Honouring the dead – again

The responses to the posts on Anzac Day revealed deep misgivings about the way we celebrate that day.  There was however one dissent.  One correspondent wrote that I had dishonoured the dead by misrepresenting history.  That correspondence follows, on notice to the correspondent.

*****

I do not consider that you are “honouring the dead” by misrepresenting the circumstances in which they fought and died.  In 1914, Australia’s trade and defence were, for good or ill, inextricably bound up with Britain and Her Empire.  It would have been a disaster for Australia had the Germans won, and Britain lost, the First World War.  The two major Australian political parties were accordingly entirely correct in their identification of our national interest with that of Great Britain at that time.  Britain (and Australia) did not have any choice but to go to war in August 1914.  The British and French Governments, in particular the heroic and underrated Sir Edward Grey, did everything they could and more to prevent the War.  This included strong-arming the Serbian Government into agreeing to all 20 of the German and Austrian demands, which included the permanent stationing of troops on Serbian soil.  The Kaiser and the Emperor did not know what to do after these demands (the rejection of which was intended by them as a ‘casus belli’) were accepted, so they invaded anyway. 

Even so, Great Britain did not declare war until the Germans had also invaded Belgium, a country against which the Germans had no grudge, legitimate or otherwise, and whose independence had been a basic English/British Foreign policy demand for many centuries.  As Grey said to the Parliament at the time, once Belgium was invaded, Britain had no choice but to go to war in 1914.  Anyone who says otherwise is misrepresenting what actually happened, and is recorded in the contemporary inter-Government communications and other documents.  As Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”.  In your latest post, you seem to be entitling yourself to your own, counter historical, version of the facts. 

I agree with you that many aspects of Anzac Day (and in particular its 100th anniversary) have been rather overdone, but that does not hide the facts that the peace and prosperity in which you and I have been privileged to grow up and grow old was won by Australians (including several members of my family) and others who risked and gave their lives in the two World Wars, and several other Wars, in which this country has fought.  I am aware that ‘wishy washy’ revisionist history and cultural relativism sell books, but they should not blind us to the reality that liberal democracy has required, and will continue to require, brave people to fight for it.  In dishonouring and misrepresenting what these people fought – and in many cases died – for, I think you are dishonouring their sacrifice.  I disagree with you in this. 

***

Thanks.  You are right.  We are apart.

On Vietnam? Iraq? Afghanistan? Iraq again?  Or the Boer War?

Was the Gallipoli Campaign well designed or just badly executed?

Was Haig a hero?

Off to the NZ rugby – on TV.

***

Thanks; answering your queries on your order:

  1. Each of the first three was an inevitable consequence of Australia’s post 1942 defence (and trade) strategy of sheltering behind the USA rather than GB.  The fourth was a consequence of our pre 1942 strategy of sheltering behind GB. 
  2. The Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign was in my opinion a brilliant idea, but very poorly executed.  Had it been implemented competently, the campaign would have taken Turkey and its Empire out of the War 3 years early and saved many thousands of lives.  Even with the ‘cock up’ which resulted from the incompetence of Sir Ian Hamilton and others, it still kept hundreds of thousands of Turkish and Ottoman Empire troops away from France for nearly a year at a relatively modest cost (compared to the losses in France).  In a war of attrition, that gave the Allies an advantage. 
  3. I think Haig was incompetent and should have been replaced earlier, though he as not as incompetent as French (whom he replaced) or other WW1 generals.  Haig’s incompetence does not mean he was not a ‘hero’, and his concern for the welfare of his troops during and after the war should not be understated.  That is so notwithstanding that, had Haig been a cleverer general (for example, of the calibre of Wellington or Patton), many of those soldiers might not have been killed and injured.  Haig’s real tragedy was that like most other Allied generals and all other German ones he was just not up to fighting a modern mechanised war in the early 20th century, when the offensive power of modern rifles, explosives, artillery etc. had so much outstripped the defensive capabilities of armour, helmets, fortifications, trenches, etc.  Haig’s situation was in some ways analogous to that of Grant, Sherman and Lee half a century earlier.  Though all decent, brave and competent, they between them lost an appallingly large proportion of the lives of their men (about 4% of the male population of the US at the time). 
  4. I hope you enjoy the rugby and have a good weekend.

***

Thanks.  The rugby was boring and I will try the AFL.

I looked at what I said.

‘We and the English and the Americans can be proud of what our service people did to win a war that they did not seek but which they had to win in World War II.  The civilian population of England, and especially London, were nothing short of heroic. In that war we fought for our own lives, and against evil regimes bent on world dominion.

