Australians at war

Anzac Day may be subject to as much abuse as Christmas Day or Good Friday, especially in that part of the entertainment industry called football.  What follows is the Australian part of the chapter on war from a comparative history of Australia and the U S.  The book is called A Tale of Two Nations, Uncle Sam from Down Under.

                                                                                   ***** 

There has been a certain naivety, or innocence perhaps, about Australians at war.

The Australian war experience got off to a bad start.  The colonies jointly – this war started just before federation – went off to the aid of the leading world power in a fight that had little or no intrinsic merit or interest to Australia.  The Australian participation in the war was deeply divisive at home, with consequences that are at best disputed, and for no discernible benefit to Australia, apart from paying some kind of respect or dues to the world’s leading power.  Very much the same damning assessment would later be made of Australia’s tagging along behind America in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  One difference is that in the case of both Vietnam and Iraq, the government of Australia told its people untruths, to put it softly, when that government determined to send off its young men to be killed in foreign conflict.

‘Plain George’ Turner had done the articled clerks’ law course, become an honorary officer of a number of friendly societies, and a senior chief warden in the Masons before becoming the first Australian-born premier of Victoria and then the first Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia as the Right Honourable Sir George Turner, P C., K C M G.  Truly, it could only happen in Australia.  He achieved his own kind of immortality in joining the decision to send colonial troops to help the British War on the Dutch settlers in South Africa (the Boers): ‘If ever the old country were really menaced, we would spend our last man and our last shilling in her cause.’  When the Vietnam War got very bad under President Lyndon B Johnson, an Australian Prime Minister called Harold Holt, who later disappeared while snorkelling in waters known to be dangerous, alarmed even his own supporters by declaiming ‘All the way, with LBJ.’  Some Australians have grovelled better than others.

The Australians were just showing solidarity, or fraternity, with Britons everywhere.  They were after all Australian Britons, Mr Deakin said.  They were ‘For the Empire, right or wrong.’  The troops were mainly bush men and the officers tended to be squatters.  These were the sort of men that Kitchener for the British wanted to use against the Bushveldt Carbineers to put the fear of God into those diamond-hard Boers.  But the Boers were fighting for their own land, and an Australian called ‘Breaker’ Morant – he was a gifted horse-breaker – was adjudged to have gone too far in shooting prisoners, and he was executed.  In his last ballad he said he was ‘Butchered to make a Dutchman’s holiday.’  There are still Australians who want him as a hero.

The early confidence turned sour, as happens.  It was a very dirty guerilla war, and the British use of concentration camps appalled many.  Billy Hughes said that the English were cowards and bullies.  Cardinal Moran gave intimations of martyrdom; Mr Barton offered the troops one of those peculiarly useless bromides that Australian troops would come to expect from their politicians.  He said that Australia stood for ‘truth and justice, not militarism’.  (When the then Prime Minister in 2013 reviewed Australia’s role in the Afghan War, Mr Abbott said that that that war had ‘ended not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that is better for our presence here…..Australian troops do not fight wars of conquest; we fight wars of freedom’.)  The new nation was overjoyed at the return of its troops, but what had it got for the 518 of the 16, 175 men who did not come back?

Australia would lose more than 60,000 killed in World War I, and about half that in World War II.  It was only in the latter war that Australia was directly threatened, and it was Australian troops under their own commanders who halted the Japanese advance into New Guinea.  The appalling war crimes committed by Japanese troops serving under Emperor Hirohito on Australian troops and prisoners of war etched very deep in the Australian consciousness.  The frightful games that the Japanese play with their own brutal history have, to put it softly, not helped.  When Australians look back on their history during the two world wars, Japan is in a place all of its own.

Yet, when Australians commemorate their war dead, they tend to focus on the charnel house of the Great War, which posed no direct threat to them, and where the weight of their contribution to the Allied victory might depend on whom you are talking to.  This concentration on the First World War reflects the mystique, for the want of a better word, of Gallipoli.  The major commemoration day for the Australians is not 11 November, but 25 April, the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

The scheme, largely that of Winston Churchill, and it cost him his job in Cabinet and saw him in the trenches, was part of a grand strategic vision to shorten the war by a dramatic intervention on the bridge between Asia and Europe.  This is how a middle-aged Australian described the landing to the English writer Compton Mackenzie.

