Military History

Michael Fullilove, head of the Lowy Institute, has written about President Roosevelt and the men who helped him to guide the US so reluctantly into World War II. Dennis Altman reviews this model of academic research.

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Depicting war in a picture book requires a deft hand. Historical imperatives need to be considered, while also avoiding glorifying war for a young and impressionable audience. Ideally, such books should promote informed discussion rather than mindless militarism.

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The Australian War Memorial has become a kind of national cathedral. Those who visit Canberra for the first time feel that they must see it. It fascinates nationalists, those who are entranced by past wars, those who love displays of technology, relatives of the war dead, those attracted to family history, and the countless visitors who unknowingly seek heroes outsi ...

The first thing to be said about this book is that no one associated with it seemed to know what to call it or how to describe its contents. The essays which make up the book are not in any sense about the ‘making’ of World War I. They do not describe either elements that ‘made’ World War I in the sense of causing it, or elements that caused World War ...

Writing a book on a large, multifaceted, and complex historical subject on which there is a vast amount of source material is a little like sculpting a substantial yet elegant statue from marble. In this case, the sculpting process is far from complete. A potentially valuable book remains submerged within this long and inadequately edited volume. A clue to the problem lies in the subtitle, which asserts that the book is ‘the complete story of the Australian war’. There is, of course, no such thing as a complete history: even the longest multi-volume histories must decide what to exclude.

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Too often histories of World War II either have ‘total’ in their title or make great play with total war as a concept. Essentially this is meaningless, because all that is meant by total war is big war. Antony Beevor mercifully does not call World War II ‘total’ or make any reference to total war.

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W hat book would you want to read in hell, or in one of humanity’s remarkably competent imitations of it? Tristram Shandy seemed about right to one young Yorkshireman who reached the Western Front in 1915. A year later he found an anthology for soldiers edited by Robert Bridges, the poet laureate, but it seemed so lofty in purpose, so earnest in its morality, and so abstract in its idealism that it simply wilted in the mud and blood. When World War II began, the Yorkshireman, now famous as the poet and art critic Herbert Read, assembled his own sturdier anthology, The Knapsack (1944), mixing Spinoza with Edward Lear. Read’s little volume seemed perfectly pitched to William Loh, a Western Australian soldier in New Guinea in 1943, where ‘hardship and boredom walked hand in hand’, films and concert tours rarely reached the front line, and newspapers and precious letters from home arrived far too late, or so Loh complained. He suggested getting an Australian version of Read’s book to the troops. Just give it a different title, he advised: ‘Knapsacks are too bulky up here.’

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The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era by Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren & Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi by Alison Pargeter

by
September 2012, no. 344

The danger in writing about unfolding dramas is that they keep unfolding, potentially stranding both writer and reader. Not so with these two fine books, whose authors have long experience of the Middle East. Quite different in scope – a sweep of the Arab world contrasting with the ascent and decay of Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal régime – they deal with past, present, and possible future events in a lucid, compelling way. Anyone with an interest in what is at stake in the Middle East would be well advised to read them.

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Fighting to the Finish does not get off to a good start; its title is overstated. The First Australian Task Force (1ATF), trimmed down in 1970 from three to two battalions, withdrew from the Vietnam War by December 1971. The small remaining advisory group withdrew in December 1972. Fighting finished in April 1975, when more than 180 battalions of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) swarmed around Saigon, causing it to fall. It hardly seems sensible to declare that the Australian Army fought to the finish over two years before the end of the war.

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This book is the second in a series compiled by a group of Canberra academics on the distortions they perceive to surround the writing of military history in this country. Before the book itself is tackled, a word should be said about the titles they have chosen for their two volumes. The first (published in 2010) is called Zombie Myths of Australian Military History; this one is entitled Anzac’s Dirty Dozen: 12 Myths of Australian Military History. As happens to many a poor author, these hideously ugly titles may have been imposed on the book by the publisher. If not, they need serious help when they title future volumes.

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