Trust hopes memorial will inspire peace

The Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace Garden and national monument to conscientious objectors will be formally opened in Dunedin tomorrow. Kevin P Clements, chairman of the Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust, outlines the 10-year battle to bring the memorial to fruition.

The Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust is pleased to announce the opening of the Archibald Baxter Peace Garden and national memorial to all conscientious objectors in New Zealand.  

It took the trust nearly 10 years to raise the necessary funds, commission designers and hire sculptor Shane Woolridge with the aim of creating this national memorial. 

The memorial honours the courage of Archibald Baxter and other World War 1 conscientious objectors to war, as well as those detained for their beliefs in   World War 2 and in other wars that New Zealand has been involved in.

There are thousands of war memorials in New Zealand to those who died in the Boer War and the  two world wars,  but there is not a single memorial to those who chose not to fight.

Those who fought for their country and died or were traumatised by their experiences did so courageously in the face of deprivation, threats and death.

This memorial does not detract from their bravery. Rather it is intended to complement the courage of those who fought by focusing on those who chose not to fight, which required a different kind of courage. Their stand against state-sponsored killing was considered unorthodox and unpatriotic.

They had to endure threats from the state, public opprobrium, imprisonment and, for commanding officers  in World War 1,  considerable uncertainty about whether they might be killed, intentionally or unintentionally, for refusing to put on the uniform.

Archibald Baxter was one of those who chose not to kill and he suffered enormously as a consequence. Baxter was a gentle man, who early in life became convinced of the futility of war, and determined as a matter of conscience that he would not participate in military  conflict. This became a personal stand that put him in conflict with the government of New Zealand, when all eligible men were expected to join Mother Britain in a conflict that still to this day remains a war without rationale.

Although Baxter’s family does not wish to argue any equivalence for what he suffered compared to what front- line soldiers endured on a daily basis, he and fellow objectors Mark Briggs and Lawrence Kirwin endured the ravages of  field   punishment No1,  known by soldiers as the crucifixion. This punishment would be considered state- sponsored torture today.

Military defaulters and conscientious objectors were tied to a pole, erected close to the front lines, causing blood to flow to the feet and generate excruciating pain in the legs and back.

Baxter had to endure this punishment near Ypres with shells falling all around. Baxter and the others suffered to the end because they believed that there was absolutely no argument that could justify industrial-scale slaughter.  Woolridge’s sculpture on the site is an abstract expression of this punishment.

As Baxter said: ‘‘I have suffered to the limit of my endurance, but I will never in my sane senses surrender to the evil power that has fixed its roots like a cancer on the world.’’

By his actions, Archibald Baxter paved the way for others to object to  World War 2, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

All those who have disobeyed what they considered to be illegitimate or unethical authority in times of war have powerfully contributed to New Zealand’s non-violent traditions. These began with Te Whiti and the people of Parihaka, who non-violently resisted the state’s occupation of their land and have continued to this day in the actions of pacifists and peacemakers here and everywhere.

This peace garden, therefore, while inspired by Baxter, is also dedicated to all those heroic New Zealanders who have conscientiously objected to war in challenging circumstances. Their disobedience to authority in relation to war has enlarged the civil liberties of us all. 

The  trust hopes that the memorial will be a place of reflection on the folly of war; a place of peace and tranquillity; a place of remembering and a place of commitment to a more just and peaceful world. This memorial stands to remind both current and future generations that violence is never inevitable — and that there are always far more positive and less destructive ways of resolving differences.

This world is broken in many different ways, and we need the healing balm of peaceful rather than violent solutions. If this small space, honouring all those who chose an alternative to militarism, can make a contribution to non-violence as a tactic and a way of life, we will have fulfilled part of our dream. Let there be peace and let it begin with each one of us.

The trust hopes that this memorial will stand forever as  a sign of our commitment to peace, here in Dunedin and throughout the world.

We hope that it will inspire visitors on the way of peace, in memory of the thousands of courageous people who, throughout history, have chosen the path of non- violence rather than that of violence.