war

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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It is rare that two books of such quality should appear at the same time, especially on a subject as tragic but absorbing as the fall of Singapore. The reader is reminded immediately of films about the maiden voyage of the Titanic. You know that at the end of the film the ship has to sink: you also know that Singapore must fall with equally dramatic suddenness. Worse, in the case of Singapore, the systematic massacre (sook ching) of much of its overseas Chinese population by the Japanese kempetai (secret police) adds a huge dimension of tragedy to what is already a disaster; as does the fact that the Japanese, unlike most Western armies of the period, had no plans to deal effectively with more than 130,000 Allied prisoners, who were then dispersed and incarcerated in prisoner-of-war camps across South-East Asia and Japan itself. Every so often, these scenes are revisited by sympathetic writing, and also by new evidence and analysis, which is the case here.

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Jeffrey Grey reviews 'Tobruk' by Peter Fitzsimons

Jeffrey Grey
Thursday, 27 August 2020

Books like this are not written for people like me, and it is only fair to acknowledge that at the outset. ‘Australia’s most beloved popular historian’ (he must be, it says so on the inside flap) actually doesn’t want to be regarded as an historian, but as a storyteller (he says so himself), and so has little or no interest in satisfying the requirements and expectations that a professional historian might seek to apply to his undertaking. He will make a lot of money in the process, and good luck to him.

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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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The Shrine of Remembrance is such a familiar object in the landscape of Melbourne that we can easily be unaware of its singularity. This is, as far as I can tell, the largest purely monumental structure in the world commemorating the war of 1914–18, a great memorial to participants in the Great War. The duke of Gloucester inaugurated the Shrine before a crowd of more than three hundred thousand people – almost three times the largest number ever to attend a sporting event at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – on 11 November 1934, Armistice Day, as it used to be called. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the duke placed a wreath from his father, George V, on the Stone of Remembrance in the Sanctuary at the centre of the Shrine, and at that moment, as planned by architect and engineer, a ray of light fell on the black granite of the Stone, lighting up the word ‘Love’ in the carved inscription ‘Greater love hath no man’. In 1934 more people than in 2007 knew those words and the words that followed them in the Bible: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’

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In their introduction to this collection of essays, the editors state that Australia’s war experiences in Vietnam left some lasting legacies, but ones that were either unexpected or unintended: a loss of moral authority on the part of Australian conservative governments, a breakdown in the defence and foreign policy consensus about the ‘threat’ to Australia, the revival of populist politics and resistance to conscription, and increasing resistance to orthodox political views on other issues.

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The serious academic study of war has grown considerably in Australia in the last ten to fifteen years, bringing with it an often welcome diversification in focus and a willingness to subject old issues to fresh scrutiny. One sign of the increasing acceptance of war as a subject of serious study in the universities is the increasing number of university historians and other who, with little knowledge of or interest in the mechanics of war, nonetheless extend their work to include consideration of war and the military as these affect their particular areas of interest.

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Robin Gerster reviews 'On War and Writing' by Samuel Hynes

Robin Gerster
Wednesday, 26 September 2018

'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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General ‘Pompey’ Elliott was a famous Australian in 1918, half forgotten seventy years later, and is now a national military hero. This Anzac Day he stood high. On French soil he was praised by France’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, in one of the most mesmerising and sensitive speeches ever offered by a European leader to Australian ears ...

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