In 2003, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage held a competition for the design of a Tomb for the Unknown Soldier. We began the summary of our proposal with this quote from renowned historian James Belich, who offered a candid description of the mechanisms of war, 

“Killing strangers for no personal benefit is an unnatural act, and deliberately risking your own life is more so. The purpose of wartime military systems is therefore to turn normal people into deviants. In standing armies, this can be done by building up tribe like unit loyalties, with their own cultures, traditions and symbols such as flags, which grown men will actually die for.”1 

We thought, if the symbols in wartime are tools for deviancy, the symbols outside of war should promote peace and serve to discourage the deviancy of killing. The very construction of a tomb is already a reverent act, and our approach would endorse that respect. However, we proposed that New Zealand’s Tomb for the Unknown Soldier would remember victims of deviancy, but not be a trophy to one of the darkest periods of New Zealand, indeed world, history.  

Perhaps some of the most chilling descriptions of World War I come from the account, All Quiet on the Western Front.  

“– a blow from a spade cleaves through his face. A second sees it and tries to run farther; a bayonet jabs into his back. He leaps in the air, his arms thrown wide, his mouth wide open, yelling; he staggers, in his back the bayonet quivers.” 

“With the butt of his rifle Kat smashes to pulp the face of one of the unwounded machine gunners. We bayonet the others before they have time to get out their bombs.” 

“… we jump through the narrow entrances into the narrow trenches. Haie strikes his spade into the neck of a gigantic Frenchman and throws the first hand-grenade; …;I fall into an open belly on which lies a clean, new officer’s cap.”2 

With these images in mind, we proposed a beautifully crafted, highly polished, materially rich and formally simple, blood bath; ‘All Quiet’, but deep red and constantly flowing. A stunning reminder of hell on earth, how sick and bloody human behaviour can be, and how desperately we should avoid the irrational greed that fuels it.  

We didn’t win.