Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On the miseries of political life

This is my response to a text written on the AWSM blog:

I think I should probably qualify my original, short comment (as delayed as this is). I should also say outright that I don’t have much time to participate in this discussion as I have a new baby, so apologies for that in advance. I see further comments on the Redline blog have also clarified some of what I felt was problematic with the text.

Despite agreeing with much of the text, I guess what jarred me was the feeling that it was too black and white, and I couldn’t tell if the Situationist quotes were for real or satire. I think what Olly says about certain types of work leading to further investment in ‘the system’ is spot on. To be aware of the contradictions in our work, and to know how our work reproduces capital, is the first step in challenging and ending that work.

But if I understand what this text suggests, it is that we should aim our struggle towards particular jobs. Olly points out the flaws of this approach, yet it still reads as if certain jobs have more potential for class struggle over others.

I feel this is problematic. It makes me think of those who argue that Auckland should be the main place of struggle, because that’s where the biggest employers are. Or that the online financial sector should be the place of struggle, because that is where the finance sector operates.

Playing havoc with the economy or the financial sector might bring down the economy or the financial sector, but this is not the same as ending capitalism. As we know, capital is not a place, but a social relationship. Thinking about where this relationship might best be ruptured is useful, but trying to pinpoint exact locations of struggle is extremely difficult and possibly a distraction from a broader, collective approach.

Yet it is clear that certain work changes the way we relate to others, as Olly points out. This division of labour, or the divisions between ourselves, is super important – even more so now that many people do not identify as workers, or as a class (this might not be such a bad thing, depending on your point of view, but that is another discussion altogether).

However most people can relate to discussions about work; to the day-to-day content and activity of their jobs (waged or unwaged). I think this is a potentially fruitful way forward for those of us who wish to end the wage relation. Rather than spending time raising the ‘class consciousness’ of our peers in an abstract sense, we can get to the heart of our work, and how we reproduce capital.

Feminist and marxist, Iris Young, talks about how the division of labour may be a more useful way forward than that of class. In ‘The Unhappy Marriage’ she writes that “the division of labour operates as a category broader and more fundamental than class. Division of labour, moreover, accounts for specific cleavages and contradictions within a class… [it] can not only refer to a set of phenomena broader than that of class, but also more concrete. It refers specifically to the activity of labour itself, and the specific social and institutional relations of that activity.” She goes on to talk about how this might speak to the role of professionals – ie the subject of Olly’s text.

I find this approach helpful, because it makes clear that all work reproduces the wage relation – whether you’re an academic, information worker, or a kitchen hand – and that struggle around the activity of work is potentially more fruitful than trying to pinpoint which jobs are best to spend energy on.

In other words, what might be more constructive is to discuss the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of struggle against the wage relation, wherever that struggle may be, rather than focusing on ‘where’.

This relates to another aspect of this text I find troublesome. It feels like another anarchist text policing individuals within the movement for their decisions. It seems to place a lot of emphasis on the role of the individual anarchist. I get this, because that is what we can relate to in our own lives and our own organising, as anarchists. But this does not strike me as a way forward, but a further step inward.

Olly clarifies that we need a collective response to this on Redline, which is cool to hear.

Finally, I don’t agree with the ‘poverty of everyday life’ comment of Olly’s. Struggle around our everyday life is a must, but poverty often begets more poverty, and not struggle. I don’t like what this leads to (even if it is unintentional) – that the worse off people’s jobs are, the more they will struggle against it. If anything, history has shown that struggle on a collective scale tends to take place when things are good or improving for workers (a huge generalisation, I know).

I’m not sure if what I’m trying to say makes sense. I guess the short of it is that the potential for mass, collective struggle against the wage relation (and work) is all around us. We don’t need to narrow that to a particular type of work, especially when there may be important sites of struggle that is neglected in doing so. For example, could capital reproduce itself without childcare and daycare centres? I’m not saying this is a great example, but it is the type of question I’d love to discuss, rather than trying to monitor the further personification of capital by individual comrades.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

What is anarchism? - in one sentence

Josh MacPhee, Revolution of Everyday Life, postcard
"You're an anarchist? What does that mean?" It's a common question I get asked. Through deliberate misinterpretation or unawareness, being an anarchist and what that means is completely foreign to many. As well as this, we are sometimes guilty of using unclear or unknown language when describing our ideas.

