Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Book Review - Zombie Myths of Australian Military History

Zombie Myths of Australian Military History edited by Craig Stockings

Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010        ISBN 9781742230795

I hope this book sold well - while it didn't really drop any bombshells on my understanding of the subjects it covered, it is a good corrective to the self-serving pap that is sometimes dished up to readers and called "History". Ranging across two hundred years of Australia and warfare, the essays in this book remind the reader that sometimes the story that gets told is not only not quite the truth, it's not even the truth.

The ten essays in this collection are written by different authors, and as such the quality does vary, but overall they hit their mark very well. Writing as I am in 2019, it is interesting that some of the myths in this book (published in 2010) have in fact been laid to rest in the intervening decade. The first chapter, about the concept of a Frontier War, is a case in point. John Connor points out that not only did Aboriginals fight each other, but they also did quite often fight the settlers and British Army who came onto their land: this fact is now much more accepted today than when this essay was written, and there would be few that would today deny that a state of warfare, however one might define the term, existed on the frontiers of the settled areas of this Continent.

Not all myths do die, and the authors of the next few chapters are fighting an uphill battle to convince the public of the truth. The story of Breaker Morant, which is covered in chapter two, is a fine example of fiction overtaking history, with the successful Bruce Beresford film - which was more fiction than fact - becoming the default story of a man who was by turns conman, drunkard and murderer.

And then there is World War One, where the myth of the Australian Digger was truly born, and where story upon story has been laid down like a geological deposit, and one must sift through the false to get to the real. The reasons for this are varied, with propaganda being a major source of many myths and - especially in the carnage of the Western Front - trying to give sense to the senseless. Rhys Crawley's chapter on the August offensive at Gallipoli smashes quite a few myths, with a very thorough and reasoned argument that the offensive was doomed to fail no matter what the British did at Suvla. This chapter for me underlines how and why the myths develop. My great-great uncle was killed at the Battle of Lone Pine, and another took part in the battle and survived. It's only natural that the loved ones of those who pay the ultimate sacrifice want to know that they died as part of something worthwhile, and that they had a chance of success, and if that success is elusive it's not their fault. On all these feelings myths grow; growing on grief, anger, and belief.

The next couple of chapters are much more specific in their outlook, with Elizabeth Greenhalgh showing that Australians weren't the first to breach the Hindenburg Line, which is correct, but it's also clear that the Australian Corp was an important part of the final offensive, and Craig Stockings, through a detailed look at the Desert Campaign against Italian troops, shows that it is training and logistics which make effective troops, not some mythical idea of the bronzed Aussie being a natural soldier.

The highlight of the book for me was the chapter on the loss of HMAS Sydney II. This chapter shows how advances in technology destroy myths. It has always been clear to those who work with a historical mindset that there was no conspiracy about the loss of the Sydney: it was a tragedy that was possibly avoidable, but Peter Dennis describes very well why Captain Burnett may have gotten too close to the Kormoran, thus sealing Sydney's fate. Of all Australian military events, the loss of the Sydney has been the source of the most ridiculous rumour-mongering and cockamamie theories; partly in reaction to the immense tragedy of losing over 600 men, and partly that the myth of Australian military prowess couldn't allow the Sydney to be destroyed by a mere raider. Dennis scythes through all the theories, and hopes that the recent discovery of the wrecks may help to put them to rest. It has.

The two chapters that deal with our war against the Japanese show how governments can create myths when they think it's in their interests to do so. That Japan never planned to invade Australia is quite clear. That politicians and soldiers at the time talked about the possibility is understandable. What is less forgivable is the creation of "Battle for Australia" day, which suggests that the invasion was a possibility, and has skewed the history of what actually happened to fit a political agenda. Likewise the idea that Japan was stopped on the Kokoda Trail is dealt with in a logical and documented manner. No-one doubts the bravery of the troops that fought there, but it was the Japanese pulling back from the Trail after the Allied forces threatened their rear bases, rather than any particular battle on the Trail itself, that was the catalyst for them turning back.

Jeffrey Grey's essay on Vietnam shows the reader how some myths can badly affect those that are the subject of mythologising, pointing out that service in Vietnam was no more or less dangerous than other wars, both in the field and in what returned servicemen suffered after they got home. The final essay covers Australia's troubled relationship with East Timor, having invaded in World War Two when they didn't want us there, and in 1999 being very reluctant to save them from the depredations of the Indonesians when they did want us, with governments on both occasions painting us as heroes saving the day.

I'd recommend this book in anyone interested in Australian military history, no matter how much you know. For those that know little, it is an education, and for those that know a lot there is still something of interest to be gained from its pages.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Friday, 8 February 2019

Book Review - Homesickness by Murray Bail

Homesickness by Murray Bail

Melbourne: Macmillan Australia, 1980          ISBN 0333298969

I've reviewed a couple of Murray Bail books here in the past, and have never been quite sure what to make of his work, and his style. Homesickness, his first novel, hasn't got me any closer to working out my feelings toward his work.

Charting the journey of a group of Australian tourists through Africa, England, New York and Russia, Homesickness is a meditation on travel, the western tourist, experience, photography, and love. Bail shows us, through his characters, and through their experiences, something about the Australian psyche (as it was in 1980), and the shallowness of the touristic experience.

Bail uses the trope of the museum to say a lot about tourism, and Australia. The reader gets a first inkling that this book is going to be different when the group head into the jungle to the pygmy museum, only to see pygmies dressed as westerners, doing things that westerners do. This will not be the first time that the concept of the museum is turned on it's head. The museum of corrugated iron they visit in Yorkshire is an occasion for Bail - through the scene and characters - to expound on the practicality of the Australian psyche, on how we take things for granted, and on the Australian cultural cringe, which co-exists with the Australian desire to explain to the World how great the country is.

Bail also writes about art and photography. One of the characters is an inveterate photographer, who also happens to be blind, and while in London one of the group is disgusted to find that all the art galleries have replaced their exhibitions with photographs. Although he couldn't know it at the time, this is a wonderful comment on today's photographic culture, where the photograph is more important than the experience being photographed. The concept of a blind photographer is apt - so busy taking photographs that he can't see, and has to have his experience explained to him by his wife.

The group is diverse and yet homogeneous, an unlikely group of travelers who become more familiar with each other, and with the reader, as the book progresses. We have many archetypes, the Ocker, the know-it-all, the snob, the middle-class prude, all reacting differently to each experience. We never do discover why or how they came to be travelling in a group, and they never question it either, or leave, even when they are unhappy.

The travel by the group is in many sense aimless, and seems to become more so as the book progresses - perhaps yet another comment on the phenomena of tourism; what is learnt, what is gained from such travel? The experiences always tend toward the banal, even when, as here, they are completely bizarre, such as the museum of gravity in Moscow....a completely strange surreal place, but the traveller's reactions are the typical ones you would hear in any group.

So, to go back to my opening lines, what to make of this book? I'm still unsure....I enjoyed reading it though.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell