Island Life by David Slack

Kick her in the guts, Trev.

No New Zealander has made me laugh as much as John Clarke. It might be inaccurate to call him a New Zealander, considering he's been living in Australia almost as long as Germaine Greer and Clive James have been gone from the place, but the man still talks in interviews about the momentary excitement of finding a capital Z as you scan a page - and the anticipation that the letters "ealand" may accompany it.

Never mind whether you call yourself a New Zealander; do you consider yourself a Fred Dagg fan? I'm interested to know whether the words "Ah… yeah, gidday" or the image of a long-haired farmer in a black singlet, shorts and gumboots have as much resonance for the children of the Douglas revolution as they do for those of us who were born before, oh, let's say 1965.

You can be sure that I was sitting in front of the TV last week to watch - and, of course, record for my further enjoyment - the Dagg Sea Scrolls. Right-click here and here for a few brief seconds of copyright material I've prepared for the purpose of this discussion.

"One thing you notice is Fred smoking", Fiona Rae observes in a Listener interview. Just one more way he conveyed his casual disregard for formality. We loved that in an era when the rounded vowel and seemly behaviour still seemed to matter more than ratings.

But the smoking isn't the only thing that fixes him in an earlier time. He uses a phrase that was as familiar when I was growing up as "Rogernomics" is today: "Just After The War".

I was born fifteen years after the Second World War ended, and that whole experience seemed both impossibly remote, and yet also very near and imposing - a kind of metaphysical mist that hung over the outlook of any adult I knew.

They recalled when something had happened by placing it before, during or after The War. And why wouldn't they? It was one of the great convulsions of their lives.

And so in the sixties or the seventies, it was as commonplace to me to hear adults - including a youngish one like Fred Dagg - talking about The War as it was to see a group of Trevs on the TV sitting down to breakfast with half a dozen silver-topped quart bottles of milk on the table.

You don't hear people using the expression very much these days. I hear my parents and their friends still mentioning The War, and understanding which one they're referring to, but I'd guess it would be baffling to your typical ten year old.

There's one part of this nostalgic tableau I haven't yet coloured in, though, and that is the political tension. You could especially find it in the confrontations between people who had been in The War, and those who'd come after it.

The members of the Returned Servicemen's Association were not, as they seem to have become today, the sweet and aged objects of universal affection and veneration. They were typically on one side of a political divide that stood man to man with LBJ and the USA against the threat of toppling dominoes in South East Asia. They didn't, typically, like the hippies and the long hairs and the anti-war protestors. Neither was your typical hippy, long hair or anti-war protestor especially well-disposed to the men in short back and sides of the RSA.

I had my own small taste of this. My high school nominated me as the representative to speak at the local ANZAC day service in 1977. Two RSA members on the teaching staff threatened to resign if I should be permitted to take the podium. The mild-mannered persona developed later, if you're wondering.

Not that I had anything but respect for anyone who had been willing to pull on the uniform and travel half way across the world to pile into the carnage. My grandfather was too young for the First World War, too old for the Second and misrepresented his way into both. His friends at the RSA spoke the world of him, and with good reason. Karren's grandfather went to the First World War with his brother and their father. He and his father came home, but his brother was one of the thousand or more who died at Passchendale. He spent the rest of his life wearing the burden of shell shock.

There are thousands of New Zealand families with those stories to tell and, for now at least, they are part of living memory. But time keeps moving. These days, it’s just the sacrifice that is remembered. The political arguments fade as the servicemen become older and fewer.

Thus we see the ANZAC day dawn parade crowds growing in number. There are no angry protestors, and in their place there are children bearing the medals of their grandparents and great grandparents. Debate about the nature of war, or about current wars, or about the politics that attach to them can be cast to one side as frail and elderly men and women are simply accorded respect because they're, you know, old and that? And they fought in a war and that? And oh my God that's, like, so brave.

I don't mean to question the sincerity of the gesture, but I have to say this: it's one that carries little cost, and you could argue that it asks for little deeper contemplation.

Once all the dust has settled, it's easy to be reverential, even pious. And that’s engaging too lightly, I’d argue. The lessons of war leave some troubling questions for us all. Take a few minutes, for example, to weigh your own moral compass and political suggestibility in this quiz

So memory fades and, as it does, antipathies can be subsumed by respect, even veneration.

The process won't stop there, though. In another generation, inevitably the memories and a sense of The War will have faded still more. Even a family with the keenest sense of heritage and the past will talk in a more detached way about any family member who took part in a war. And they’ll no longer talk about The War - not, at least, until the next one.

It's possible to identify with the sacrifice when you see old men wearing their medals and brushing away their tears. But once those old men are gone, will the young people still be as moved? When they can no longer identify with the young men who went away to war by standing alongside the ones who once did and are now old, what then?

I mention all this, because this has been announced to be the Year of the Veteran, and I read this news with mixed feelings. I hope there's nothing cynical about this: that the goodwill and stirring emotion that have attended the return of The Unknown Warrior and the Gallipoli commemorations of recent years aren't being manipulated for political advantage. If it's to be a whole year of veneration or sentimentality without reflection or introspection, that would be regrettable.

For now, I'll hope for the best and take some comfort from the kind of initiative that sees students being invited to Gallipoli for the strength of historical thought in their essays, and from events like this which Auckland University are offering in their continuing education series. I especially draw to the attention of Messrs NoRightTurn and Selwyn the lecture on sedition.

War is, without question, hell. I'm not sure it's still accurate to assert that here in New Zealand we live in a remarkably strategically benign environment, but I think it's valid to say that we don't know how lucky we are.