While I shed my evangelical fervor a long time ago, I still want to be able to talk with those around me about what drives my thoughts and actions.

Related to this is one of my goals for 2015: to speak and write in plain English. So I thought I would share what usually I say when I am asked what anarchism is.

Anarchists believe that no one should have the power to coerce or exploit another, that we could enjoy a life without capitalism, without government, and be free to decide how to live and work with those around us.

This is a huge simplification of a rich and complex movement, and leaves a lot out. But I find it is a nice conversation starter. I have used other terms at other times, such as 'wage labour' for 'capitalism', 'the state' for 'government', or 'organise' for 'decide'. However these are slightly more abstract or harder to relate to. Plus 'wage labour' does not cover all of what capitalism does to our relationships, our environment, and our lives.

You can find out more about anarchism on this blog, and online. For example, has these great guides on what anarchists are against, and what we would like to see instead:

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Origins of the police

The Five Points district of lower Manhattan, painted by George Catlin in 1827. New York’s first free Black settlement, it became a mixed-race slum, home to Blacks and Irish alike, and a focal point for the stormy collective life of the new working class. Cops were invented to gain control over neighborhoods and populations like this.

From Excellent text by David Whitehouse examining the creation of the first police forces, which took place in England and the US in just a few decades in the mid-19th century. And explaining that they were not brought into being to prevent crime or protect the public, but primarily to control crowds: the working class, white and black.

In England and the United States, the police were invented within the space of just a few decades—roughly from 1825 to 1855.
The new institution was not a response to an increase in crime, and it really didn’t lead to new methods for dealing with crime. The most common way for authorities to solve a crime, before and since the invention of police, has been for someone to tell them who did it.

Besides, crime has to do with the acts of individuals, and the ruling elites who invented the police were responding to challenges posed by collective action. To put it in a nutshell: The authorities created the police in response to large, defiant crowds. That’s

— strikes in England,
— riots in the Northern US,
— and the threat of slave insurrections in the South.

So the police are a response to crowds, not to crime.

I will be focusing a lot on who these crowds were, how they became such a challenge. We’ll see that one difficulty for the rulers, besides the growth of social polarization in the cities, was the breakdown of old methods of personal supervision of the working population. In these decades, the state stepped in to fill the social breach.

We’ll see that, in the North, the invention of the police was just one part of a state effort to manage and shape the workforce on a day-to-day basis. Governments also expanded their systems of poor relief in order to regulate the labor market, and they developed the system of public education to regulate workers’ minds. I will connect those points to police work later on, but mostly I’ll be focusing on how the police developed in London, New York, Charleston (South Carolina), and Philadelphia.

Continued at

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Becoming a dad for the second time must have triggered some kind of punk-regression, because what little time I have between naps and nappies is being spent on a blog called CUT & PASTE. There are hundreds of punk, hardcore, thrashcore, fastcore and powerviolence bands on there, all with downloads.

In keeping with the name of the blog, here are some of my favourites so far:

Human Junk

"Human Junk is an incredibly raw and blistering two-man hardcore punk from the UK. Super-fast and rad as all hell. Noisy and thrashy riffs, spastic drums & utterly pissed vocals work magic for these guys. Any fans of powerviolence and fastcore must snag this immediately."

Man Hands Split Cassette (2011)
(Human Junk Tracks Only)

"Threatener is ridiculously hyper, manic, destructive & extreme fastcore extravaganza. These punks from An Arbor, Michigan tear shit up! Super-thrashin' speeds of power-chord shredding, absurdly fast drumming, and harsh & rowdy vox. They are a distorted, rusty buzzsaw right through your brain. Soooo fucking good! They sadly only lasted from 2001-2005."