That is not the case with any of our other wars.  It is too late to talk of why we went to war with the Empire in 1914, but I have the clear view that we should not have gone to war in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or now Iraq again.  These are matters on which opinions might differ, but not many now say that the Middle East or we are better off because we went to war there. .. ….I would prefer to focus on those who saved us while we were directly threatened, and on our appalling treatment of those who served us in Vietnam.’

Given that I have spent time on honouring our dead all over the world, how do you get from what I have said that I am dishonouring our dead by misrepresenting our history? 

***

Because, after saying that WW2 was a war where “we fought for our own lives, and against evil regimes bent on world domination”, you went on to say “That is not the case with any of our other wars”.  By this, you were presumably including WW1, as well as Vietnam, Korea etc.  Yours is a common, but in my opinion, a facile and a-historical view.  The fact that Philip Adams expressed the same opinion in his column in ‘The Australian’ a few weeks ago strengthens my lack of regard for it.  I prefer the arguments and conclusion of Geoffrey Blainey in his recent piece about the origins of WW 1 which was (in an edited version) reprinted in ‘The Australian’ last weekend.  GB explained the true position much better than I can.  That is no doubt one reason why he is an historian of international reputation and I am not. 

***

I do not want to treat myself as an act of parliament, for a variety of reasons, but I did say that it is too late to argue about why we went to war with the Empire in 1914, but that in that war we were not fighting for our own lives and against an evil regime bent on world dominion, or in a war where we were directly threatened.

Do you say that the Kaiser – like Hitler and Hirohito – led an evil regime bent on world dominion, and that we were directly threatened by the Kaiser in 1914?

I could not give a bugger what Philip Adams or revisionists might say – I am just curious to know how I misrepresented what our troops fought for and how I dishonoured their sacrifice.

The BBC news led with the Armenian centenary.  It was very moving.  They also dealt equally with the Turkish commemoration.  I saw sculptures there that I did not see on my visit.

***

The Kaiser and his Government were bent on European domination, hence their carefully worked out invasion plans.  They were prepared to cause millions of people to be killed in order to achieve it.  If you do not think that made them ‘evil’, you must have a different understanding of that concept to mine.  Australia was not “directly threatened” in WW2 until after December 1941, but I’ve never met any rational person who says we should not have gone to war in 1939, or that Australians should not have fought and died in Europe and the Middle East.  The same things were true (though in a different situation) in 1914. 

***

Do I take it therefore that you maintain your position that I have dishonoured the sacrifice of our troops by misrepresenting history?

***

Yes.  The flippant and mocking tone of sentences like “There is an Englishness about this nostalgia for Australians dying for King and Country in 1915 that must be foreign to most in this decently multinational country, and which shows that we are nowhere near independence or maturity” is, in my view, insufficiently respectful of some very brave people, as well as being just plain wrong.  For me, the point of Anzac Day is that to prevent future wars, it is important to remember correctly what happened in previous wars, and why. 

***

Could you remind me of my misrepresentations?  You could treat this as a request for particulars, if you like.

May I ask if you use this style of argument in court?

***

I think full particulars have already been provided.

*****

As you may have guessed, the correspondence then got personal, and terminal.  It speaks for itself, but I make one comment.

As I said in the post there is not much point in discussing now why we went to war in WWI.  That is the kind of thing that those who enjoy what are called ‘culture wars’ go in for.  Our entry into that war was in truth inevitable.  As Geoffrey Blainey says:

Some historians now express their puzzlement that Australia, once the war began in Europe, should almost unthinkingly see herself as bound to go to war.  Why did not Australia pause, they ask, before making this momentous decision to fight vigorously on the far side of the world?  Australians did not need to pause.  The decision to fight on Britain’s side, come what may, was unconsciously made years earlier, and made with massive support from public opinion.  Australia was emotionally and culturally tied to Britain.  Her trade was largely with Britain.  Her naval defences depended on Britain.  She even entrusted, in most matters, her foreign policy to Britain.  Without doubt, self-interest as well as emotion knotted her to Britain.

This is to me obvious.  The country was not yet fifteen years of age.  But that total and natural reliance on the mother country makes the failure of her ruling class and military class at Gallipoli and on the Western front all the more tragic.  It also makes it hard for me to see that failure by our parent as signalling our birth as a nation – quite apart from the fact that we lost 8000 men at Gallipoli for nothing – or as something to celebrate.

We went to the second war with the same attitude but that was from its inception a world war and on no view did we have any option.

Later wars are very different, yet we have shown a similar dependency and unquestioning readiness to fall into line.  That is why I do not think we have grown up.  It’s just that after the fall of Singapore, we had to change parents.  On that point at least, my correspondent and I are agreed.

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