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Military History

There is an honoured tradition of battalion histories in Australia, particularly from World War I. The best of them tell us something of the individuals who served Australia well. This book takes battalion histories to an entirely new level. It is the most complete, and the most absorbing, account of a battalion I have ever read.

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Robin Prior opens this monumental military history by stating that Britain was the only power on the Allied side in both world wars to fight the regimes of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperialist Japan ‘from beginning to end’. Some might quibble. Was not 1937 the beginning of the war against Japan? But few could doubt that Britain’s sustained war effort in both world wars was remarkable. Even though victory often seemed uncertain and the cost in casualties, human grief, economic dislocation, and financial ruin was immense, the nation continued to exhibit ‘stern resolve’, believing that ‘conquer we must’.

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Justice Anthony Besanko’s dismissal of Ben Roberts-Smith’s defamation proceedings against a trio of mastheads – The Age, The Canberra Times, and The Sydney Morning Herald, at the time all owned by Fairfax – was a comprehensive victory for those newspapers. It was a vindication of their serious investigative journalism on matters of high public interest. And it was a devastating blow to the reputation of Roberts-Smith. 

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Bomber Command operations cost about 3,500 Australian lives in World War II. This was more than five times the number of Australians who died in the Battle of Kokoda from July to November 1942. Yet the strategic bombing offensive over Germany has never held a comparable place in the national memory of war. 

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Just over a decade ago, Ross McMullin published Farewell, Dear People (2012), a magisterial biography of ten remarkable Australians killed in World War I. The book met with much acclaim, including the award of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2013. Life So Full of Promise, a sequel to this volume, provides three more biographies of men whose early lives suggested that they would have made extraordinary contributions to Australian public life, had they survived the war.

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As the war in Syria enters its second decade, the human scale of the catastrophe is difficult to comprehend. Shocked by the security service’s torture of children who had graffitied the words ‘Down with the regime’ on a wall in the city of Daraa in 2011, nationwide demonstrations rose up against Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical government. When I ask my now-exiled Syrian colleagues what life was like under the Assad family, they struggle for historical parallels before agreeing that, for them, it resembled Stalin’s Soviet Union and North Korea (a regime the current president’s father, Hafez Al-Assad, looked to for inspiration).

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What happens when you mix some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century with the urgency of war? Wizards of Oz, a new book by lawyer and former politician Brett Mason, seeks to provide the answer. It is an account of a friendship between two Adelaide men and their extraordinary scientific achievements during World War II. 

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No publisher or literary agent could have dreamt up or commissioned this remarkable book. It is wholly unexpected and original. It is about some Yolngu clans in north-east Arnhem Land, a group of Vietnam veterans, and an anthropologist named Neville White, who happens to be an old friend of one of Australia’s finest writers, Don Watson. Watson observes Neville, who systematically observes the Yolngu, who are regularly visited by the vets. It sounds like a lugubrious farce and sometimes it reads that way. But it is a deeply serious enquiry into questions at the heart of Australian history, politics, and identity.

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More than thirty years after the last helicopters left the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, the flow of new books on the Vietnam war shows no sign of abating. Among them are some intended for a limited, scholarly market, some for a wider general readership; some for Americans, some for Australians. These three books exemplify some of the trends in both the substance and the style of Vietnam war histories, and illustrate both the virtues and the faults of differing approaches to the most controversial conflict of the twentieth century.

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That Magnificent 9th by Mark Johnston & Alamein by Mark Johnston and Peter Stanley

by
April 2003, no. 250

At 9:40 pm on 23 October 1942, in the North African desert, the heavens lit up with myriad flashes from more than one thousand guns, and the roar of the British Commonwealth Eighth Army’s opening barrage rolled out towards Field Marshal Rommel’s poised Panzerarmee Afrika. Promptly, at 10 pm, when two search-lights arced across the sky, beams crossing, the waiting infantry from Australia, Scotland, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and Great Britain rose from weapon pits, where they had been lying doggo all day, and began to fight their way forward through wired and dug defences, and ingeniously laid enemy minefields stretching up to six thousand metres deep.

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