"If you haven't heard of this band yet you are an idiot. Period. Vaccine is yet another Western Mass powerhouse featuring The Legendary Will Killingsworth, Matt Swift from Relics and The Living City, Joe Shumsky from Think I Care and Glue, and our friend Matt McKeown who spilled his guts with No Faith. In a nut shell this band tears shit up. Super pumped up and vicious straight edge power violence. This shit kills!"

Vaccine / No Faith Split 7" (2013)

My Photos by
"Genders was a short-lived Powerviolence outfit from the Massachusetts/Connecticut Area. These guys released a Demo in 2009 under their previous band-name "Afflictions" and a 7" titled "Day Of Choices" on Prgnt Records."

2009 Demo

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A new project: censored letters of the First World War

Chief Censor Colonel Gibbon. S P Andrew Ltd :Portrait negatives. Ref: 1/1-013982-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

From the outbreak of the First World War until November 1920, the private letters of mothers, lovers, soldiers and workmates were subject to a strict censorship. A team of diligent readers in post offices across the country poured over pounds and pounds of mail. Some were stamped and sent on. Others made their way into the hands of Police Commissioners. In an era when post was paramount, the wartime censorship of correspondence heralded the largest state invasion of private life in New Zealand’s history.

Although hundreds of books exist on New Zealand's war effort, and soldier's diaries and letters, “neither the restrictions imposed nor their effects upon the political life of the community has previously been subjected to careful scrutiny,” wrote John Anderson back in 1952. “No adequate attempt has ever been made to trace the development of wartime censorship as a weapon in the armoury of authority.” Despite censorship being mentioned in numerous books and theses since, Anderson’s unpublished work remains the primary study of domestic censorship during the First World War. Indeed, The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History dedicated a mere paragraph to the topic.

This is the task I have set myself, and the topic of my forthcoming book. Using the actual censored letters, I hope to share a fascinating insight into postal censorship, state attitudes toward dissent, and the New Zealand home front during the First World War.

The letters also allow us to hear voices often silenced by traditional histories. Most ordinary working-class women and men did not keep diaries, publish their thoughts, or fill the shelves of manuscript libraries with their personal archives. Writing about the remarkable exception of Wairarapa labourer James Cox, Miles Fairburn notes how illiteracy, work-related fatigue, the stress of economic insecurity, and lack of spare time deprived many workers of the opportunity to keep diaries. Letter writing was far more common, yet even these snippets of working-class life are wholly dependent on whether they were kept, or in the case of this book, detained.

It is early days however! I have only just begun my research and writing, but it is a topic I've covered in my previous work. Watch this space for updates and snippets.

no adequate attempt has” Anderson, ‘Military Censorship in World War 1: Its Use and Abuse in New Zealand’, Thesis, p. 5.
Miles Fairburn notes how” Miles Fairburn, Nearly Out of Heart and Hope: The Puzzle of a Colonial Labourer’s Diary, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995, p. 6.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Damned Evangelist - Rhythm and Movement

National Film Unit production 'Rhythm and Movement' (1948) re-mixed with songs by my old band, The Damned Evangelist (RIP).

The playlist for this video includes: 'Thee Arival' and 'The Day The Earth Stood Still', which come from our 2008 7" vinyl EP 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' (Stink Magnetic). More on The Damned Evangelist can be found at and

This re-mix involved no editing at all (although the end title was brought forward). I'm stoked how nicely the film matches up captures the weird, cult-like groove.

More on the original National Film Unit production held at Archives New Zealand can be found at

Sunday, October 5, 2014

'Extra-ordinary Anarchist Revolutionary Network that Everyone Should re-Tweet' founded!

Fellow comrades! In this statement, which was drafted at our floundering congress and ratified by quorum of three, we are pleased to announce the formation of a new radical collective: the Extra-ordinary Anarchist Revolutionary Network that Everyone Should re-Tweet (EARNEST for short).

What we stand for
Our participatory organization struggles for the complete abolition of the current relations of property, production and exchange (in their totality), and the horizontal diffusion of power amongst overlapping, networking federations of workplace and community syndicates — also known as assemblies or soviets or councils, depending on the particular programmatic stage of the class. We believe that through the use of plain English and Facebook, we can raise the consciousness of the proletariat and infuse our radicalism amongst the working class (waged, unwaged, or space-aged).

