Sunday, 1 July 2012

ANZAC’S DIRTY DOZEN: 12 Myths of Australian Military History edited by CRAIG STOCKINGS

ANZAC’S DIRTY DOZEN: 12 Myths of Australian Military History
Newsouth, 2012, 335 pages, $34.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Anzac’s Dirty Dozen takes issue with the emotive hype surrounding the “secular religion” of Anzac Day and the century of “commemoration, veneration and celebration” of Australian wars past, present and to come.  All contributors are academic military historians, most from the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, a conflict of intellectual interest which inevitably inhibits too much radicalism.

Craig Wilcox contests the myth that Australian military history began at Gallipoli in 1915 and shows that there was “mass engagement in citizen soldiering pre-dating this” but, rather than criticising this martial past (wars in Sudan and South Africa, and a death toll in colonial Aboriginal wars that is “not to be sneezed at”), the tone is one of honouring Australia’s pre-Gallipoli military heritage (though the race war was “not entirely virtuous”).

John Connor reveals that, contrary to Anzac legend, the Australian army was not the “only all-volunteer army in WW1”, that many volunteers had their enlistment decisions made for them by family, community and economic pressure, and that a volunteer is not necessarily a better soldier than a conscript – just being Australian is enough, apparently, to be honoured as a quality soldier.

Craig Stockings is irked by the notion that Australia fights ‘other people’s wars’, especially as advanced by John Pilger who argues that ‘we fight mostly against people with whom we have no quarrel and who offer us no threat of invasion’ to ‘appease a great protector’.  Stockings argues that all Australia’s wars are a result of “rational and calculating choice” and not blind loyalty to the UK or US.  Such wars are a “premium on a military insurance policy” in which (it is gambled) the British navy or American marines would come to Australia’s aid in a time of threat (from “communist expansion”, for example).  War decisions are the preserve of “Australian politicians and policy-makers”, he correctly notes, but Stockings identifies the interests of this elite with the interests of the Australian population, a mistake not made by Pilger who admits an international, anti-war, class solidarity that is alien to the khaki academic.

Michael McKinley mounts a robust, but rare for this book, critique of the politically privileged  Australia-US alliance which has often (for 40 of the last 66 years) taken an unwilling Australian population to the wars of our “bad alliance partner” – Washington is “war-prone” and its military record is one of battlefield disaster and criminal conduct.

Dale Blair questions the veneration of the ‘Aussie digger’ for a mythical “ethical exceptionalism” that portrays the Anzac soldier as always fighting fair.  Blair finds, to the contrary, a record littered with Australian war crimes and atrocities (originating from, or tacitly condoned by, senior command), for example killing prisoners and strafing survivors in lifeboats.  Blair, however, limits the unethical conduct to a minority, absolving the broader military which is praised for its ‘professionalism’.

Bob Hall and Andrew Ross examine a war of unfettered savagery (Vietnam) but find no bad behaviour.  Their myth-busting is confined to military tactics, showing that the small firefight, not the set-piece battle, was the norm for the Australian military.  They do show, however, that the largest landmark battle, the battle of Long Tan, is misrepresented as a heroic fight by outnumbered  Australian soldiers when, in fact, the Australians had massive artillery and air support.  Technological firepower won these military victories but the Vietnamese, they note, won the domestic and international political victories.  Even with this insight, however, the authors recycle another potent Vietnam War myth – that the “enemy insurgents” were separate from the people whom they ruled by force.

Peter Stanley usefully gets to grips with the myth of the centrality of war to Australian history, a fable which bestows a “positive view” on all Australia’s wars whilst extolling national pride.  This is the real aim of Anzac Day, he astutely argues, rather than the purported expression of any anti-war mourning, or regret.  Stanley is, however, in a minority of his peers who emphasise that they are not “undermining the foundations of Anzac just for the sake of appearing subversive”. 

The book also leaves a number of military myths unexplored such as that of the ‘professionalism’ of the modern Australian military.  This professionalism apparently does not include the routine physical and sexual bullying and humiliation of powerless victims, a core component of military training culture which inculcates the cruelty essential for preparing soldiers to be proficient at brutalising, dehumanising and eventually killing the ‘enemy’ in aggressive, imperialist wars, the purpose of having a military for capitalist societies.

The military historians are miffed that they are widely seen to “serve as high priests at the temple of Anzac”, so, to rectify this, they take Anzac down a peg or two in the interests of a (limited) historical accuracy.  By leaving the edifice of militarism modified but intact, however, they wind up serving as slightly disreputable, gin-drinking vicars (if not high priests) ably assisting the worship of armed force at the shrine of patriotism as much as the flag-waving cheerleaders of war in parliament and boardroom. Welcome to the world of the moderate militarist.

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