Award winning book miseducates young readers about war

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Being the son of Elsie Locke I was interested to see who won the Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction at this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. The Elsie Locke Award recognises my late mother’s contribution to children’s literature.

My mother would have been critical of this year’s winning book, ANZAC Heroes, by Maria Gill (which also won the Margaret Mahy award for children’s Book of the Year).

Elsie Locke was a leading peace campaigner and a founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  Elsie Locke’s book, Peace People, celebrates those Kiwis who opposed war – from pre-European times, through World War I to the Vietnam war.

Gill’s ANZAC Heroes, while well written and presented, steers away from any criticism of the wars the ANZACs fought in. Maybe she thought it was not part of her remit. However the result, even if it is not intentional, is an endorsement of New Zealand’s participation in World War I. Reinforcing that endorsement, the Kiwi soldiers profiled in the book, who did fight bravely, are put on a pedestal as “heroes”.

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In Elsie Locke’s Peace People the real heroes are those who spoke out against the war, like Peter Fraser (later our Prime Minister) who was imprisoned for sedition. There is not a single mention in ANZAC Heroes of the thousands of New Zealanders (Maori and Pakeha) who opposed World War I, many of whom went to prison as conscientious objectors or opponents of conscription.

ANZAC Heroes assumes that World War I was a just war. Peter Fraser, by contrast, saw the war as being between rival capitalist powers in which the workers had no interest. Fraser saw the war as “the ruling classes of Europe spreading woe, want and murder over the continent, and it is time the working classes of different nations were rising up in protest against them.” [Peace People, page 55.]

As with many war books,  ANZAC Heroes sometimes glorifies the killing of “enemy” soldiers. For example when Sgt. Richard (Dick) Travis saw a German machine gun post he “rushed forwards, shooting with a revolver in each hand, killing seven men. A German officer and three men raced around the corner, and he killed them as well.” His unit “killed 50 enemies in all…” In such accounts the German dead feature only as statistics.

But why were New Zealanders even fighting in World War I? Was it right? This question is not even addressed, except in two sentences: “When Britain went to war, they [New Zealand and Australia] committed themselves to defending the Empire. Politicians worried that the war would spread to their shores and wanted to support the Empire’s effort to prevent that from happening.”

Gill says nothing about how nonsensical it was to think New Zealand would be invaded. Or whether it was right for New Zealand to commit troops at the cost of thousands of Kiwi lives and thousands of Turks and Germans on the other side. Or whether it was right to fight for an Empire that treated “enemy” soldiers as less than fully human – and subjugated hundreds of millions of people in India and its other colonies.

Yes, one can admire the bravery of soldiers in World War I, the soldiers on all sides. But they shouldn’t be treated as “heroes” unless the cause they were fighting in was just. In World War I the cause was not just. It was pointless mutual slaughter, with the victors needlessly humiliating the losers and laying the ground for the Second World War.

By treating our ANZAC soldiers in the First World War as “heroes” Gill’s book miseducates its young readers. It was a war that had many victims, but no heroes. We should mourn those who died, but not glorify any of those who did the killing.

All that being said, my mother Elsie Locke would have graciously accepted the decision of the judges in favour of ANZAC Heroes, and maybe agreed with the judges on such things as its writing quality or its high “production and design” standards. She would not have acted censorially the way some did when Ted Dawe’s Into the River won the Margaret Mahy children’s Book of the Year back in 2013. But I’m also sure she would have welcomed a public debate around the pro-war implications of ANZAC Heroes.  My mother may even have contributed something to that discussion.

[Footnote: While I am critical of the angle of this particular book, I would like to commend Maria Gill as a prolific writer of educational books for children, including several with social and environmental themes, like Eco-Rangers Save the Planet, Save our Seas and The Last of Maui’s Dolphin.]

ANZAC Heroes, by Maria Gill. Scholastic. 2016. $30.

Peace People, by Elsie Locke. Hazard Press, 1992.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Heros change with the times. These days a VC is more likely to be awarded for saving the life of a fellow soldier. In the days of WW1 and WW2 it was more likely due to tenacious combat with the enemy. These actions provided evidence of military prowess- something that fledging nations are usually keen to prove. Heroes generally say ‘yes i can’ in the face of difficulty, those who say ‘no’ even in good cause are deminished. Action over inaction. Gandhi is remembered for his salt march. Mandela his ‘walk to freedom.’ Martin Luther King Jr for his speech in the heart of washington DC…
    But in 1914 NZers considered themselves as part of Britain, ties of culture, economic, ethics, language, family were so part of our lives. In those days someone from Christchurch was as likely to go to London as Auckland. NZ s passion for empire right or wrong, is shown how we sent an invasion force so rapidly to German Samoa. And planned ahead for a major European war even in 1912 and how we might provide enough soldiers for a frontline expeditionary force to last until 1919! Already we were taking into account the huge expected casualties. It is a credit to these heroes from everyday life whom not only endured the trials of combat but also the conditions and came home restarted their lives and continued to build a better NZ for their families and future generations.

