Military History

Despite their disparate subject matter, the central concerns of Geoff Dyer’s books remain the same. Whether he is writing about photography, D.H. Lawrence, taking you scene-by-scene through Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or, as in Another Great Day At Sea, spending two weeks aboard a US aircraft carrier, his abiding concerns – the self, the nature o ...

Every author has his prejudices and it is usually best to lay them face-up on the table. Then the reader can track their influence, watching how they structure interpretation and noting any gaps that open up between the data and their construal. In this Douglas Newton is exemplary. No one can read the opening pages of his book and be left in any doubt about his mainstream argument or its target. Candidly, he sets himself against the ‘developing consensus’ of the ‘new hawkish school’, whose members ‘lavish praise’ upon Britain’s choice for war in 1914, reckoning Britain’s belligerency a ‘dire necessity’ or a ‘just war’. ‘At the heart of this book,’ he tells us, ‘is the belief that the war was not irresistible.’ Widening his target to include ‘nationalist historians outside Germany who refuse to find any fantasies, follies, or errors in their own countries’ records’, he counters: ‘Disappointing as it is to the convinced moralists, there is no “one true cause” [of the outbreak of war] to be discovered ... [T]he plague is upon all houses.’ In the light of this last remark, it is no surprise that the now famous author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012), Christopher Clark, gives The Darkest Days a ringing endorsement on its back cover, warmly lauding it as ‘bracingly revisionist’.

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In late April, the commemorations of the centenary of the Gallipoli landing will inevitably overshadow another significant anniversary in Australia’s military, political, and social history. On 29 April 1965, fifty years to the week after the landing at Anzac Cove, the Menzies government announced the commitment of an Australian infantry battalion to the growing conflict in Vietnam. That announcement led to Australia’s longest and third-largest military commitment of the twentieth century, surpassed only by the two world wars. While its political and social impacts on Australia did not match those of World War I, they should not be overlooked. The controversies surrounding Vietnam, and all that it was taken to symbolise, have given rise to numerous myths, many still current and influencing the way Australia looks at our past, present, and potential future military commitments.

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The resurgence of the Anzac legend in the last quarter of the twentieth century took many Australians by surprise. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it seemed that the rituals of Anzac Day would wither and fade away as the generations who fought the two world wars died. It proved not to be so. ‘Anzac’, to use the common shorthand, now dominates the national memory of war as strongly as it ever did, although it is not the same legend as it was 100 years ago. Many commentators see this ‘return’ of Anzac as a spontaneous upwelling of national sentiment, a natural and appropriate honouring of those who have died in Australia’s defence. Critics, however, discern a more deliberate orchestration of public sentiment by successive governments, which, for a variety of political purposes, have ‘militarised’ Australian history and sidelined other competing narratives of Australia’s development.

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Reading about the ‘khaki election’ of 1914 in Douglas Newton’s Hell-Bent evokes a sense of déjà vu in 2014, as Australia embarks on another war in the Middle East. During the campaign of 1914, Prime Minister Joseph Cook and Labor leader Andrew Fisher jostled to prove their loyalty to Britain and their enthusiasm for the impending war. Fisher’s efforts to match and outdo the conservative leader for patriotism bring to mind Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s willingness to support the government’s military engagement in Syria and Iraq, and its amendments to national security laws. Plus ça change

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It is a brave author who produces a book proclaiming the usefulness of war at a time when most of us are thinking about the horrors and wastefulness of World War I. Ian Morris, British by birth but now the Willard Professor of Classics at Stanford, and author of Why The West Rules – For Now (2010), has done just that and is receiving praise for his efforts. What are the merits of his case?

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Menzies at War by Anne Henderson

by
August 2014, no. 363

Prime ministers seem to value longevity, whether it is Bob Hawke relishing the fact that he served longer than John Curtin and Ben Chifley combined, or John Howard relishing that he served longer than Hawke. But no prime minister is likely to serve as long as Robert Menzies’ sixteen years as prime minister from 1949 to 1966. His record is even more impressive when his earlier term (1939–1941) is included.

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Hamish McDonald has for more than thirty years written about foreign affairs and defence in Asia for publications such as the Sydney Morning Herald, Far Eastern Economic Review, and, more recently, as the world editor for the Saturday Paper. His writings on Indonesian politics and Australian complacency over the Balibo controversy have been more likely to put him in the firing line than on the bestseller’s list in Jakarta’s bookshops, but his tenacity and journalistic skills place him among Australia’s finest. In a departure from his usual subject matter, McDonald has shone a spotlight on Japan’s historical past in the form of a memoir. A War of Words owes its origins to a chance encounter while he was on assignment in Tokyo when the Japanese economic bubble was at its peak. After a fellow journalist gave him a box of papers that included photographs and an anecdotal manuscript of the life and adventures of one Charles Bavier, McDonald spent the better part of three decades piecing together the details of Bavier’s colourful life. Besides being an excellent tale, The War of Words represents an enlightening chapter in the history of both Japan and its ever-changing relationship with Australia.

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In 1966 as a young first-year cadet at the Royal Military College, I purchased Anzac to Amiens by C.E.W. Bean, which had been published twenty years earlier. Bean had been Australia’s Official Historian for World War I, and Anzac to Amiens was his masterly condensation of the twelve-volume official history of which he had been the general editor and principal author. It was to be many years before I purchased the twelve volumes or could find time and commitment to read them. In the meantime, Anzac to Amiens was my guide to the history of Australia’s involvement in the war. I still refer to it.

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Everybody knows by now that the eBook may soon become as significant to literature as recording is to music. The copyright problems are evident, but on the positive side the tired old market-driven canon is being given a rude shake-up.

Quality speaks for itself. Recent welcome revivals include editions of David Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner< ...