BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
KOKODA, by Peter FitzSimons
, August 28, 2004
By Peter FitzSimons
Hodder Headline Australia. Hardcover RRP: $49.95The core narrative of this book is extremely simple. It is the story of Australian soldiers during the latter half of 1942 successfully preventing the Japanese Army from crossing Papua New Guinea, from Gona-Sananada-Buna on the north coast to Port Moresby on the south coast, by means of the Kokoda Track which straddled the Owen Stanley Range.
It is not a formal military account of the sort which could serve as a Duntroon textbook. But neither is it shallow and journalistic. It is, instead, an outstanding example of popular history. FitzSimons provides sufficient ongoing political and historical background to set the scene, but continually homes in on the heart of the book, which is the experiences of the men on the spot.
Whether or not war correspondent Osmar White was right when he wrote, "Surely no war was ever fought under worse conditions" (the Eastern Front in the USSR must be a contender), it was undoubtedly grim.List of horrors
The list of horrors includes heat; humidity; constant drenching rain; thick, clinging mud; near vertical ascents; tormenting insects; malaria and dysentery; lack of food and medical facilities. And on top of all that, to be vastly outnumbered by a well-trained and fanatically brave Japanese adversary.
The men who confronted them were the 39th Battalion, a militia unit, supported by the 2/14 and 2/16 AIF Battalions. There had been doubts about the abilities of the militia, reviled by the AIF as "chocos" (short for "chocolate soldiers"), but the 39th performed magnificently, achieving legendary status.
In fact, the 39th brings to mind my old university's motto, Postera crescam laude
, a quotation from Horace translatable as "I shall grow in the esteem of future generations". They confronted the enemy, then conducted a fighting retreat marked by epic stands such as Isurava until the Japanese, exhausted, their supply lines over-extended, and now vulnerable to Australian artillery, were forced to a standstill.
Despite his freely expressed admiration for the Australian troops, FitzSimons is neither starry-eyed and idealistic, nor mindlessly jingoistic. He includes the Australian soldiers who failed and ran away.
He also acknowledges the courage of the Japanese, and is prepared to recount such examples of their humanity as are available. There is no dehumanising language about invincible Australian super-warriors annihilating little yellow monkeys in this book.
The third group on the track were the native bearers, who performed prodigies of endurance in bringing up supplies and returning with the wounded. An elderly friend of mine from the 39th, who was shot in the leg at Deniki, just south of Kokoda, once said to me wonderingly, "You know, they could have tipped me off the side of the track and no-one would have been any the wiser. Instead, they nursed me like a baby".
But here again, FitzSimons unflinchingly records instances of natives collaborating with the Japanese, and betraying Australian soldiers and civilians.
He is also realistic about the political partnership between Australia and the United States. Protestations of comradeship and shared values were written up for public consumption to aid morale, and were true as far as they went.
However, the co-operation was essential. Australia could not protect herself by herself and therefore, as Curtin put it in his famous speech, looked to America "free of any pangs as to our traditional links ... with the United Kingdom". The United States, for its part, needed Australia as a launching pad from which to move north toward Japan.
Despite the bravery and staggering losses of American soldiers elsewhere, and despite subsequent joint operations between American and Australian forces, the Kokoda Track was an all-Australian affair.
Having said that, the Australians on the Track were under the ultimate military authority of General Macarthur, even though it was an authority mediated through General Blamey. The troops loathed Blamey, and on at least one occasion openly booed him. FitzSimons loathes both Macarthur and Blamey.
He produces sound reasons for his aversion, but also unfortunately resorts to cheap shots. Sure, Macarthur and Blamey slept in clean, dry beds while soldiers on the Track slept in foxholes half full of water, but so did Curtin, whom FitzSimons admires.
FitzSimons's prose sometimes lapses into a dated vernacular. A "bloke" working in a shop reads of the "shenanigans" in Europe and decides that "the world was going to hell in a handcart, and here he was selling bloody undies", so he goes off and joins the army, and "that was fair dinkum that
This can be disconcerting, but it also reminds us that these were unsophisticated young men, practically teenagers led by twenty-somethings, and they belonged to a vanished, simpler Australia. When yearning for home amidst the horrors of war, they remember family singalongs around the piano after the Sunday roast.
Lest we are tempted to patronise them, it is important to reflect that it is impossible to imagine a mass civilian army drawn from today's society which would endure for an instant the conditions they put up with, let alone fight in them.
Like Kipling's failed regiment in which "every little drummer 'ad 'is rights and wrongs to mind", we have become rights-obsessed, incapable of sacrifice, and epigones to our WWII forebears whom the Americans refer to as "the Greatest Generation".
What motivated them? Loyalty to mates and unit, undoubtedly. Patriotism, yes. Religion? Certainly, in some cases; there is a striking vignette of the war photographer Damien Parer kneeling down to say his prayers out loud in front of a hutfull of soldiers. Geopolitical awareness? Well, it was there in the background. Perhaps we can go no further than calling it common decency; a feeling that they had to protect their families and loved ones from something monstrous and evil and cruel.
Every Australian should read this book, not to make us proud, but to make us humble and grateful. In particular it should be read by the ABC types who despise the military, such as those who were licking their lips at the prospect of Australian casualties in Iraq.