What did we learn from W.W.1 100 years on?


When Europe spiralled into war in 1914, there was an almost euphoric, gleeful, delightful jolly mood throughout Europe. What a jolly thing they all said. It will be all over Christmas and we’ll be having pudding on the table, with presents under the tree and a roast for dinner.

So off they all rushed to war, this jolly good European jaunt. The Commonwealth nations excited to be supporting Mother Britain all began to mobilize. The Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans all put out calls for troops.

Within weeks the first casualty counts were coming in. The Germans had somehow stalled on the banks of the Marne River. No worries everyone thought. Things will get going again soon. The days turned into weeks. The weeks into months. The nights began to become longer and the days colder. The trenches that were supposed to be temporary were starting to take on a degree of permanence.

No peace would descend on Earth in 1914. Instead the first of many bloody battles up and down the Western Front over which a few square miles of land would be fought with fanatical savagery had begun. Battles costing thousands of lives a piece had happened at St. Quentin, the Marne, Albert, Yser, Ypres (No. 1 of 5) and a host of other places. The ground that would become a muddy hellhole over the next four years was starting to be ground up.

The mincing machines of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele were still over a year away. But as the mass of pill boxes, bunkers, tunnels and barbed wire accrued on both sides of no mans land the men who sat in water logged dug outs eating, washing, and otherwise trying to live in close quarters to many other men, the task of finding ways to break the stalemate and win the war became a priority.

The plane as a weapon of war was still in its infancy. The tank was still years away. But other sinister developments were taking shape. Desperate to gain the military initiative, the Germans, French and British had begun experimenting with chemicals as weapons. The initial attempts were unsuccessful, but in 1915 the Germans introduced chlorine.

Tactics were changing too. The creeping barrage that moved in front of advancing soldiers had been introduced. A moving wall of exploding shells would proceed the soldiers across no mans land, chewing up and spitting out already mangled land and bodies. Another one, the bite and hold strategy of biting a small chunk out of the enemy lines, consolidating and moving on was another.

By the time the Somme and Verdun, two blood baths with a combined total of nearly 2 million Allied and German dead between them, were over, the French were ready to mutiny. The Russians, sick to death of their wealth hoarding Tsar and no longer able to stomach any further fighting against the Germans were ready to revolt. Food shortages in Germany and Britain were dire and no one knew how or when this giant mangling machine would end.

Conditions were no better in the Commonwealth countries. New Zealand and Australia were permanently scarred by their experiences in Gallipoli in Turkey where they had been trying to take the Dardenelles and secure a supply line to Russia. Canada, South Africa and India were also bleeding steadily. All had further bloody confrontations awaiting them at Passchendaele (Ypres III), and elsewhere.

And so, Passchendaele got underway with the misgivings of just about everyone involved. Only the Generals seemed to be keen for it to happen. The 100 days of mud and blood that followed earnt it a special place in the collection of hell’s that World War 1 was.

Whilst that was happening the Russians had the second of two revolts that toppled the Tsar. Communism became a new term in the language of politics and within months, Russia and the Germans had cut a deal that enabled the Germans to flood the western front with fresh forces.

The German offensive of 1918 temporarily terrified the Allies, moved rapidly west for a month and then, unable to sustain their supply lines, failed. Another 688,000 Germans and 863,000 British, Commonwealth, French and American lives later and it was over for Germany. Before they could recover, the Allies 100 days offensive that would end with the Kaiser abdicating and Germany calling for an armistice began. It took back everything the Germans had taken and was closing on the German border when the Kaiser abdicated.

So what did we learn from World War 1? Apparently not a lot, other than that type of war is criminal. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was apparently cowardice, for which one could be shot. Soldiers went home and suffered permanent mental break downs as a result of what they had seen and done with no redress of any sort. And in that 4 1/4 years, enough progress was made on the technological front to unleash horrors unheard of in 1913. Historians to this day argue over the true meaning of the battles that took place, though all are in agreement that it was a truly appalling time in human history.

It was meant to be the war that ended all wars. The Germans would be vanquished, and unable to conduct offensive wars ever again. It would be punished and made to pay huge reparations. Yet on 01 September 1939 World War 2: The Really Really Dreadful Sequel started.

