There’s a reason why children play with toy soldiers that are only an inch high. It’s so they can be manipulated in numbers: arranged and positioned into battle scenes and configurations. That’s what the military does, it reduces people to anonymous pawns in a game of empire. Militaries systemically erode and reduce those qualities that make us larger than ourselves and make us human – like conscience, compassion and agency – to replace them with conformity. Their efficiency and effectiveness relies on conformity, with values of manhood, patriotism and mateship overblown and sentimentalised to compensate for the suppression of real conscience. Conscience is an anathema to the military. It is not conducive to bombing strangers, entire villages. It is more conducive to asking questions, to resistance and conscientious objection.

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Howard Zinn: a World War Two combat soldier turned critical historian

 

Because of this, it’s ironic to make a monument out of a soldier. But that’s what Te Papa has done in its Gallipoli exhibition, and it’s easy to see why. Making a monument out of a soldier is an attempt at redemption, at restoring what was eroded and lost, at compensation for the dehumanising impact of war on its protagonists, their families, the people in whose name they fought, on us. We’ve all heard stories about the state many men were in when they returned home from war – the trauma, the nightmares, the drinking, mistreatment of women, the difficulty in readjusting to live a normal, human life.

Te Papa exploits public desire for a humanising war history for its own nationalistic purposes. It’s that desire that provides the rose-tinted glasses through which visitors look at Te Papa’s displays – but without those, Gallipoli contains little that is humanising.

The main signage at the exhibition entranceway sets the tone. It features a proud, uniformed yet roguish looking cowboy, gleefully leading a charge through the hills with a revolver in his hand. Another irony when compared with the classic toy soldier: he’s not part of an enormous, anonymous mass, employing the use of weapons for remote, mass destruction. He’s on the “great adventure” boys were conned into thinking they would have. Why would Te Papa buy into that lie all over again?

Perhaps because it is actually the only redemptive story it can tell without telling the truth.

Entering the exhibition, visitors are first greeted by a larger than life Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott, stretching his gun out to shoot. Screaming, bleeding, lying on the ground, but still glowing and proud – this is a man who will die fighting. “I received a blow in my right arm,” he says, via a narrator reading from his journal over a dramatic, cinematic soundtrack. He is massive, and part of what enlarges him is the detached attitude, the dispassionate voice that he can muster to diminish, minimise and absorb the impact of violence. It swells him by comparison: it makes him a man. So too, do the drama in his keen sense of adventure, patriotism, and mateship inflate this figure: “We advanced up to the ridge… Good boys! I felt a glow of pride.”

This is Te Papa’s representation of Westmacott – which is of course only pieces of Westmacott himself. Te Papa uses the same valorisation of manhood, mateship and patriotism to enlarge all of its Gallipoli heroes, and to encourage us to admire and bond with its story about them throughout its exhibition. It refers to the sense of adventure, “grandeur” and “action” of keen men throughout; employs their flippant and dispassionate, historic but “quintessentially Kiwi” turns of phrase and references to “Johnny Turk” to describe the war’s violence. Quotes about “bagging Turks”, or Gallipoli as a “bloody shambles” where “we hung on by our fingernails” proliferate. The soldiers are enlarged through this manly minimisation of violence. Importantly, Te Papa also exploits the image of a weeping woman to contrast with and reinforce its rough, proud, aggressive masculinity.

“We were just anyone’s mutton” reads a text toward the end of the exhibition. This quotation describes the ANZAC’s horrific, final days at Gallipoli – but it also points to the injustice of war, the treatment of people as fodder. The reference is too specific and too flippant though, to constitute a substantial challenge to Te Papa’s general presumption that war was and is inevitable, admirable, necessary and for the greater good. Te Papa does this throughout its show: it gestures at the injustice of modern warfare in order to appear appropriately mournful, but strictly moderates and contains the affect of any one of these gestures with grand displays of those three virtues: manhood, mateship and patriotism.  They’re what Gallipoli is really about for Te Papa, and they also provide the means to avoid addressing injustice, and avoid telling the truth.

If it was truly humanising, the exhibition would deeply lament the fact that 100 thousand boys, teenagers, twenty-somethings – spirited young men who could have been writers, poets, inventors, attentive fathers of children – had their lives stolen through forced military conscription. But to do that, it would have to tell the truth about modern warfare, and about World War One. It would also seek to draw connections to the state of the arms trade today, so that we can use our understanding of the past to ensure nothing like it is repeated. That’s what “lest we forget” is supposed to mean.

Te Papa does the opposite. It actually prepares children – children already growing up surrounded by violent video games and a media gagged by coporate interest – for war, presenting it as an ever-present possibility. It encourages children to identify and bond with the boyish, “great adventure” narrative by donning military caps and taking selfies. It is okay with showing children graphic, X-Ray animations of bullets entering and knocking down human bodies; it is not okay with showing them examples of conscientious objection, by talking about Te Puea Herangi or Archibald Baxter, for instance. There is even a display that dares to invite children to answer the question, “If you knew you might not make it home, what would you miss most?”. Like we are living in the calm before a storm that might well sweep them up at any time.