Our programme
Our 152 point programme can be found on our obscure blog (page 6.E). However, in the interests of accessibility, we summarize our core policies below:
  • Class struggle is the struggle between classes — to ignore this fact is to ignore the facts
  • Nothing can or will change as long as you leave out the word 'capitalism' from your press releases
  • Although class struggle is primary to our politics, we will add on a number of different 'isms' to our statement on how class struggle is primary to our politics
  • Revolutionary activity is that which increases the power of the class, preferably in person (although the struggle for minds online can and must be a feature of our struggle)
  • We are not Marxists
  • We are not anarchists
  • We recognize the importance of autonomous struggle from below, as long as it mirrors point 36 of our programme
  • Recallable position holders will be recalled on a rotational basis, if not recalled before the period laid down by the previous delegate. For information on this policy, try contacting the previous delegate
  • Season eight of Buffy is NOT a legitimate season, and any references to it will result in expulsion
  • Trade unionism is dead. Long live trade unionism!
  • We operate by direct democratic consensus, when a majority of the quorum meet the required cut-off figure as per our 'How We Work' document (not to be confused with our 'What We Stand For' or 'How to Make Lentil Patties' documents)
  • Our free sheet 'The Spark' will be produced once, distributed mainly to our friends, and ensure our ideas have a greater reach
  • Our theoretical journal will never happen
  • The content of class struggle, rather than its form, must inform the form of class struggle
  • We recognise that unwaged work is a core feature of capital accumulation. By unwaged work, we mean those workers we mentioned at the bottom of page three of 'The Spark' (tick)
  •  Revolutionary fronts and alliances of any kind are counter-revolutionary. Just ask my mate Dave of the Socialist Workers Unity Party
  • 'The Worker' as an embodied identity is hopelessly outdated and of a historic epoch now past. However, fellow workers, we must stand together as workers and fight just as they did in 1848!
  • The environment, feminism, colonialism (there, we said it)
Become a member (or a peripheral hanger-on to our film screenings)
If you agree completely with our tactical and unity paper, or only vaguely agree, and wish to make real (rather than reformist) social change, then join us. Please. We are actually your normal group of weird-smelling, obscure-reading, computer-loving dietitians who, like you, recognize the importance of countering the Trotskyist position on the nature of the Russian state during 1917. Please join us. Only by tweeting together can we make a difference. We meet every second Wednesday of the full moon at the backroom of the Historic Trades Hall, 98 Hobson St. Home brew is welcome.

EARNEST, October 2014

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stevan Eldred-Grigg on the glorification of war

2,600 people rally against conscription and cost of living in Christchurch 1917. Hocken Collections, University of Otago, New Zealand

From Dear Kitty: The World Socialist Web Site recently spoke to historian Stevan Eldred-Grigg about the government-produced book, New Zealand and the First World War 1914–1919, published last November. The Ministry of Culture collaborated with the Defence Force and hired the ardent militarist Damien Fenton to write the book, which is one of about a dozen being produced as part of the country’s centenary commemorations of WWI.

The WSWS review characterised the book as pro-war propaganda, based on falsifications, omissions and distortions, designed to numb the consciousness of workers and youth in order to prepare them for future wars. WWI was an imperialist war, caused by the breakdown of the capitalist system, expressed in the struggle between the major powers in Europe, Asia and America for domination of colonies, markets and profits. More than 10 million people were killed, including 18,500 New Zealanders, and millions more were maimed. New Zealand’s ruling elite joined the war, as a junior partner in the British Empire, in order to expand its wealth and colonies in the South Pacific.

Fenton falsely presents the war against Germany and its allies as an altruistic endeavour. He celebrates New Zealand’s involvement, including its seizure of German-held Samoa, and its share in the plunder from Nauru. He concludes that WWI was “largely successful and profitable” for the country.

