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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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Two months ago, I was in Islamabad to address an international conference on suicide terrorism. The Pakistani army was engaged in heavy fighting with the Islamic militants in the Pashtun-dominated northern Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. The security situation was deteriorating. Senior Pakistani intelligence officers were worried that it would lead to an escalation of suicide attacks. Their assessment was supported by the other government officials, including doctors working in the region, who told me of the widespread perception among Pashtuns that the predominantly Punjabi Pakistan army was committing genocide of the Pashtun nation and was thus turning the population against the army. The aerial bombings by Pakistani helicopter gunships and the US-NATO drones were causing many civilian casualties.

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and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,

and from every crime bullets are born

which will one day find

the bull’s eye of your hearts.

And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry

speak of dreams and leaves

and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.

Come and see

the blood in the streets.

Come and see the blood

in the streets!

So wrote Pablo Neruda, of the Spanish Civil War (‘I’m Explaining a Few Things’, 1947). These words could apply in any place where children are made to suffer and thus to hate. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Where the Streets Had a Name is a book whose pages resonate with these themes, unflinchingly; remarkable because hers is a book written for children and about children – those living in the West Bank.

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There are traces of a constant, oscillating motion of conscience in Sandy Fitts’s poetry. References to the burden of ‘history’ pit the poems, with ‘history’ standing for everything we need to address in the present, through the power of eloquence, but also in fear that such words are not enough. From the opening, prize-winning poem, ‘Waiting for Goya’, to the closing images of ‘Blue Mop’, the act of poetry emerges and is scrutinised for what it might do in the world:

 our figures leaning      toward each other

    to exchange a few uncertain words

about the mop-    utility-   aesthetics-

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The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan by Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi (eds)

October 2008, no. 305

In its 250 years of statehood, Afghanistan has gone through numerous episodes of political rupture. The principal causes of these upheavals have remained more or less the same: an underdeveloped economy and the inability of the rulers to shift from a tribal political culture, to a more participatory national politics based on modern and democratic national institutions and rules of governance. As a result, with rare exceptions, the rulers of Afghanistan have depended on foreign patrons and not on the human and material resources of the nation to rule. This political milieu of buying the support of tribal leaders has led to fratricidal wars of succession and pacification, with devastating consequences, resulting in extended periods of political and social unrest and lawlessness. These bloody conflicts, often called jihad by the contestants, have facilitated and even invited foreign interventions by the British, Russians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and now the Americans and their allies.

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At Thy Call is Clive Holt’s account of his experience as a soldier in the Angolan War. The author aims to convey the enormity of this event and the impact it has had upon the servicemen involved. In doing this, he provides an alternative to those writings that have addressed only ‘the tactical components of the war’.

The book opens in the late 1980s, when the teenage Holt entered the conflict in Angola as part of South Africa’s compulsory two-year military conscription for white males. Holt describes the carnage and fear that he and his fellow servicemen frequently experienced. The author also discusses his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the war’s aftermath.

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A River Kwai Story by Robin Rowland & The Men of the Line by Pattie Wright

June 2008, no. 302

These two books on the building of the Thai–Burma railway in World War II are very different in format and tone. Australian film-maker Patti Wright’s Men of the Line is an exquisitely designed collection of stories and images by Australian prisoners of war who were forced to build the railway for their Japanese captors. Wright describes her book as ‘a tribute to the ex-POWs who experienced the best and worst that human nature can offer and returned to tell the tale’. Canadian journalist Robin Rowland’s A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal is a solidly researched investigation that concentrates on F Force, the group of Australian and British prisoners that suffered the worst death rate on the railway, and the postwar war crimes trial that found seven Japanese soldiers guilty of the ‘inhumane treatment’ of these men. Rowland concludes that the Japanese did commit war crimes; she also exposes failures by Australian and British officers that increased the POWs’ suffering.

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Forty years ago, the proponents of the ‘new military history’ sought to extend our understanding of war and its impact by looking beyond the battlefield and by considering the social and cultural implications of armies and military activity. In the process, the best work added layer upon layer of complexity and nuance to the study of war in history, but over time it came to seem that this approach to military history was interested in anything and everything except war’s central concern: battle and purposeful, organised violence between groups and individuals. Peter Ewer has written a book that belongs to what some are now hailing as the ‘new new military history’, approaches that seek to integrate broader socio-cultural significance and individual experience with serious attention to the basic elements of war through the ages: battle and killing.

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Last year, the fifth of the war, America sent another forty thousand troops to Iraq to halt the rise in violence. So far this surge seems to have worked: the number of Iraqis killed per month has fallen from over three thousand per month a year ago to under one thousand, and American combat deaths have fallen as well, from over one hundred to less than forty per month. Now the extra troops are being withdrawn again. We will see whether those grim numbers bounce back up again, and whether Iraq is any closer to the peaceful, united and pro-Western country that those who planned the invasion so blithely expected. The signs in recent weeks have not been promising.

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