That leading question is unfair and disingenuous, because the reality of the situation is Yes – we are still fighting unjust wars, but there is an alternative position to take than unreflective acceptance, one based on conscience, one that does not accept mere subjection to the whims of empire. Te Papa furiously dodges this position.

Not only does Te Papa seek to re-sell the “grand adventure” story all over again, but to bond us to it, have us identify with it. Through the uniforms you can don, the questions you are invited to answer, the poppies you can leave heartfelt messages on – but also through its insistence on speaking in the first person plural. It’s the scale of “our” war. “We” were in Egypt when they told “us” that “we’d” be invading Gallipoli. “The Turks had sided with the Germans in the war, and we were itching to take them on… that’s where the action was.” That text is not even quoted from a letter or a journal. That’s just Te Papa speaking – as your quintessentially Kiwi, male war hero “mate”.

Except World War One was not a Maori war, it was not a women’s war, it was not a workers’ war, it was not the objectors’ or the unionists’ war. It wasn’t even the soldiers’ war, and it certainly wasn’t for us. Te Papa presumes that whoever “we” are, we want to identify with a Kiwi male war hero, probably white; or that we desperately want that cowboy to represent our grandfathers.

Only – the only way to do justice to him, to any of these men, is to tell the truth – to make sure that what happened to them does not happen to their grandchildren. But the truth is as much of an anathema to Te Papa as conscience is to the army.

Look at this 1911 quote from Philip Josephs, the kind of figure who is left out of Te Papa’s narrative. Josephs was an important Wellington trade unionist, the kind of New Zealander who put his security and his life on the line to fight, strike and strategise tooth and nail for workers’ rights – fair hours, wages, and conditions, proper healthcare; an end to unemployment, discrimination, child labour and casualised labour.

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Josephs is the kind of character Gallipoli won’t monumentalise. Nor does it celebrate Princess Te Puea Herangi, who opposed the conscription of Waikato iwi in light of the Bitish Empire’s theft of Maori land and lives in the Waikato invasion. And it glosses over Rua Kenana, explaining him away as a “prophet with pacifist beliefs” who was charged with sedition. It conveniently marginalises the fact that the British colonial occupation cut Kenana’s Tuhoe iwi off from their fertile lands and kaimoana and forced Kenana to lead his people into the Ureweras. That’s another reason he didn’t want to fight for the British Empire, the Empire that halved the Maori population in the nineteenth century. Isn’t it.

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Despite that iwi had been defending themselves against that Empire for a hundred years, this is what Te Papa states about 1914: “Like other British dominions, we just woke up and found ourselves at war”. The statement echoes that leading question – “what would you miss most if you knew you might not return home?”. It suggests that war happens like we understand natural disasters to happen: suddenly, without warning, without contributing industry or history, without the possibility of opposition or critical reflection.

Yet the statement about “just waking up” in 1914 does not apply to Te Puea Herangi, nor Rua Kenana, nor Philip Josephs. They had long known and opposed the horrors of European imperialism, its greed, its inhumanity, its scale, its destructiveness. Which makes you wonder which “we” Te Papa presumes to be speaking for, and to; who and what this show is really monumentalising. And whether the inflation is really humanising – or, perhaps, deeply racist and aggressively masculine.

Another good example of how Te Papa gestures at, yet skirts around the injustice of modern warfare, is in the gallant installation of lieutenant colonel Percival Fenwick. Fenwick, a doctor, looks down over a dead soldier, his hands clasped. The installation is a tribute to mateship. Fenwick’s mate (whether they were friends or not doesn’t matter) has paid the ultimate price in war. And because the falling of one’s mate is the one time it is acceptable for a man to break down, to lose his footing, his cool – this is also where the exhibition can pose some challenging questions and reveal the ultimate helplessness of a soldier’s lot. “What good we are doing, I can’t say,” says Fenwick’s narrator. “Perhaps the war office can… New Zealand is losing good men for one reason or another.”

He’s asked the all-important question, the one that should have been asked at the outset, the one which, if it framed the exhibition, would change it fundamentally for the better. But here, it can also be dismissed, because it is an expression of grief by a man having a private breakdown about his mate. So it’s not a real challenge to be answered – it’s an emotional display of mateship. Well played, Te Papa. The show goes on.

And it goes on without a noticeable mention of Archibald Baxter, who objected to war from his South island farm through imprisonment and quarantine on Somes Island, through rough sails as a prisoner to a South African jail and to France, where he was physically deposited into a trench despite maintaining his position as an objector. He was beaten, tied to posts in the snow for days on end until his muscles atrophied and he nearly died – but he still refused to take up arms. Baxter fought for freedom all the way through the war. Not a whisper of him.

Of his Maori contemporaries, like Herangi and Kenana, who tell among the most important, pertinent stories there are to tell about the truth of World War One – about forced conscription, colonisation, empire, and justice – it spares five sentences. There’s a tiny title on a board that reads “Staying out of it”, followed by five sentences dedicated to the conscientious objection of iwi, namely Waikato iwi and Tuhoe. For Tuhoe, as stated – the explanation for objection is that they had a “prophet who had pacifist beliefs” and that Kenana was “charged with sedition”.