Eldred-Grigg is the author of The Great Wrong War: New Zealand Society in WWI (Random House, 2010), which examines the disastrous impact of the war on the country. He has written several other works of history and novels, including The Rich: A New Zealand History, New Zealand Working People, and Oracles and Miracles.

Tom Peters: As a historian, what do you make of Fenton’s book as a whole?

Stevan Eldred-Grigg: The fact that such an uncritical text is one that gets the official imprimatur is, of course, depressing—deeply depressing. It’s not surprising that it’s got the government, or the prime minister’s backing. But they [the researchers at the Ministry of Culture] should know better than that. They’re proper historians. Basically, he’s not a historian. He’s an antiquarian. Antiquarians are those who gather all the information they can about a subject and don’t know what to do with it, don’t know how to argue, how to critically appraise or analyse.

TP: There’s virtually no discussion of New Zealand’s invasion of Samoa at the start of the war.

EG: It gets one little box, and the carve-up of Nauru gets half a line—where it’s described as beneficial, as you pointed out in your review. No mention of the gross exploitation that was going on in Nauru. By the end of the war, one Samoan historian argues, Samoa had just become one big prison camp. There were curfews and very strict racial segregation of four groups: the whites, the Cantonese coolies (who were the bottom of the heap), the Samoans and the afekasi (part Samoan, part white).

Until The Great Wrong War, no New Zealand historian had discussed—in any mainstream history of New Zealand or about the war—our seizure of Samoa. Fenton should have integrated what I said about it. He hasn’t taken any account of my book. It’s not in the bibliography.

TP: You point out that there were long-standing designs on Samoa, Nauru and other places throughout the Pacific, even Hawaii at one stage.

EG: The New Zealand governing groups, the Liberals and Reform, both seem to have been equally strong on the idea of a New Zealand colonial empire in the Pacific. That actually seems to have been quite an important strand in the political elite’s thinking when we decided not to join the Federation of Australia—the sense that New Zealand should look towards the Pacific, that we had our own “manifest destiny.”

TP: Fenton claims New Zealand went to war partly because it faced a naval threat from Germany and relied on Britain for protection.

EG: That’s of course nonsense. Historians of the right have argued that our trade depended on Britain. Fenton accepts that. I went to a great deal of trouble to show that the largest market for our wool exports may well have been Germany, and they were also an important market for frozen meat. The German shipping line Norddeutscher Lloyd, one of the largest in the world, was also going to break the British shipping monopoly between Europe and New Zealand.

Then there’s the military defence argument: that we depended on the British navy to keep the seas clear of other navies, because if they didn’t do that, all those other predatory powers that wanted us would take us. Who exactly were those predatory powers? The only ones that had the capacity were the US and Japan. Japan was an ally, the US was neutral and became an ally. France, Britain and Germany were of no account in the Pacific by 1914.

Then they always add: the great majority of New Zealanders emotionally identified as British.

TP: Which is what he says.

EG: First of all, you have to take out the 10 to 12 percent Catholic Irish, who certainly did not see themselves as British, and saw the British Empire as a very dodgy enterprise. You have to take out most Maori, who—unlike what he says—did not flock to the colours, but stayed away in droves. You have to take out German and Scandinavian New Zealanders, for the most part, and a large number of Croat New Zealanders, and you have to take out Chinese New Zealanders.

Then there’s our colonial peoples, who had to be shovelled in to fill the recruitment quotas. Kalaisi Folau and Margaret Pointer have written a really moving work about the poor Niueans. Some of them volunteered, some got brow-beaten. They had terrible experiences. Most of them just got sick. In return, the whole community of Niue got a type-written letter with a mimeographed signature from the war minister, and some portraits of the king and queen to hang in a village hall.

You’ve still got an overwhelming majority of Anglo-Scots, something like 75 percent. But then of course you can start doing your class analysis.

TP: Fenton doesn’t discuss class at all.

EG: No, of course, class doesn’t exist, we’re all one united people. He talks about “New Zealand” as though it’s an organic unity.

