Punishment appalling, but Baxter's decision wrong

Archibald Baxter. Photo: Ref: 1/2-037732-F. Alexander Turnbull Library
Archibald Baxter. Photo: Ref: 1/2-037732-F. Alexander Turnbull Library
Archibald Baxter makes a strange case for veneration, writes Gerrard Eckhoff.

It would seem that the unofficial beatification of WW1 conscientious objector Archibald Baxter is almost complete, with the composition of an opera to memorialise his life.

Beatification is the act of declaration that Baxter is in a state of bliss and veneration. His life and times are set to music and song in the opera War Hero by Dunedin composer John Drummond. It seems a strangely reverent title for one who refused to serve his country.

If Baxter is indeed a war hero for refusing to do his duty when called on to do so - what designation is given to the thousands of NZ soldiers who actually served and those who died in the service of their country? Our country's rule of law is applicable to all and is deemed essential if we are all to live in relative harmony.

A personal decision to opt out of a law you disagree with (conscription in this case) is a form of self-indulgence which carries with it sanctions imposed by due process and authority. Virtually all choose to accept the terms and conditions of citizenship which sometimes carries with it the need to accept harsh or ''bad law'' until changed.

During the 1914-18 war, the catch-cry was to fight for King and Country but we today know it was (perhaps inadvertently) the gift of freedom from tyranny that so many men and women gave us, and not some misplaced patriotic fervour. The price those service men and women paid was beyond measure. Too many lay beneath the white crosses in Europe and beyond, never to return home and raise a family as Baxter did.

How is it possible that we, nearly 100 years later, who have benefited from personal decisions to defend a country's values, can now imply the few who even refused to act as hospital orderlies or stretcher bearers were right to do so? Only those who still lay in those foreign fields, as poet Rupert Brooke put it, have truly earned the right to be referred to as war heroes. Perhaps it is only those who can fairly judge Archibald Baxter.

In this politically correct day and age, Archibald Baxter's ''contribution'' to the war effort is compared by some with those who were prepared to fight and die or return home traumatised or without limbs. He is described as a man of conscience and conviction. He was also an intelligent man who must have seen that he benefited from the actions of all others who held a differing point of view.

Baxter was wrong not to support his country in any tangible way. That however does not absolve the authorities' appalling punishments of him and others who refused to fight or support their country's requirement of them. He at least had options which he chose not to take. Some other soldiers also took options legally unavailable to them and deserted because of shell shock or medical/mental conditions. Unbelievably, they were shot. Baxter chose to ignore his country's time of need and lived.

The personal suffering that occurred during those horrific times cannot be overestimated. Soldiers woke every day only to wonder if this was to be their last. Atrocities committed against those who could not fight back is something my generation are too willing to gloss over.

Is not the holocaust during WW2, which saw six million people slaughtered, sufficient to justify the need for us all to fight against evil when called to do so? How does civilisation under Archibald Baxter's example negotiate with another Islamic State into the future?

The history of Europe especially, is one of conflict. It is also understood throughout the free world that only the constant is the tragedy of sacrifice of the ordinary soldiers - who were prepared to fight and die, and with them, a gene pool that enables civilisation to preserve a country's heritage and value system.

The University of Otago has a peace and conflict studies course, dedicated to the idea of finding non-violent ways of overcoming conflict. It is entirely laudable. Regretfully even minor successes appear to have so far eluded this facility and of course the United Nations.

It is intimated that Archibald Baxter is applauded by those who study peace for his saying ''no'' to assisting with the war effort nearly 100 years ago. By their definition or logic, those who said ''yes'' were therefore wrong to do so?

Perhaps this poem credited to Carl Sandburg and Berthold Brecht may help:

What if they gave a war and no one came

Then the war will come to you

He who stays home when the fight begins

And lets others fight for his cause

Should take care. He who does not take part

In the battle will share in the defeat

Even avoiding battle does not avoid

Battle, since not to fight for your cause

Really means

Fighting on behalf of your enemy's cause.

-Gerrard Eckhoff, of Central Otago, is a former Otago regional councillor.


Baxter is memorialised, not beatified. There are no Presbyterian saints. Vilification of Baxter has little regard for the feelings of his descendants. Rupert Brooke wished for 'some corner of a foreign field that is forever, England'. England was the point: English Command, British Redcaps, English orders, English Field Punishment No 1, and an English Firing Squad for colonial soldiers.

With respect, Democracy does not preclude citizens from resisting established 'rules'.

Baxter was an Otago man. Otago Infantry D Company were Otago and Southland men. All, in various ways, faced the ordeal of War.

Kiwi soldiers were among the best. Did they mutiny at Ypres, with the Aussies?

If NZ were invaded, there would be few pacifists. Defending the homeland is very different from fighting for Europe, 15 thousand miles away.

Lastly, if I may, P.C is not universally responsible for Everything we disagree with.

Congratulations on a good, provocative Op.