He reported that all he knew was that he had jumped out of a bloody boat in the dark and before he had walked five bloody yards he had copped a bloody bullet in his foot and had been pushed back to bloody Alexandria before he bloody well knew he had left it.

He was a bloody lucky Australian.  Mr Mackenzie was there for the second, Suvla landing, and he left this wonderful remark: ‘An absurd phrase went singing through my head.  We have lost our amateur status tonight.’  Mr Mackenzie was one of those Englishmen who marveled at the musculature of those young Australians – and their cocky irreverence.

The trouble was that there were too many on high that had not lost enough of their amateur status.  On two occasions, the infidel invaders were within touching distance of achieving their objective, but on each occasion they were caught in time.  The whole expedition was botched from on high from the start.  The invaders were facing Turks defending their own soil, and with Allah on their side, and they ran into a man of military and political genius called Mustafa Kemal, who was more the Father of Turkey than George Washington was the Father of the United States.  There were months of stagnant fighting in trenches, the very type of war that the planners had sought to avoid, before the Allies slunk out under cover of night, defeated and demoralized.  The casualties on both sides had been horrendous, and all for nothing – except for the creation of modern Turkey.

Gallipoli was memorable for the Australians and New Zealanders (Anzacs) because this was a form of debut, and their casualty lists loomed larger in their smaller country towns.  Very few country towns in Australia do not have a memorial to those lost in this war, frequently with additions for later wars.  But this was a complete military failure, what Churchill would describe in another context as ‘a colossal military disaster’.  The British suffered far more casualties than Australia; the French lost as many as Australia; and the Turks lost as many as Britain, France, and Australia combined.

The glow that Australians now see this disaster in comes from the need for a sustaining myth that found a little more to latch on to in the U S with the man who could not tell a lie.  So, each year around 25 April, young Australians make what is in truth a pilgrimage from Asia to Europe to sit huddled under a flag that is hardly their own and reflect on an heroic miss just across the water from the ruins of Troy.  If you go there on a clear quiet day, you can feel a marvelous peace near the water where men had torn at each other hand to hand most barbarously for nothing.  There is a moving monument on which Kemal assures the foreign mothers of the fallen that their sons are resting in peace.

The charge at Beersheba by the Light Horse was one of the last of its kind, but the men had to put the horses down before they came back.  More killingly, they were part of the sausage factory on the Western Front, the last gasp of ruling monarchies and a cruel and effete ruling class.  They produced a general of the first order in Monash, but he too had to serve under a butcher.

It was the Western Front that killed so many and broke so many who were left nominally alive.  It also strained the Imperial bond.  The Australian troops were volunteers.  The English were conscripted.  As we shall see, two referenda in Australia were defeated when the government of Billy Hughes sought to introduce conscription, but the civil stress at home was great.

The diggers were divided on conscription.  Some did not want others forced into this hell and some did not want to fight beside men who were there against their will.  One thing they did agree on.  They were revolted by the English practice of shooting deserters.  The Australians had a higher desertion rate and many generals wanted them to follow the British model.  The government refused.  They thought it was not right to put the death penalty on men who had volunteered to fight in a cause that was not immediately their own.

Another issue for the Australians, and a throbbing cause of tension, was that until late in the war they were fighting under British officers.  Americans and Canadians had their own command.  Why not Australia?  Monash said that the drive to a kind of military independence ‘was founded upon a sense of Nationhood.’  They did not get their wish until November 1917.

As debuts go, this was a hell of a deflowering, and they lost their amateur status the hard way.  Except when they got pissed on Anzac Day playing two-up, under the gracious licence for the day of the Establishment, the returned men of Australia did not want to talk about it.  As if to rub salt into the wounds, some were offered ‘selection’ lots, and that operation was also botched.

There would be lingering resentment about the way that the Poms’ earls, lords and knights had shoveled colonials into the cannon and then got lousy with the medals.  This resentment really flowered when the Poms cheated at cricket in an effort to defeat a boy wonder called Bradman during the Depression.  The Poms were bad winners and worse losers.

In the Second War, the Japs got very close.  Darwin was bombed.  There was real tension with the mother country about Australian troops being kept to face Rommel in the desert rather than defending their own homes against the Japs coming down in the jungle.  The fall of Singapore to the Japs – the guns pointed the wrong way – and the loss of English capital ships led Australians to turn their gaze to across the Pacific and look to Uncle Sam as their new protector and Godfather.  That still position holds.  It was by and large American troops that pushed the japs back at the most frightful cost, on the islands and on the oceans.  The American admirals were preeminent, and Australia has nothing like that monument to the US Marines at Iwo Jima.

