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May 1, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Gallipoli, Magiagi, and me: Talking about the horrors of war

“Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon.”

Redgum, “I was only 19” (1983)


The Polynesian soldiers whose faces fill several large frames at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum look as if they are going to start a conversation with you, if you stare at them long enough. It’s like these many faces have a million stories to tell about a time different from our own, but never got — won’t get — time to tell them.

I’ve always found there to be a sort of fake “soldier strength” that some of the younger faces are doing their best to put on for the camera. This “strength” isn’t the kind of celebrated mana that is heralded in many of our legends. It’s the same sort of “who gives a damn?” attitude that many Polynesian males are still conditioned to have. These soldiers are the poster children for the “stick out your chest” mantra. The vacant expression on some of the faces exposed the missing patriotic spark I’m used to seeing in soldiers, and this vacancy, or maybe confusion, was a stark contrast to their smart uniforms. Many of them didn’t wear the uniforms with the same pride that European soldiers did; it wasn’t their war.

Those who don’t look so blank look a little tired. The Pasifika experience in the first half of the 20th century was a dreary confusion. It was the height of the colonial era, and these kids — who look like they’re straight out of high school — were British subjects. Any mumblings of “not our war” might have been met with reminders of “duty” to King and country (or, at least, King and colony).

New Zealand troops arriving to annex Samoa for Britain during World War I. August, 1914. Malcolm Ross. Alexander Turnbull Library

New Zealand troops arriving to annex Samoa for Britain during World War I. August, 1914. Malcolm Ross. Alexander Turnbull Library.

New Zealand troops arriving to annex Samoa for Britain during World War I. August, 1914. Malcolm Ross. Alexander Turnbull Library.

“Making history” is a positive phrase to describe people, events, and inventions that changed the course of history and should be remembered. However, “that’s history” is used to describe things people think we should leave behind and simply move on from. I’ve heard it said in many conversations about the World Wars. It gets used to shut people up when they rant on about the lives and deaths that colour a narrative which is too often relegated to the confines of a museum. These talks are supposedly boring, perhaps even useless, when people say “we weren’t there,” “we don’t know exactly what happened,” or “we should just focus on what’s in front of us now.” But does that make history less important? Are we missing something, maybe a lot of things, that could make this period of time more history than just “history”?

To paint the scale of our (New Zealand’s) war, Te Papa has done a wonderful job of recognising the diversity that constituted the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). However, as pictures often do, the photographs bring up more questions. How many of the wars’ survivors made the full journey back to where they came from? How many Pasifika soldiers survived, but are not listed or pictured here? How many died and are not listed or pictured here, remembered only by the ones who loved them?

Who else were involved in the war but aren’t hailed as our great heroes? My maternal great-grandpa, Evara Kuripi, was Melanesian. In the aftermath of the World Wars, the colonial powers were slow to acknowledge him and the other men of his generation for their roles as soldiers in what is still portrayed as a primarily “white” war. This was in spite of the fact that many had worked as “carriers”, transporting Australian and New Zealand food, weapons, and other supplies to wherever the soldiers were stationed. My great-grandpa was actually a soldier in what was called the Papuan Infantry Battalion. They made contact with the invading Japanese army before their white contemporaries. The Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, known also as “the bloody track,” was the work site of some 10,000 indigenous assistants to the Australian Armed forces. Of the nearly 1000 who died, only a handful have been properly acknowledged, and they are seldom mentioned in most ANZAC Day odes and ceremonies. They continue to be known as the “Green Shadows” of ANZAC history.

One of the great horrors (among many) of war is not the gruesome records we have, but instead what we’re missing — what we don’t know. There is indeed a great void of names, dreams, and fears of the faceless and nameless Pasifika soldiers who have fallen. However, I don’t believe that either side of the dichotomy, colonised or coloniser, is completely to blame. I mean Samoa, an infamous former colony of New Zealand, has stopped observing ANZAC Day as a national holiday. Before I moved to New Zealand, I didn’t give much thought to my government’s decision (to not give us the day off school) to reduce the commemoration. It was only when I witnessed the parade on Lambton Quay and felt the ambiance of ghost-city quiet on my first ANZAC Day here that I began to feel as if I had been aiding the propagation of a culture of forgetfulness. How can I complain about brown soldiers being often left out of ANZAC Day posters in Australia and New Zealand when my own country continues to lessen their importance?

