BOOK REVIEW A News Weekly
sensationalist and arrogant book
, June 9, 2012
ANZAC’S DIRTY DOZEN:
Twelve Myths of Australian Military History
Edited by Craig Stockings
(Sydney: NewSouth Publishing)
Paperback: 348 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Despite the cold, wet weather on this year’s April 25, a substantial crowd gathered in Melbourne for the dawn service at the Shrine of Remembrance, and then lined St Kilda Road for the march by veterans and/or their families.
I attended, as always, to honour my father who died many years ago.
A 35-year-old who volunteered on the announcement of World War II, he served in the Middle East, the Greek mainland and Crete, then spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp, and never once voiced the slightest regret at what he endured in playing his small role in the defeat of fascism.
For decades now, the uppity Australian public has been defying and infuriating its cultural betters by continuing to observe Anzac Day, in the face of edicts that it would and should disappear.
The myth that this bounceback was manufactured by John Howard is belied by the fact that the beginning of the resurgence in Anzac Day attendance predated his election by some years.
Mutterings about “false consciousness” notwithstanding, it is a rare genuine example of a grassroots people’s movement.
The cynicism of releasing this book to coincide with Anzac Day is of a piece with its cheap and sensationalist title, and its authors’ arrogance and self-satisfaction.
Its contributors pose as brave figures taking a lonely stand for truth, but they have in fact presented exactly the material which their reference group — the ABC, the Fairfax press, academics, and the arts and showbiz communities — were calculated to reward with the most lavish adulation.
That being said, it must also be admitted that they make some valid points.
There are two main reasons for observing Anzac Day.
The first is to remember the service and suffering of Australian men and women in war.
It is not to celebrate Australia’s mythical possession of a unique military genius which enables it to “punch above its weight” when it comes to war, or to celebrate Australians as the world’s greatest soldiers, who invariably fight heroically and ethically.
It is certainly not to provide an excuse for young people to attend hippie love-ins at Gallipoli, wrap themselves in Australian flags, and chant, “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!”
Australians have much to be proud of in their military history, but so do many other countries and, as in the case of those other countries’ troops, there have been examples of Australian soldiers failing in their duty, panicking, running away, and committing atrocities.
The second good reason for observing Anzac Day is that when it comes to the “just war”, Australia has always been on the side of the angels.
It is a pity that our national day of military remembrance commemorates World War I which, along with the earlier Boer War, are two of the least justifiable of the hostilities in which we have been involved.
However, even in these instances, the British Empire was morally preferable to proto-apartheid Boer rule in South Africa, and a “balance of power”, even one in which Britain controlled the balance, was worth setting against Wilhelmine German imperial domination of Europe.
In subsequent conflicts, against Nazism, communism and Islamofascism, Australia has been quite unambiguously on the side of liberalism, democracy and human dignity (though there is still room for principled disagreement as to the wisdom of our involvement in some of them).
There are chapters in this book which are unexceptionable, such as those on women serving in the forces; our war-time relationship with New Zealand; Australian military history prior to World War I; whether Australia “punches above its weight”; the issue of atrocities perpetrated by Australian troops; and the nature of operations in Vietnam.
Others, given the ideological temper of the book’s introduction, are surprising, such as Craig Stockings’s exposure of the dogma that Australians have always fought “other people’s wars”, and Karl James’s refutation of the argument that Australia was inveigled into fighting pointless campaigns at the end of the 1941-5 Pacific war.
Some are just silly, such as the attempt to relativise the loss of Australian lives in war, and therefore the importance of war in Australia’s history, by comparing wartime casualty rates with deaths from motor accidents, natural disasters and infant mortality (this last with no reference to abortion, which kills nearly as many people in a year as have died in all Australia’s wars!).
In conclusion, this collection represents a curate’s egg which is good in parts or, to change the imagery, a mass of wheat and chaff which requires careful separating.
Its main problem is that it confuses the presentation of particular takes on Australian military history, with pontificating about what the Australian people should think and feel and do.