Australia was well served by Prime Minister Curtin, but it produced no one of the standing of Roosevelt, or that paradigm of clean and simple leadership – yes, leadership – President Harry Truman, the great president who said that ‘The buck stops here’, the man who took two heavy decisions of equal import, to bomb the Japs and to fire Macarthur, for which his troops and nation should be forever grateful.

Not many people in Australia or America want to talk about later wars.  Australia committed to each of them as part of its alliance with the U S, like an act of homage or a payment of insurance.  If you are looking wholly at the white community, possibly the most disgraceful phase of Australia’s history came with the refusal of most Australians to acknowledge the return of soldiers from Vietnam.  It would have been unthinkable to have rejected the troops defeated at Gallipoli, but Australia did it to those defeated in Vietnam, and then their government got lousy about compensating them, and looking after them.  This was very, very ugly, and on a national scale.  It put a big dint in the national myth of ‘mateship’ – Australians were kicking their own troops in the guts.

Well, didn’t Turkish or German soldiers have mates?  Studies done by the military show that in life or death, soldiers do not see themselves as part of an organized machine, but as equals within a tiny group – another term is ‘mates’.  A decent footy coach would tell you the same.  People do not play for a jumper, and only a real mug dies for a bloody flag.

After the Great War, and the horror of the Western Front, soldiers felt that it was impossible to come to terms with a world ripped apart.  One of them later wrote about the horror, and it became a best seller and it is now a classic.  He then wrote books about the problems that the men had in rejoining civilized life.  The writer was Erich Maria Remarque.  The classic is All Quiet on the Western Front.  The later books include The Way Back and Three Comrades.  These books are a sustained and enduring paean to mateship.  The notion that Australians might have some primacy in a basic part of humanity is at best rather sad.  We are yet to found a myth.

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.

Honouring the dead

The response to the post of yesterday suggests that a lot of people are revolted by many aspects of what some people – especially politicians – are planning for tomorrow, 25 April, the centenary of the abortive landing at Gallipoli.  It may help if we try to spin out some of the differing threads, because different things evoke different responses – and of great strength.

Respect for the fallen

Most people want to honour their fallen, especially those who died fighting for their people.  I started at about the age of eight, in about 1953.  I was taken on a tour of Victorian war graves by George Dawe, a mate of my old man, which lasted a week.  George was a war graves commissioner, and he and this venture made an enduring contribution to my fear of snakes.

I visited the war graves at Singapore in 1963 and I was humbled and appalled to be looking at the remains of boys younger than me.  Two military funerals for men killed in Vietnam affected me heavily.  I was balloted out.  Two mates were not.  One put his feet up in St Kilda Road as an officer; the other joined the infantry and went to Vietnam.  He came back, but it did him no good.  Then a mate got killed after they bribed him to go back with a cheap home loan.  Then I found out that our government had lied to us when getting us into the war.  No government can regain faith after lying to start a war and then conscripting its young men by ballot to die in it.  And then rejecting those that got back.

I have since been to Gallipoli, the Somme, and Flanders.  The most moving memorials in London for me are those for Bomber Command and Bomber Harris who were both cruelly treated by an ungrateful nation.  The most moving is that to American airmen that I visit each time I go to Cambridge and the memorial to Iwo Jima in Washington.

No one argues with this kind of piety – unless perhaps you are a citizen of China or Korea and you read of the Japanese Prime Minister visiting a shrine to their war dead – including those who perpetrated the most frightful crimes against humanity.  And celebrating the death of some servants of the Reich might be a war crime in itself.

Acknowledging history

We all want a great and heroic past.  America has one.  We do not.  I need not rehearse why the cruel and pointless fiasco at Gallipoli seems such a sad jumping off point in our quest for a story.

Patriotism

This is not a good or easy word.  A love of your country might be useful; it might be the reverse.  If you asked an Australian if they were a patriot, you would get a very funny look, and a query about your mental health.  By and large, patriotism is a value in America, and one that no American would want to see challenged; to the extent that it surfaces in Australia, it may be an object of either curiosity or suspicion, if not downright abuse.

