Armistice Day has a particular poignancy in my family. My mother was born on 11 November five years after the guns famously fell silent on the battlefields of Europe, and was named Olive in honour of the moment that ended The War to End All Wars.
The allies won the war, and went on to lose the peace.
Peace is harder than war. It requires being willing to work together, to forgive, to see past the rhetoric and the nasty words in heated moments. Those who have won have the harder task. If they are not gracious in victory, if they take the opportunity to humiliate and torment, the peace is false and will not last.
On that morning of 12 November in 1918, when half a world away New Zealand woke to the news, the Great Depression, the Spanish civil war, the second world war, Korea, the cold war, and all the other tragedies that made strife a constant presence in the twentieth century were still to come. The joy was buoyed by hope.
Not unconstrained. Our Ministry of Health warned against public gatherings to avoid spreading the influenza epidemic. In the next two months, the epidemic killed nearly 9,000 people, half the number of New Zealanders as had died in the past four years of the war.
On 12 November, Aucklanders heeded acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Frengley’s advice not to congregate together. The only visible sign of celebration was the many flags hanging from the city’s buildings – and some of these were at half-mast in acknowledgment of the death of a former city councillor, Maurice Casey, from influenza. Unlike elsewhere in the country, shops generally remained open. But most businesses and government offices closed, included post and telegraph offices and telephone exchanges – a move that came in for severe criticism. The New Zealand Herald argued that, even though they’d kept on some emergency staff, the curtailment of these services had ‘seriously impeded’ relief work. Dr Frengley said that as Auckland was in ‘a much more serious position than any other centre’, the authorities should have referred the matter to him.
The spreading epidemic also influenced celebrations elsewhere. Some communities postponed children’s gatherings until the situation improved. Christchurch’s celebration committee struggled with this decision and only abandoned its plans after a long discussion with the District Health Officer, Dr Herbert Chesson. He objected strongly to bringing children together, commenting that there were ‘many “seedy” children’ who might persuade their mothers to allow them to attend. Dr Chesson also vetoed all general ‘indoor gatherings’, and thanksgiving services were held in the open. Featherston residents cancelled ‘a fully-organised procession of motor-cars’ out of respect for several soldiers from the local camp who had died of influenza and were being laid to rest that day with full military honours. [nzhistory.net, downloaded from: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/armistice-day/armistice-day-and-flu]
The thing is, what affects one person affects us all. The flu epidemic began in Kansas, in a military camp, probably jumping the species barrier from a local pig farm. From there, it travelled to Europe, and returning soldiers took it around the world. What happens in one country has repercussions everywhere. The assassination at Sarejevo began a conflict that killed tens of millions. Bombings in Iraq result in rapes on the Mediterranean and the rise of neo-Nazi xenophobia in northern Europe.
When the US sneezes, they said at the time of the Wall Street Market Crash, Europe catches cold. So though the election campaign that has transfixed the world was not my election, though I had no vote and regard the US electoral system with bemusement, I had an opinion. And a fear that the bitterness of the rhetoric has both disclosed and enhanced a deep vein of hatred and distrust.
People are not labels. The soldiers killed on the battlefields of World War 1 were not ‘Tommys’ or ‘Yanks’ or ‘Huns’—or not only. They were someone’s son, sweetheart, father. They were poets and bakers and football players. They were human beings, all individuals with unique personalities and talents.
Some of the labels that have been cast around may make people you know targets—outlets for inflamed emotions and frustrated anger. Whether you are celebrating a win or grieving a lose, stand against hatred. Please. Build the peace.