The pill boxes and the grave yards that litter fields in Belgium and France are silent testament to four years of abject madness where political pride and military prestige were more important than the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. If nothing else, on this 100th Armistice Day Anniversary, we would do really well to remember that. They did not die for nothing.

Government cleaning out non performing diplomats


The Government is set to announce a clean out of diplomats from New Zealand’s overseas missions. The announcement comes at a critical time as New Zealand attempts to adjust the country to an unsettled geopolitical environment created by Brexit, the divisive nature of current American politics, capped off by high international tensions with Iran.

One of the diplomats being pulled is Tim Groser, current ambassador to the United States. Mr Groser, prior to going to the United States was Minister for Trade in the National-led Government of former Prime Minister John Key. In that capacity Mr Groser was tasked with pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement to a fruitful conclusion. It was under Mr Groser’s watch that the many major concerns about the T.P.P.A. became known to the public and the beginning of the backlash occurred.

Mr Groser’s time in Washington D.C. does not appear to have been overly successful. Indeed one insider admitted that during his ambassadorship, the residency of the New Zealand ambassador has been “party central”, with numerous functions and parties hosted.

Mr Groser is not the only diplomat being recalled.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters believes that the idea of political appointments to the diplomatic posts is not a good look and not in New Zealand’s interests to continue. Mr Peters views Mr Groser as a political appointment because it was made by the previous National Government when Mr Key was still in office.

There are other key diplomatic posts opening up, including one in Dublin. This is a well sought after post because among other boards, it is home to the International Rugby Board, as politicians it was noted in the Government of Mr Key love to be seen with rugby royalty.

Mr Peters said that the Washington post is just one of many being reviewed and necessary recalled by the new Government. Others include a possible posting to London.

I believe that New Zealand needs to put more focus on building diplomatic ties with African and Latin American countries more than anywhere else. Neither of these two regions is very well understood by New Zealand, despite growing communities of Latin American nationalities and African nationalities in the country. Aside from sharing New Zealand’s wariness of war, Latin America also offer opportunities in trade and have been one of the few international bright spots in the last few years with the end of the Colombian civil war. And Africa, for all its mystery, remains the least understood part of the world in just about all respects. Trying to better understand this continent of mystery when some Governments take an ivory tower view of thinking they know best, when they do not, is not only a really good idea, it is essential.

Why New Zealand should respect Africa


Africa is a continent that is as mysterious as it is brimming with potential. People go there from all over the world to look at its amazing wildlife in countries such as Kenya and South Africa, to see the natural features such as the Victoria Falls and Mount Kilimanjaro. Others go to see man made structure such as the Suez Canal and the Pyramids. But how many give thought to the development of the continent that is probably the least understood and least respected part of the world?

European and other western nations give Africa billions of dollars in aid each year in return for influence in how the recipient nations are run. The donors are a mixture of well intending countries, and ones with an agenda, such as the former European colonial powers who want to see their old colonies function in a style that they find acceptable. Some of the aid is financial, whilst others offer military, legal or social aid such as assisting with the establishment of hospitals, social welfare services and education systems.

During the period from the 1950s to the 1990s, New Zealand had a chequered record with nations because of the way it handled the apartheid regime in Africa. Whereas other nations were keen to put distance between them and Apartheid as a political force, New Zealand Governments preferred to let sporting ties with South Africa continue despite its selection of teams based on race. Aside from the riots that broke out when the infamous 1981 Springbok tour took place, other nations resented New Zealand’s sanctioning in effect of Apartheid rule. Thus when Auckland hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1990, numerous African nations boycotted in protest. The late South African President, Nelson Mandela remembered this in his book “Long Walk to Freedom”.

In defence of New Zealand though, it needs to be pointed out that along with the Czech Republic only New Zealand stood against the United Nations decision to extract its peace-keepers instead of reinforcing them during the Rwandan Genocide. New Zealand also to its credit booted Nigeria out in 1995 from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Auckland when it executed Nigerian activist Ken Saro Wiwa. The execution caused widespread international outrage.