Most people, at least in Australia, understand the word ‘patriot’ to mean someone who loves their country and is loyal to it.  Australians do not use the terms Fatherland of Motherland; neither did the English; those words make both lots uneasy, but the similarity is seen.  A glance at the Oxford English Dictionary shows that something more is required of a patriot than passive loyalty.  The OED refers to French, Latin, and Greek roots, and says that a patriot is ‘one who exerts himself to promote the well-being of his country; one who maintains and defends his country’s freedom or rights.’  To be a patriot, you have to get off your backside and do something – this then raises the spectre of the busybody.  The two meanings look different, or you just accept that being a patriot in South Korea is very different to being one in North Korea.

Apart from saying that patriotism means more to Americans than us, there is not much to be said.  The frightful jingoism we now tend to see at this time can be terrifying.  Hitler’s SS and the Emperor’s kamikaze pilots were the purest patriots you could ever find.

The peak of chauvinism now also leads to a dreadful moral blindness.  About 8000 Australians were killed at Gallipoli.  The Turks lost about eight times that number.  The total killed on each side was of the order of 56,000.  The fact that our side lost the battle is not all that matters.

Nationalism

This is a related poison.  It also relates to our lack of history.  One of the reasons I regard those poor pilgrims who shroud themselves in our flag on the shores of Gallipoli as sad if not pathetic is that we are not yet grown up enough to have our own flag or head of state.  And we have a galah as Governor-General who is now sad that he copped a gong, because he now sees that he looks an idiot, and he greets the press with ‘Call me Peter.’  Jane Austen could have gone into ecstasies over condescension as rich as that.

There is an Englishness about this nostalgia for Australians dying for King and Country in 1915 that must be foreign to most of this decently multinational migrant country, and which shows that we are nowhere near independence or maturity.  God only knows what the blackfellas make of it.  It probably confirms their worst suspicions.

Wars

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.  Even the bombing of Libya, which I supported, has now proved to be a prelude to a hellish humanitarian crisis.  I gather that our position on Iraq is that the problems that they face now are down to the people that we invaded because they did not ask us to stay longer.

We need to have a cold-eyed view of our failures at war, if not our crimes, and the glitz and glamour that some want to invest in Anzac Day are the reverse of what we need for that purpose.  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.  We also do not reflect enough on the frightful moral and emotional damage that we do to our troops when we get them into wars like those in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  I suspect that it might make the defence of Tobruk look a little different.  And while we speak of how we treated those who returned, spare some thought for those who came back to a land fit for heroes after the war to end all wars – and got put into soldiers’ settlements.

Ritual

With the death of God and the emptying or conversion of His churches, nothing has been put in their place.  Hence our need for ritual, and some feeling of the supernatural, some communion with the dead, and a quest for some moral bedrock.  This is a different kind of immaturity, but pagan rituals will appeal to some more than others.

Sport

With Anzac Day, our main pagan ritual is with sport.  It used to trouble me a little, but it does not now.  I have no doubt that the players get something good from it.  Funeral games were very Greek.  They are described in that great epic of war, the Iliad, which took place just over the water.  When Patroclus, the lover of Achilles, was killed, the Greeks marked his death with funeral games – and then Achilles went mad massacring everyone he could find and despoiling the corpse of Hector.  But if you go to the site of my club the Melbourne Storm, you can find a video that is a commercial presentation but which I have little doubt correctly reveals the feelings of profound respect of the players.  It just helps that three are of them are among the best to have pulled on a boot and wear the same number on their back in jerseys for Queensland and Australia.  They express what might properly be called a bond that is natural and harmless.  The same goes for the AFL and other codes.

Taste

I gather that all existing records for bad taste have been shattered recently.  Hawke annoyed me.  Howard sorely troubled me.  Abbott appals me.  Because of his personal and political insecurity, he has a lust for conflict and choreographed shows about war that are frankly terrifying, even allowing for his customary banality.  The exploitation of our dead for personal or commercial purposes is a form of desecration or prostitution that shames us all.  And then there is the inanity of a drip like Bookshelves Brandis.

My father’s father, Bill Gibson – with the worrying middle name of Campbell – fought at the Western Front and came back.  He died long before I was born, but if I have got anything from him, I cannot believe that he would be anything but unhappy with the way we honour our fallen.  I cannot believe that he fought so that we might wallow in this kind of bullshit.