A world away from Te Papa, even farther away from Gallipoli and every other wartime site, Magiagi Public Cemetery in Samoa hosts the graves of at least five New Zealand soldiers. Last ANZAC Day, I was home for the mid-trimester break, so I decided to visit the site. I found that the graves were neatly marked, and rather well-kept. The engravings listed names, ranks, dates of death, and ages at death. What really got me thinking was the fact that none of these fallen soldiers were over the age of 30 when they were killed. The youngest was 19-years old. One grave that lay towards the end of the orderly line had some very poignant words on it. There was a small plaque, reading: “to the father I never knew.” This soldier had died aged 27 and his son, who finally located his grave 50 years later, travelled from New Zealand to see it.

There’s another horror, I think — the horror of the unfinished. The abrupt end to life is terrible, unfair, and in times of war, very common. My Philosophy and Ethics paper during that trimester was discussing liability, and what it means to be liable to die for a cause. “Liability” was defined as obligation, and duty. When we discussed war, our lecturer often posed questions of whose responsibility it was to die. Who should die? Who shouldn’t? Whenever I see these graves, I see not an answer to those questions, but another, more complex one. What does it mean to be liable to deal with the consequences of liability? For these deaths invoked liability; it was an obligation to those who had passed for those who remained to grieve and put things back together.

I wonder about all the other graves. They contain human beings who must all have had unfinished conversations, plans to meet someone at a bar, or a prospective university to enrol in after the war.

We, from the Pacific, might complain that many of our sons were taken from us and did not return. These graves at Magiagi, and many like them, stand testament to the fact that many of their sons also came to our shores, and remain beneath our soil. Some were part of the colonial administration (likely facilitating their rule) but others were just passing through, maybe on their way to and from Europe. Is it right to add up wins and losses based on race? An exchange isn’t a plus, and it isn’t a minus. It’s an equal loss. There’s no winner here.

My interest in ANZAC Day peaked when I found out the origins of my surname. It’s one of those culturally ambiguous portmanteaus of the different parts of the colonial world. I’ve always known that Koria was derived from Collier. However, thanks to my nationalistic high school environment, I resented this “white name” for a long time. I wanted all the chiefly titles it prevented me from using as my surname.

Then I came to university and learned two things. Firstly, “Collier” is from John William (J.W.) Collier, who was a Methodist missionary and teacher born here in Wellington. He went to Samoa in 1881, and was stationed at my father’s village, Satupaitea, on the island of Savai’i. My great-great-grandparents were determined that their son would be a protégé of sorts to the Reverend, naming him Collier, which became Koria. They sent him to be trained at Mr Collier’s school, where he learned to speak and write in English. The name lives on — translational variations apply, though. Secondly, Reverend J.W. Collier’s son, Second Lieutenant B.H.F. Collier, was killed in action in the Battle of Pozieres, in Somme, France. At the age of 29, he died on July 23, 1916. July 23 is my birthday..

Nowadays when I think of ANZAC Day, I think of the horror of having my surname and date of birth on a grave dug 80 years before I was even born. Empathy is a horror of its own. It’s not like sympathy, which doesn’t crawl up your spine or tighten your chest. Empathy gets you, because it makes you feel like it’s yourself in a given situation. Empathy makes me feel connected to this white soldier who I’ll never meet. It makes me want to talk about history. The same empathy makes me realise that I’m only one of a myriad of stories like this.

Whether you find the listless accounts of war victims and veterans an interesting pastime on the dreaded first week back from break is none of my business. But I would like to ask you to remember. Even if you take nothing else out of this article that’s full of names and dates,  please remember the spirit of it.

When we remember, we can talk again. The more we talk, the more we realise that the burdens of our human volatility and fragility are universal. They know no skin tones, no accents, and no visas. Let us not let the horror of silence increase the void between us and our histories, and between ourselves and our fellow human beings. Let us start having these universal conversations again, lest we forget.


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