New Zealand is well regarded around the world for its transparent Government, low levels of corruption and internal stability. It is also well regarded for its friendly unbiased approach to people from individual races, nationalities and other potentially discriminatory factors. Rather than using its economic clout to guide African nations in a direction that might not be altogether appropriate from their standpoint, New Zealand should focus on helping them build up the rule of law or provide social guidance. Where issues of national security or the break down of international law come into play, it should work through the United Nations and the African Union to help provide a suitable solution for problems of the day.

With luck New Zealand will restore its credibility with African nations. Hopefully it will become one of the Western countries that seeks to understand Africa instead of ivory tower researchers who are not based in Africa guiding Government policy. Neither the centre-left idea of aid, aid and more aid or the centre-right idea of resource exploitation via free trade deals and deregulation are helping Africa. New Zealand can help change that and in return gain the respect of Africa.

Why countries do not understand Africa – and need to


There is no doubt that much has been said, written, filmed, photographed or otherwise recorded about Africa. It is a continent of mystery, of sorrow, of immense potential and no small amount of misunderstanding. Especially misunderstanding. It’s billion or so people are amongst the poorest on the face of the planet. Its resources are amongst the most abused in the world and its culture and its knowledge is vastly, vastly underrated by all.

New Zealand is no exception unfortunately to this systemic non-understanding of a continent that could teach the entire western civilization a thing or four about humility. From our reception of people from African nations in society in day to day situations such as walking down the street, right up to the corridors of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade there is much we could learn. New Zealand has the means and the know how to learn. We improved our standing with African nations when we protested in the streets against the Springbok Tour in 1981, yet at the same time we have turned a blind eye/deaf ear to tin pot dictators and corrupt governments such as that in Nigeria who either cannot or will not look after their people.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the world underrating Africa actually came in a movie about the Rwandan genocide where Don Cheadle is playing a hotelier who opens his hotel to refugees from the massacres taking place. He is Hutu but his wife is Tutsi. In particularly powerful scene the Canadian army officer in charge of the United Nations peace keepers is explaining his reasoning for the world not caring about the genocidal work of the militia’s and ends with this line: “You’re not even black. You’re African!”.

Nasty. But true. And we see it again in more recent circumstances as Boko Haram terrorize Nigeria and neighbouring countries. The world goes through the dinner time motions of “oh, that’s terrible”, and then go back to eating their dinner. Yet, if this had been in somewhere like Southeast Asia the outrage would have been palpable. Governments would have acted. And whilst I was pleased to get a response from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Murray McCully saying New Zealand had in place measures that made it a crime to be in any way supporting Boko Haram, the complete silence emanating from countries all over the world when hundreds of innocent school girls were kidnapped, including New Zealand told me that few cared a jot.

We wonder why these nations are messed up. Yet we do not bother to look at the history of the colonial powers that occupied the continent – Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain – to name the key ones and how they treated the people. One salient point to remember is that Western Africa was part of the slave triangle also involving the southern United States and the Caribbean. Another is that the colonial powers had little regard for ethnic groups and often did racially biased “experiments” such as noting the shape and size of facial features of different groups and giving preference to those they liked better. They confiscated land, killed endangered species and trashed the culture of indigenous groups. And then in the aftermath of World War 2, preoccupied with rebuilding themselves they abandoned their colonies to their fate, causing revolution, civil wars and all sorts of violent acts to occur as these new born nations tried to reconcile with their past.

There are some major gains to be had from recognizing the massive wrong we are perpetuating by ignoring these nations issues and not helping them to build the legal, education and health systems that will help them grow. Turning a blind eye to the grief mining, logging and oil companies are causing Africa, is to commit a massive injustice. It helps to sow the distrust of western civilization, western ways, western culture when Africans see that they are being brutalized by these companies for as little as a dollar a day, whose headquarters are in places like London and New York. Case in point: Shell Oil in Nigeria. If left to smoulder, militant groups bent on attacking perceived western targets such as oil refineries so forth are formed. In part this is probably how Boko Haram formed.

We say we want to defeat Boko Haram. But we don’t want to understand how and why it formed. Until we do we will never defeat it. Until we understand Africa better, we will never understand how and why of Boko Haram.

So, perhaps we had better start treating Africa and her billion or so inhabitants with some decency. Too much to ask?