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Free speech and – ‘speak not ill of the dead’

  • August 30th, 2011

Should anti-war sentiments be in the thread on a NZ Army Facebook tribute post on SAS member Doug Grant? The outraged comment on Tina Nixon's Facebook page says not. I not so sure, though I hope I would have the courtesy to express judgment of the dead after a more decent interval, and with less moral certitude .

 I disagree with the comment itself completely. As explained two years ago I support the mission of our SAS. I have personal reasons to respect SAS soldiiers. But I think there is a serious risk to the vitality of our public discourse if 'punishment' follows the consensus that  Sumner Burstyn has gone beyond the pale with the following comments::

What's up with all of you – I bet this solider for hire did not show the same respect for the men, women and children he killed and what's with all the mixed messages: "He was a thinker, a deep thinker." I don't think so. He was a paid murderer in a war we have no truck with. A father who was happy to kill. "He was a free spirit" No, don't think so – he was a man who took orders. Get real."

It is legitimate to ask a soldier if his mission is proper, sufficient to justify the exception to our normal taboo on murder. The question is properly directed at his political masters, but  the Afghanistan engagement is reportedly also a voluntary committment of our SAS.

But more importantly I've been reflecting on the risks that we delude ourselves on many things when we fail to debate matters that should be debated because it could offend. The recent funeral for Sir Paul Reeves offfers an example.

There is no pressing need to upset mourners by dissenting from the eulogies. But if that kind of respect evolves to become a barrier to critical appraisal, we risk deluding ourselves about our own past and our own future.

I'd like to see, for example, while it is still relevant, an objective critique of the Fiji constitution that Sir Paul was instrumental in pinning to that country. If it was overly idealistic and over-emboldened Chaudry, it might share the blame for the conditions that produced Bainamarama.

I do not recall ever thinking that Sir Paul was especially wise. Outstandingly courteous, decent, humble (except with respect to the validity of some of his convictions) and capable of nobility in sentiment – yes. But I do not think that his political perspicacity was adequate to the load that it had to carry in some of his roles. The Anglican Church's odd current constitution may not be his creation, but it happened while he was influential.

There must be no reverence for the dead that leaves us unable to challenge their influence and their legacy, including while any unhealthy worshipful pattern is emerging.


  • Lambcut
  • August 31st, 2011
  • 8:10 am

There is a certain sensitivity and courtesy extant in humans, around death in any context. There may be some who express those natural feelings in worshipful and reverent tones, as you say. But they are probably not using facebook. It is difficult to see how such expressions could come to suppress the likes of Barbara Sumner Burstyn’s views. She is a journalist. And she has her choice of forums. The Army tribute page to Corporal Grant was not an appropriate forum.
Further, whether we agree or not with our government’s choice of combat theatre, it is still our government that elects to send men there. Soldiers, volunteering after the fact or not, have no say in the decision to engage. When Sumner Burstyn chose to vent her vitriol, she chose the wrong target. Her comment should have been directed at the political figures that made the decision. Not at Corporal Grant, his colleges, friends and family.

  • Stephen
  • August 31st, 2011
  • 2:26 pm

I agree Lambcut.  I do not mean to argue that Burstyn should escape criticism. Just that it is a sin of bad manners, rightly resounding to her discredit, but not a mortal sin justifying casting into outer darkness for ever.

  • Lambcut
  • August 31st, 2011
  • 8:29 pm

Hello Stephen,

Firstly, I apologise for the coding that appeared in my comment. I cut and pasted out of Word and apparently imported more than I intended.

With regard to Barbara, it will all be a nine day wonder at best. For such an outrageous breach of good taste and common decency, I am comfortable that she should take her lumps, in the meantime. Corporal Grant's friends and family will undoubtedly take longer to get over it.


 One accomplishment that many, other than the Vietnam veterans community, will gloss over is the Reeves Report on the use of Agent Orange in South Vietnam.  In his speech to Parliament 28 May 2008 John Key said of the veterans  "They have had to suffer the indignity of two reports – the Reeves report and the McLeod report, both of which reached conclusions that all veterans knew to be wrong. These reports were factually incorrect, fatally flawed, and deeply offensive to many veterans. I wish to state for the record that National rejects those reports as a basis for policy-making now or in the future."  Suffice to say that Reeves was our commander-in-chief once but failed to represent our interests in any meaningfill way.

  • kowtow
  • September 7th, 2011
  • 9:55 am

Her comments were not just rude and in bad taste,they were political in the extreme.
She is of course entitled to her views and to air them,that'sone of the things  that makes our society so great But time and place are issues too..
However she claims to be a professional and a journalist,she is a public figure with a public profile.Her comments deserve the widest circulation so that the NZ public and can make a judgement about those comments.
It would be hoped that an informed public could then make an informed decision about whether to support her "journalistic" endeavours.

  • Bob
  • December 21st, 2013
  • 3:49 pm

I personally think it should be illegal to post comments like the ones Barbara Sumner Burstyn posted. They are disgusting, wrong and abhorrent and she deserved every single threat directed toward her.

Not only was she misinformed on every major point she outlined (NZ’s contribution to Afghanistan was largely in a peacekeeping role, and Afghanistan isn’t a huge global oil supplier) but she insulted, without remorse, a soldier who gave her life and in doing so, achieved more than Barbara could ever hope to accomplish in her pathetic life.

What did she expect for her comment? A medal? I’m sorry to say but those are reserved for actual heroes who contribute to society, not critics with little substance nor importance. The entire Anti-War movement needs to be shut up for good, alongside the anti-gun, racist, enforced atheist, environmentalist and feminist communities.

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