War

In 2007, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Great Ocean Road, a bronze statue was unveiled at Eastern View, near Torquay. The statue, titled ‘The Diggers’, depicts two pick-wielding mates, one handing the other a drink. In name and form, the statue memorialises both the World War I Anzacs the road was built to honour and the repatriated soldiers who began constructing it in 1919. But the statue tells only half the story. As the anniversary date indicates, the Great Ocean Road was completed in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. It provided work not only for returned servicemen, but also for thousands of unemployed a decade later. Many probably worked under both circumstances.

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Australia’s Vietnam War has passed through several phases in the last six decades. In the mid-1960s the commitment of combat forces by the Menzies and Holt governments was strongly supported. The war and the associated conscription scheme became the focus of enormous controversy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, contributing to Labor’s electoral success in 1972. Gough Whitlam did not pull out the troops – that had already been done by his predecessor, William McMahon – but he did recognise the communist government in the north, even before the war was over.

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The suffering of prisoners of the Japanese dominates many Australians’ memories of World War II. More than 22,000 men and almost forty women were captured in Southeast Asia between 1942 and 1945. About 8,000 of them died. Traditionally this high death rate has been attributed to a mix of Japanese cruelty and their refusal to observe international humanitarian law. The military code of bushidō, it is argued, meant that Japanese soldiers had no respect for enemies who had surrendered. 

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Not many people create an archive. For almost thirty years, Phillip Maisel led the testimonies project at Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC). Maisel’s memoir is his story of surviving the Holocaust and becoming ‘the keeper of miracles’.

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On 19 November 2020, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, released the findings of the Brereton Report, so named for the New South Wales Supreme Court Judge and Reserve Major General Paul Brereton, who led the investigation into war crimes allegations against members of the Australian SAS. The report had been a long time coming – with good reason. Over four years, Brereton and his team scrutinised more than 20,000 documents, examined 25,000 images, and interviewed 423 individuals – Afghan victims and their families, eyewitnesses, whistleblowers, and the alleged perpetrators. The final eight-volume, three-part report came in at 3,251 pages. Everybody knew it would be bad, but few had anticipated quite how confronting its findings would be.

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The myth and reality of the Anzac legend has proven a perennial subject of inquiry and argument for over thirty years now, since the publication of Ken Inglis’s justly famous articles in Meanjin and elsewhere in 1964–65. These prompted a spirited exchange with the late Geoff Serle and others. More recently, John Robertson examined the Gallipoli campaign in terms of the myth (1990), and found the critics of Australian martial performance wanting, while Eric Andrews took the Anglo-Australian relationship between 1914 and 1918 to task (1993), and found duplicity and manipulation in the construction of the Australians’ image.

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When I was a graduate student in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, Russian friends used to talk a lot about World War II. Their stories were of hardship and suffering stoically borne by the population and finally vindicated by victory in 1945. This was not dissimilar from what was published in the Soviet press on the subject, but without the press’s obligatory references to the wise leadership of the party. Wendy Z. Goldman and Donald Filtzer tell basically the same story as my Soviet friends. Invoking the image of a ‘levée en masse spirit’ in the wartime Soviet Union, they admit that ‘strict discipline and repression certainly played a role’ in the state’s ‘unprecedented feats of mass mobilization’, but they put their interpretative emphasis elsewhere: ‘without the support of the vast majority of people and workers in particular, the great achievements on the home front would not have been possible’.

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The Gallipoli campaign has a peculiar fascination for historians of World War I. This new book, by British historian Nicholas A. Lambert, is concerned not so much with the conduct of the campaign as with the reasons for its being launched. The chances for its success were known at the time to be low, so why was this gamble, which cost perhaps 130,000 Allied and Ottoman lives, taken?

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Two weeks after he announced the reintroduction of conscription in late 1964, Prime Minister Robert Menzies addressed a political rally at Hornsby, in the Liberal heartland of Sydney’s north-west. Menzies received what historian Carolyn Collins described as a ‘rockstar welcome’. However, when he spoke about national service, a group of black-clad women in the audience rose to their feet and covered their heads with black veils, standing silently for several minutes in the face of jeers and boos. They eventually filed out of the hall, handing out anti-conscription pamphlets as they left. Margaret Holmes, who had helped organise the protest, recalled later that it ‘stopped [Menzies] in his tracks’. Organised by the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, it was the first women’s protest against conscription in the Vietnam era, but it would not be the last. Weaponising decorous, middle-class femininity would prove to be a potent strategy in the nine long years it took to abolish conscription in Australia.

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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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