It was really polarised. If you read the private papers of wealthy, conservative people before the war, there was a widespread anxiety about revolution—as there was everywhere in the capitalist world. There was also the very strong idea that “the people”—the working class—had become too prosperous, too demanding, and had lost touch with reality, and that war would restore true values. That was very widespread in New Zealand among conservatives, just as much as it was in Prussia, England, France and St Petersburg.

TP: And it was a very militarised society, as you explain.

EG: It was. One of the things I was struck by, when I first began looking at newspapers before the war, was the salience of military and naval images. The governors wore military uniforms. Children, boys and girls, wore naval uniforms. There was a lot of anger about compulsory military training among working class people and among Methodists and Baptists from the middle class. Those were the stalwarts of the peace movement.

In fact, in the years before the war, pamphlets were being published back in Britain, by New Zealanders, warning British working class people not to accept the blandishments of the New Zealand government giving them assisted migration, because their sons would end up being turned into cannon fodder.

TP: One of the shocking aspects of the book is that he completely endorses all the repressive measures taken by the government.

EG: Yes. Ostensibly, of course, a war fought for democracy and freedom, that’s what they kept banging on about. And the first thing you do, as soon as war breaks out, you bring in a whole lot of regulations to suppress democracy and freedom. As the war went on, the measures got sterner, and sterner, and sterner. They were continuing to strengthen them towards the end of the war.

TP: Anti-war meetings were prohibited.

EG: Anti-conscription meetings were prohibited as well, once it was introduced. And you couldn’t even speak in private against the war, so people were self-censoring.

Amelia Turnbull, an ordinary citizen, while seated at the family breakfast table, heard her son-in-law say something about not caring if Germany won the war. She dobbed him in, and he was sent to prison for twelve months. A bewildered old Norwegian woman, on the railway station at Palmerston North, who was having trouble with her baggage, began to abuse “you Britishers”, and she was sent to prison for six months.

So you couldn’t speak out, even in your own home. Of course, people did anyway, not everyone had that sort of mother-in-law.

The tradition which I grew up in, in my mum’s family, the unskilled working class, was that the whole thing was stupid: a stupid war. Mum had about eight uncles and of them one got into uniform. The others wagged, they ran away, they messed up the medicals. These were not idealistic conscientious objectors. These were just men who felt: this is stupid, it’s a fat man’s war, nothing to do with me.

A lot of people ran away to Australia or the US, especially the Irish. That’s another thing Fenton doesn’t touch on, the Catholic Irish opposition.

TP: He says there was a tiny proportion of people who resisted conscription.

EG: He doesn’t make any reference to the women’s riot in Christchurch that I looked at [1]. The government was very careful to phase in conscription: first of all targeting the single, then later on the young married with no children. By the time the married with children were being conscripted in 1917, the anger was widespread, and you got those huge crowds protesting about conscription and wartime inflation.

I was born in Blackball, a working class mining town, and in Blackball there’s a well-known story. There were a lot of men running away from conscription, or who’d deserted from the army. Some cops arrived in town to try and track some of them down, and some people from the miners’ union led the cops to the top of a big limestone bluff over what’s called Coal Creek. And they said, “See down there? It’s a long way, isn’t it? If you come back here doing this again, you’ll find yourself at the bottom.” That was the feeling in places like that.

There were quite a lot of strikes, because there was this increasing sense as the war went on that the working class were being shafted to pay for it. So they began to try to claw back some of their losses.

Blomfield cartoon, from the National Library of New Zealand
TP: Fenton claims that this cartoon from the Observer in December 1916 “illustrates the public anger at the prospect of coal miners and workers in other essential industries using wartime conditions to win higher pay and better conditions.”

EG: “The public anger”! Rather than capitalist anger… It’s worrying. The first task of a historian is to look at a piece of evidence and ask: who wrote it? Why did they write it? Who were they trying to persuade, of what, for what purpose? And he just doesn’t do that. He just accepts the newspapers!

TP: What do you think of how Fenton writes about the fighting itself? He praises the British general Douglas Haig and French general Henri-Philippe Petain, among others.