This mention of Kenana is so small, and so painfully brief, but it warrants a startling overcompensation from Te Papa, an outpouring of displays of Maori approval for fighting in the war.

Peter Buck is already quoted profusely in the show: “We are the old New Zealanders,” he says. “No division can be truly called a New Zealand division unless it numbers Maori across its ranks.” And later on, Lieutenant Thomas (Hami) Grace says: “Sniping… it’s a great game, and the Turks are a worthy enemy! One of my group’s bagged two.”

But the small peep from Kenana is followed by surround-sound audio playing excerpts of a hymn and sermon delivered by Maori minister Te Wainohu, and a haka. The air of reverence covers over any suggestion Kenana’s position might have made that the war was inhumane or racist, and the audio plays in front of a quote that reads:

“My squadron stood silent… as we listened, we felt… we would go through anything with that beautiful influence behind us… is there any language so beautiful as that of our Natives, when it is set to music?”

So that was the Maori role – to help galvanise the white soldiers? While, though it’s not mentioned here, brown soldiers tended to be regarded as inferior, and not only that, but by a sort of gentleman’s agreement, they weren’t supposed to shoot white troops.* And this is what they get – thank you for the music?

Following this is a trench reconstruction. That’s so that that Pakeha soldier’s quote can be reenacted by visitors. You can walk through a trench immersed in the sound of exploding bombs, screaming and gunfire, with a haka resounding behind you.

At the end of the trench, a giant Corporal Friday Hawkins from the Maori machine gun section is installed between his giant dead mate, and another soldier feeding bullets into his machine gun. Friday is 23 and from Ngati Kahungunu, and if there is a trace of Rua Kenana left on your mind, this installation is an attempt to blast it out of you.

Hawkins looks like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film – out of Full Metal Jacket. He looks positively psychotic. The difference is that this is not satire. In this “perfect hell on earth,” Hawkins has dug deep, he has accessed parts of his mind and his manhood he might otherwise never know – that’s the “great adventure”, right – and they are allowing him to control a machine gun with his friend conked out beside him, and to carry on fighting. More sounds of haka – perverted for the cause – play around him.

At this point of my experience, I heard a little girl who was maybe four years old, walking through the museum with her mother, whimpering. She didn’t want to go any further and her mum was asking her if she wanted to turn back. That’s when I really started to hate this disingenuous, fanatic, wretched, misanthropic excuse for a history.

Then comes one of the final giants in the show: one of the most sentimental, unsensational, easy to overlook, yet important exhibits. Nurse Lottie le Gallais is the only female giant in this story, which is so male-dominated that her real functions are to tick the “representation of women” box, and, more importantly, to prop up the male heroism by providing a fitting contrast. Le Gallais is weeping and her face is puddled with tears. She has received all the letters she sent her brother – they are all marked “Killed, return to sender.”

Le Gallais’ story is heart wrenching.

It certainly does not, however, represent a genuine interest in examing the real and full impact of war on women. It’s no coincidence that the one woman selected to represent all women is not Te Puea Herangi or a woman forced to work in a munitions factory, or who had been raped by a soldier. Actually, it is so sacrilegious to reference military rape, Te Papa has kept its soldiers so clean that its woman representative is lamenting the loss not of her lover, but her brother. For all intents and purposes she is virginal, a nurse who cared for men and their mates. The Le Gallais giant does not threaten the sacred pillars of masculinity, patriotism, or mateship: it props them up. A virginal, crying, white nurse is the perfect archetype and complement to this male hero story. Because of this, no woman’s story, not even le Gallais’, are done justice. They cannot be, through Te Papa’s tokenism and male prejudice.

Shame on Te Papa for this display of racist and sexist war fanaticism.

We are not supposed to be outraged about the loss of life at Gallipoli, at this show. It frames war as a tragic inevitability that “we” can best respond to be seeing it as a test of manhood, mateship and patriotism. Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibition is not about justice, or injustice, and it does a much better job of displaying the scale of our war propaganda than the realities of modern, industrial warfare.

To honour the war dead, stay out of Te Papa on ANZAC Day.

 

*A post about this point is underway.

Selected references
Books
Baxter, Archibald. We Will Not Cease.
Orange, Claudia. The Treaty of Waitangi.
Philips, Jock. A Man’s Country?: The Image of the Pakeha Male, a History.
Sutch, William. The Quest for Security in New Zealand.

Other
Davidson, Jared. Fighting War: Anarchists, Wobblies and the New Zealand State 1905-1925.
Mallon, Sean. Were there Pacific Islanders at Gallipoli in 1915?
Milmo, Cahal. Forgotten role of Indian soldiers who served in First World War marked at last.
Salesa, Damon. The First World War and the Pacific (Floortalk, 30 April 2015, Alexander Turnbull Library)
Supple, James. Nothing to celebrate in Anzac: The bloody history of the British empire

 

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