War

While explorations of Australia at war have never been short on ‘male stories’, the prevalence of the masculine frame may yet increase in coming years as part of the ongoing examination of competing forms of manhood in this country, as evidenced by the upcoming symposium ‘Embattled Men: Masculinity and War’ at the Australian National University. The publicit ...

To go on thinking of the Korean War as a ‘forgotten’ war in a ‘hermit’ country, as we too often do, ignores the many authoritative accounts of it. Cameron Forbes’s new book is the latest.

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‘A peculiar bloke, Jack; you never knew him. You couldn’t get close to him.’ Reg Pollard, who was one of the abler members of the Labor Caucus in the 1940s, confessed his puzzlement to Lloyd Ross as Curtin’s biographer gathered personal testimony ...

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Some stories deserve to be told more than once. Retold, they cannot be the same. Even when the teller is the same person, the shift in time and experience will make the story new. In The Ghost at the Wedding, Shirley Walker returns to the material of her autobiography, Roundabout at Bangalow (2001), in order to focus more closely on the saddest and most powerful memories therein: those of the young men of her family who served in two world wars.

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Too many specific years in the twentieth century were said to be ‘pivotal’, but 1968 was clearly a standout. In the United States, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; there were student protests in Paris; and Russian tanks signalled the end of the ‘Prague Spring’. In January 1968, on the other side of the world, in an area once known as French Indochina, the army of the National Liberation Front (the Vietcong) invaded the imperial city, Hué, and all other major cities in South Vietnam. This was the infamous Tet Offensive.

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In his famous but tendentious 1989 essay ‘The End of History’, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that ‘we may be witnessing ... not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history’. A similar proposition might well have been made about Australian military history. By 1989 the great era of Australian military history seemed to have passed. The centrepieces of this era were the two world wars, which were so large, bloody and traumatic that they seemed destined to dominate the subject for many decades to come. What came before – the New Zealand Wars, Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Boer War – were seen as preliminary or preparatory episodes, or, as the title of one book on Sudan put it, ‘The Rehearsal’. The conflicts that followed World War II were postscripts. The performances and sacrifices of Australians in Korea, Malaya, Borneo, and Vietnam were measured against the earlier experiences of the world wars. All of Australia’s senior commanders in Vietnam had served in World War II, while most of the younger fighters there were the sons of World War II veterans.

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The Shrine of Remembrance is such a familiar object in the landscape of Melbourne that we can easily be unaware of its singularity. This is, as far as I can tell, the largest purely monumental structure in the world commemorating the war of 1914–18, a great memorial to participants in the Great War. The duke of Gloucester inaugurated the Shrine before a crowd of more than three hundred thousand people – almost three times the largest number ever to attend a sporting event at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – on 11 November 1934, Armistice Day, as it used to be called. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the duke placed a wreath from his father, George V, on the Stone of Remembrance in the Sanctuary at the centre of the Shrine, and at that moment, as planned by architect and engineer, a ray of light fell on the black granite of the Stone, lighting up the word ‘Love’ in the carved inscription ‘Greater love hath no man’. In 1934 more people than in 2007 knew those words and the words that followed them in the Bible: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’

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Over the past four years, we Australians have had considerable experience of the conflicted, and sometimes agonising, politics of war. In this study, Michael A. McDonnell, a historian at the University of Sydney, examines the unanticipated social and political contestations aroused by the demands of another war. In the late eighteenth century, Virginia endured a six-year struggle against the imperial rule of Britain. A settled class of wealthy gentlemen planters who had previously assumed the right to leadership came to find that role questioned in a wholly new politics of war. Middle- and lower-class Virginians began to ask them: how will you distribute the burden of the war equitably across society? Should the wealthy planters be exempt because of their property holdings? Who is to fight and die in this war? Who is to control recruitment? 

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The Defence and Fall of Singapore 1940–1942 by Brian P. F & Singapore Burning by Colin Smith

by
October 2006, no. 285

It is rare that two books of such quality should appear at the same time, especially on a subject as tragic but absorbing as the fall of Singapore. The reader is reminded immediately of films about the maiden voyage of the Titanic. You know that at the end of the film the ship has to sink: you also know that Singapore must fall with equally dramatic suddenness. Worse, in the case of Singapore, the systematic massacre (sook ching) of much of its overseas Chinese population by the Japanese kempetai (secret police) adds a huge dimension of tragedy to what is already a disaster; as does the fact that the Japanese, unlike most Western armies of the period, had no plans to deal effectively with more than 130,000 Allied prisoners, who were then dispersed and incarcerated in prisoner-of-war camps across South-East Asia and Japan itself. Every so often, these scenes are revisited by sympathetic writing, and also by new evidence and analysis, which is the case here.

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When it was first published, Tasmanian army nurse and prisoner of war Jessie Simons entitled her memoir of captivity While History Passed (1954). It was reissued as In Japanese Hands (1985). This was one of the numerous autobiographical works produced after their ordeal by POW survivors, whether they were driven by an enduring hatred of their captors (Rohan Rivett, Russell Braddon) or by a striving for forgiveness (Ray Parkin). In his study of ‘Literary imagination and the prisoner-of-war experience’, Roger Bourke has turned instead to what he regards as the neglected area of fiction (sometimes autobiographically tinged) of captivity by the Japanese in World War II. His range encompasses British as well as Australian authors. He is particularly concerned with what the film industry made of such novels as Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice (book 1950, film 1956), Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1954, 1957), James Clavell’s King Rat (1962, 1965) and J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1984, 1987).

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