War

This book is about the battles in which the First Australian Imperial Force took part between June and November 1917. It is not, however, a battle history. Rather, it takes the interesting approach of investigating how Australians remember these battles. Spoiler alert: they don’t.

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As readers of her two volumes of memoirs will know, Sheila Fitzpatrick trained at the University of Melbourne until departing for Oxford in 1964 to pursue doctoral research on the history of the Soviet Union. That took her to Moscow, where she gained access to Soviet archives. Fitzpatrick would make her name as an archival historian, in contrast to earlier Western scholars who relied, both of necessity and by inclination, on other sources; she showed remarkable ingenuity in using the officially sanctioned records.

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In 1969, an Anzac veteran visiting Gallipoli fell into conversation with a retired Turkish school teacher. The teacher had with him a guidebook featuring a quote from Şükrü Kaya, the former head of the Ottoman Directorate for the Settlement of Tribes and Immigrants. The quote came from a 1953 interview Kaya gave, in which he recalled a 1934 speech he made on behalf of Mustafa Kemal, a sentimental entreaty to Anzac mothers to ‘wipe away’ their tears. The teacher shared Kemal’s supposed words with the Australian visitor, who returned to Brisbane and passed them on to Alan J. Campbell, a Gallipoli veteran. Campbell, who was involved in the creation of a Gallipoli memorial in Brisbane, contacted the Turkish Historical Society to verify the quote. They could only confirm Kaya’s 1953 interview, but this was considered good enough. In this convoluted way, ‘the most iconic refrain of Anzac Day’ ended up on the memorial’s plaque, attributed to Kemal, with one addition. Campbell invented the now well-worn line about ‘the Johnnies and the Mehmets [lying] side by side’.

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‘If you want peace, prepare for war,’ Vegetius wrote in a fourth-century CE Roman military manual. From the classical world to the twenty-first-century Sino-American cold war, Margaret MacMillan’s book is broad in its sweep. Judging by the content, one might gain the impression that war is a purely European invention, but that would be erroneous; it is only because Europeans spent 2,400 years carefully archiving their literary, artistic, and technological endeavours in ‘the art of war’ that so much survives – except the victims. The soldiers and civilians are long gone, their names largely forgotten; what lives on is the representation of war in text, the visual arts, cinema, and oral history.

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Comparison, when it comes to historical study, is rarely devoid of ambition. The aim is to identify patterns that are global in their significance and to overcome the tendency to see a unique trajectory for particular places or nations. Yet such work frequently founders when it becomes apparent that the author’s knowledge of alternative cases is thin or that the claim to comparison is made to hide a focus that is in fact quite narrow. Not so in this co-authored book, which builds upon its three authors’ areas of expertise – the Anglosphere (Martin Crotty), Asia (Neil J. Diamant), and Europe (Mark Edele) – to deliver a compelling argument about veteran benefits in the twentieth century.

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The participation of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, from 1936 to 1939, was a great but overwhelmingly tragic adventure. According to Geoffrey Cox, an enthusiastic young journalist from New Zealand in Madrid at the time, it was ‘the most truly international army the world has seen since the Crusades’. Romance, bravery, and sacrifice were combined with bastardry, suffering, and humiliation, marred by often lazy and amateurish tactics, including the fatal notion that military discipline was a form of ‘class oppression’. Giles Tremlett’s richly documented new account overflows with exhilaration and alcohol, along with sabotage, treachery, and utter disorganisation. Perhaps it was the very failure of this romantic intervention that has encouraged, over the decades, a rose-tinted vision: a history, in effect, written by the losers.

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This is a book in the expansive American tradition of long, well-researched historical works on political topics with broad appeal, written in an accessible style for a popular audience. David Nasaw has not previously worked on displaced persons, but he is the author of several big biographies, most recently of political patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy.

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As with many authors, Covid-19 forced Catherine Bond to cancel the launch event for her new book. But unlike most authors’ work, the contemporary relevance of Bond’s latest book has been considerably heightened by the ongoing pandemic. Indeed, in the midst of this crisis it is hard to imagine a historical text timelier than Law in War: Freedom and restriction in Australia during the Great War. A century later, lessons from that era are still instructive today.

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In 1991, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard provocatively claimed that ‘the Gulf War did not take place’. His argument was not a denial of the violence, suffering, and death experienced by civilians but rather that those very realities were absent in the mediatised consumption of the conflict. Dominant discourses reproduce the key events of the age, and the distant spectator can hardly escape the saturation of simulated symbols they entail. In Baudrillard’s words, ‘the warriors bury themselves in the desert leaving only hostages to occupy the stage, including all of us as information hostages on the world media stage’.

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'Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ Samuel Johnson’s aphorism was commended to me many years ago by Peter Ryan, then the long-serving publisher at Melbourne University Press. The author of a superb personal account of his war experience ...

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