their origins to World War 1.

Conscientious objectors recognised the horror and futility of modern warfare and, as a consequence, challenge us to look for other, more peaceful and more effective ways of resolving political conflict.

A memorial such as this inspires us to follow their example in resisting militarism, eschewing violence, and sincerely searching for nonviolent alternatives.

Finally, this is a memorial to all those who have yielded to their consciences in the face of reckless, harmful or unethical requests from the government of the day. The willingness to disobey authority on grounds of conscience is absolutely essential to freedom of speech, association and assembly - the values many soldiers felt they were fighting to uphold. If the space for legitimate protest or dissent is restricted, the conditions will be ripe for arbitrary and autocratic rule.

This memorial, therefore, acknowledges all who chose to disobey authorities on grounds of conscience and provides a positive example to those who might wish to do so in the future.

As such, it is more than a material representation of one person's resistance to authority. It is a living reminder of the importance of weighing all government decisions in relation to the values and beliefs that promote individual, social and community wellbeing.

It is an invitation in the face of fear and ruthless power to create nonviolent political spaces for individual human beings to realise their common humanity and live according to the better angels of our nature.

- Richard Jackson and Kevin Clements are trustees of the Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust. The chief purpose of the trust is to build a national memorial to all conscientious objectors in Aotearoa New Zealand. Donations and funding are being sought.


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