EG: I just find it so distasteful. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the world of historiography was largely liberal and left, we were being told that these people were wholesale slaughterers of the working class. But then there was a reaction against this. The New Right came in and stripped off, quite quickly, the thin skin of leftish liberalism on a lot of people.

So by the 1990s there were some historians in the old British Empire who were beginning to argue that the 60s and 70s response was just a sentimental, wet response, and a dry way of looking at it was: Britain won the war. That’s good, because Britain is good, it stands for justice. So, how did it do it? By killing millions of its soldiers, but by killing even more millions of the other people’s soldiers. Ipso facto, it was worth doing.

Some historians also began to stress what had previously just been regarded by the liberal left as the British rationale for intervention, which was the invasion of Belgium and the violation of an international treaty. So I went to some pains to point out how Britain violated two international treaties as soon as the war broke out.

TP: By attacking German colonies in Africa…

EG: Also, the British illegally and unilaterally, within a few months of the outbreak of war, defined contraband to mean anything going to the enemy, even to feed the civilians. But that’s not discussed by Fenton.

TP: He generally sanitises the fighting and New Zealand’s role.

EG: He doesn’t talk about the violence and exploitative behaviour of the New Zealand soldiers towards the Egyptians, which was all through the war. It was sustained and systematic.

He talks briefly about what has become glamorised as a romantic interlude: the riot in the Cairo brothel district. This is “our boys” attacking a lot of sex workers, who are making a really crap living. There’s no suggestion that the men, by buying these sexual services, are exploiting them. Then they get beaten up for their pains and have their houses burnt down.

TP: He says there was “mutual hostility” between the Egyptians and the Allied soldiers.

EG: Yes, as though it equals out. Rather than the New Zealanders being in an occupation force, with the population naturally enough not wanting to be occupied. The accounts of people who were there, written subsequently, talk about a lot of nasty stuff: New Zealand soldiers taking pot shots at Egyptians from the trains—things like that.

TP: What do you think of the images in the book, which are a large part of it?
The battle of Chunuk Bair [2]
EG: The pictures are easy to look at and hardly any of them show the cost. Look at this painting of Gallipoli [see above]. Where’s the blood? Where are the body parts? That was a really disgusting battle. Within an hour or so, there were all these body parts everywhere. This is just total propaganda: good-looking young men, well dressed, not an intestine to be seen, not an eyeball hanging out.

It doesn’t show what it’s like to be killed or maimed in a pointless, bloody war. And what’s it like for the people left behind, who’ve got to carry the can. It’s just so heartless, it’s emotionless, its passionless, it has no real love of people.

TP: Why hasn’t it been criticised by anyone? The reviews all praise it.

EG: The Great Wrong War was my most unpopular book ever. All the reviews were very, very hostile. Because what you’re implying is that “our boys” suffered needlessly.

People haven’t really been encouraged to think critically about the two world wars. In the 1990s there was a lot of anxiety about how boys were not succeeding in the education system. So the content of New Zealand history was looked at, and it was decided to try to hook in boys by putting war in there. One unfortunate consequence has been that all these kids are now being taught war history in a quite an uncritical way.

A unit called “The Origins of the First World War” was taught at School Certificate level in the 1960s. It was great! It looked at imperialism, capitalism and all states aggressively manoeuvring, and all equally culpable.

The way it’s taught in schools now is that the war was like a tsunami, a natural force that came to New Zealand. Sort of dark, sad, but at the same time there were elements of heroism, and it drew us together and we did well and were brave. I think that’s a big part of why young people turn up in growing numbers for Anzac Day. It’s social engineering.


[1] See The Great Wrong War, pp. 373–374. Thousands of women rioted one afternoon in May, 1918, outside the King Edward Barracks in Christchurch. They shouted down officers who were attempting to take a roll call of conscripts, and called on the men not to go to camp.

[2] “The battle of Chunuk Bair, 8 August 1915.” The sesquicentennial gift to the nation from the New Zealand Defence Force. By Ion G. Brown, Major, Army artist. [Wellington, New Zealand Defence Force, 1990]