Alexander Gillespie: NZ war dead should come home
Kiwis killed in Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam deserve repatriation.
New Zealanders understand the importance of bringing back the remains of our dead who have ended up overseas. The foremost example of this is the repatriation of Mokomokai. Since its inception in 1990, Karanga Aotearoa has negotiated the return of the remains of more than 400 individuals from all over the world. Whenever possible, these remains are passed on to the iwi from where they originated. When their place of origin is uncertain, they are held in culturally correct repositories in New Zealand.
The dealing with our war dead is much more difficult. For a country which became saturated in debates about the flag and the earlier generations who fought beneath it, when it comes to discussions of what to do with those who died beneath it and were buried in foreign lands, we are at a bit of a loss. Today, there is no longer a suggestion that our war dead should be buried and remain in the foreign lands where they fall. This is not the case for the 32,934 New Zealanders who died on active service in many of the conflicts of the 20th century, and are buried in 87 different countries.
Of these Kiwis, 570 have no known grave. These individuals simply disintegrated or disappeared in the horror of war. In recent years, some have been discovered in the ground of long ago battles in France or Belgium, identified by nothing more than their NZ shoulder badges. The decision is always to collect and respectfully bury these remains, Known Only to God, next to their fellow New Zealanders, in the corner of some foreign field. The serviceman in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Wellington is the only dead Kiwi to ever make it home from this conflict.
The scale of the carnage of World War I changed everything. Here, the wishes of the fallen or their next of kin were not determining factors on what to do with the war dead. From reasons of logistics to cost, it was felt better to keep all of the fallen in places where they could be gathered, placed next to their comrades, and available for all to visit. Each was given a headstone at an identified site of burial or on a memorial. Each was commemorated uniformly and equally, irrespective of military or civilian rank, ethnicity or creed. These New Zealanders are part of the 1.7 million soldiers from World War I and II, as buried in 154 countries, and overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Most commonly, we know the Commission’s work in the form of perfectly manicured landscapes with ensembles of uniformed grave sites, cenotaphs and icons of remembrance. As many know who have visited these areas, they are powerful places of reflection, memory and respect.
The Americans in 1919 decided that the most appropriate person to decide what to do with someone who gave their life for their country was the family they came from, not their government. That decision has always belonged to the immediate next of kin. They could have the remains returned to the US, at the Government’s expense, to be interred at a military or private cemetery. Or they could elect to leave their loved one overseas at a nationally overseen, publicly accessible military cemetery in the region where the death occurred.
The Australians have recently come to the same conclusion as the Americans. With the consent of the next of kin, they recently repatriated the remains of 33 casualties who had been killed in conflicts including the Vietnam war, but had been buried in either Malaysia or Singapore. The determining factors were that these were not soldiers who fell in either World War I or II, and most importantly, the cemeteries were not up to the expected standards, nor easily accessible to the public.
New Zealand should follow this example. For our war dead not covered by World War I or II, namely the 41 killed in Korea, the 26 in Malaysia and the 37 in Vietnam, if the immediate next of kin want them home, the Government should oblige. This is the least they can do for the living, and the dead who gave their lives for this country.
Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at Waikato University.