  2. I recently had the job of putting stickers into the children’s books in 3 libraries and I was horrified at the prevalence of books aimed at “educating” very young readers to venerate military personnel. Chauvinistic sentimentality is as dangerous as any other type of blind piety. If we uncritically ennoble veterans and fallen personnel we inevitably lead ourselves into the same romantic pro-war feelings that fueled the Great War.

    We would do well to remember that the pathos of John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” ends with an often omitted 3rd verse:

    “Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.”

    The logic is obvious. If someone “sacrificed” then something must have been gained. If you ennoble them for fighting, then you logically make the implicit claim that the war and the killing are noble acts, worthy of imitation. [My German neighbours have the first two verses of the poem framed in the hallway, artistically rendered by one of their children at school. I often wonder whether I should tell them that there is a third verse which tries to guilt-trip people into killing more Germans.]

    The scary part of all this is that none of the kids reading this stuff are likely to have veteran granddads like the kids in these picture-book stories. They are being indoctrinated to feel a reverence for people who are long dead without any of the antiwar and sceptical interpretation of the Great War that have rightly featured in past historical discourse.

    Gill’s book seems to be a continuation that indoctrination process. It also sounds like it fits the historical revision that now praises the British and Commonwealth role and places it in the framework of “humanitarian intervention”. This feeds a discourse which hides our youth from the historical record of ignoble military violence by our side. They know nothing about the troubles in Ireland, decolonisation struggles in Africa, atrocities in Indochina, carpet-bombing in Korea. For them history offers no more reason than Hollywood, to question the natural and self-evident truth that our soldiers only ever fight for just causes.

    Not everything revolves around WWI, but it is the the keystone in our understanding of war (not least because it cost Aotearoa so much in lives). The rewriting of that history allows a recasting of those who served in Malaya, Borneo, Korea and Indochina. We are only one or two steps away from reaching US levels of militarism, where everyone in uniform is a “hero”, and every slaughter is an act of heroism.

    I don’t know how Keith Locke can be so sanguine about a book like this being awarded the Elsie Locke Award. It is as sick as it is dangerous. Gill may have meant well, but we should be angry with the blithe and complacent. There is no real excuse for glorifying war to children. Morally it is about on the same level as deliberately using cartoons to market cigarettes to children.

    Wars are not just a potential future disaster, they are happening now. People are dying now and our country is involved. Producing a generation of kids who cannot conceive of Westerners as being anything but “the good guys” is an appalling act, and we need to be more strident in condemnation.

    Half of the reason that this is happening now, is that there aren’t many living war veterans here – and very few citizen-soldier conscripts. Many of them were against the whitewashing and glorification of war and I think they quietly kept the war lovers from seizing the high-ground and trumpeting platitudinous rubbish about “heroes”.

    The noble antiwar and anti-glorification veterans have passed on, along with the peace activists who gave their lives in their own “war to end war”, but they have thrown us the torch and we must take up “their quarrel with the foe”. I’m being a bit facetious, but it is still the truth.

      • Me too. The very cover picture (supposed to depict fearless courage?) seems also to glorify what was in fact an unjustifiable military and tactical disaster. It is all too easy to glorify war, even if unintentionally.

  3. It feels like “anzac books” are surefire winners in the children’s book market these days. Either they get govt funding, or booksellers and publishers just love them, and they get mountains (proportionally) of press.

  4. The glorification of war is a deliberate act.

    Leave our children alone to become rational peaceful citizens and help them in any way possible to seek all sides of a story..

    War propaganda is promoted by those who have a lot to hide.

    In the Cowboy and Indian films Hollywood spews out, a gross injustice is done to the viewers distorting their humanity and demonising another race, a race who were under attack.

    What is different to soldiers leaving a colony to help an Empire grab resources, land and the few cheer leaders make a lot of money. Its a murderous power game with ongoing repercussion of more of the same.

    Don’t blind the children.

    War is a cruel pitting of people against each other.

    Peace is in the hands of the perpetrators.

  5. All war is wrong, there is no such thing as a just war. All war kills innocent people, sent to the slaughter by the masters at the top. Every year on ANZAC day I get increasingly concerned at little kids ‘proudly’ wearing their forebears medals that were mostly gained because they killed others. If we shoot people we get locked up, it is regarded as murder. But when a state tells us we have to go and shoot people it is regarded as something heroic and for the protection of our country which is all bollocks. Most young men that went to either the first or second world wars thought they were going on a great adventure, only to find they and others were cannon fodder.

  6. I’m skeptical about children’s books in general. Most of them are written and illustrated by mediocre wannabes

  7. Outstanding commentary Kieran. I also agree emphatically with the others above.
    Mr Locke I think your mother would find your post very disappointing and feeble,and she would not have approved that book being given an award in her name.
    It’s a sign of the times that unworthy literature is given an award. (like “Into the River” ) Young people are being saturated with sex and violence. Glorifying war is part of this indoctrination. Notice also libraries have been thinning out their books ,only politically correct ones will remain. This is cultural Marxism .

  8. If he took down an MG which was about to chew up his platoon, then he was heroic, even if you don’t agree with the war it happened in. We can hate the bosses without denying the workers their due, even if you hate the job they were given.

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