For myself, I have the choice between an international lunch at Malmsbury – featuring Turkish and Greek cuisine – or going to see the Storm; the bonus for which is that they play the enemy of mankind – Manly.

But one thing is clear.  I am too fond of my Grundig TV to go anywhere near it when that schoolboy drip in the mid-blue tie or the sadly vacuous Mr Shorten might haul into view.

***

What follows is an extract from a book dealing with the different experiences in war of the US and Australia.  It is not a good story for us.

Chapter 10

War

‘I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong’.  President Abraham Lincoln to his successor, General Ulysses S Grant.

The turning point in the battle of Gettysburg came on its second day.  Lee was determined on staking the fortune of the South on a major battle – he thought that the North was just too strong to lose the war. He was intent on taking the North by its flank on his right, near a hill called Little Round Top.  His men charged again and again.  The Southern boys were not used to losing straight fights.  The casualties were, as usual, appalling.  The end of the Northern Line was commanded by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (who taught Rhetoric at Maine.)  Chamberlain saw that his men were nearly out of ammunition and the will to resist.  He gave orders to them to perform a manouevre that is hard on the parade ground.  They were in part to retire at an angle behind the end of the line and then advance in a sweeping movement around the enemy.  In the movie, Jeff Daniels plays Chamberlain, and when he gives the order for ‘Bayonets’, you can see the whites of his eyes, and he is staring straight into eternity.  He is, as they say, running on adrenalin – and upbringing.

The manouevre was perfectly and successfully executed.  The Southern boys were thrown back by the charge.  The Northern line held.  The next day Lee saw his army smashed in Pickett’s charge.  The proud Army of Virginia would never be the same threat again.  Had that battle been lost, Lincoln may have had to sue for peace, and the Union may have been lost.  God only knows how Europe may have responded to Germany – twice – without aid from the nation that we know as the United States.  All those consequences turned on the extraordinary valour and coolness of a lecturer in rhetoric from the State of Maine.  It is on such personal threads that history hangs.

We saw that the war of independence was a frightful guerilla war with atrocities on either side.  The Civil War would be a more orthodox war, a war of attrition, with casualty rates piled up by a mode of warfare that would offer a ghastly premonition of the Great War.  Once the colonies decided to revolt, it was victory or death for the leaders of the colonies seceding from the Crown.  That threat was not so real for those seceding from the Union, but in that war, both sides were equally charged morally.  In the first war, the rebels never lost the moral high ground, and motivating English or Scots or Irish soldiers to fight against Britons on foreign soil cannot have been simple.  We have tried to list the military advantages of the home side.  Because of the course that events took, the first war was a precondition of the birth of the Union; the second war was a precondition of the survival of the union.  From Paul Revere to George Washington, the war of independence was mythologised in a way that looks completely American.  There was no need to mythologise the Civil War.  It had its own stark grandeur that would be given precise expression by the greatest American of them all.  For some people outside America, this was the real birth of the nation that they so admire.

George Washington was pompous and patrician, a vain old Tory.  He was in many ways definitively Un-American.  As a general turned politician, Eisenhower would be everything that Washington was not.  But the new nation needed more than a hero; it needed something like a cult.  The very shortness of American history led to almost indecent haste in making Washington a saint.  As Daniel Boorstin said, ‘Never was there a better example of the special potency of the Will to Believe in this New World.  A deification which in European history might have required centuries was accomplished here in decades.’  Might perhaps the Americans have a propensity to talk themselves up?

Never did a more incongruous pair than Davey Crockett and George Washington live together in a national Valhalla.  Idolised by the new nation, the legendary Washington was a kind of anti-Crockett.  The bluster, the crudity, the vulgarity, the monstrous boosterism of Crockett and his fellow supermen of the subliterature were all qualities which Washington most conspicuously lacked.  At the same time, the dignity, the reverence for God, the sober judgment, the sense of destiny and the vision of the distant future, for all of which Washington was proverbial, were unknown to the ring-tailed Roarers of the West.  Yet both Washington and Crockett were popular heroes, and both emerged into legendary fame during the first half of the 19th century.

The Civil War was so much more bloody and destructive than that fought in England more than two centuries before.  It was fought over four years after southern states, with nearly half their population enslaved, wanted to secede from the union on issues of the extension of slavery into the new territories.  About 620,000 Americans died in the conflict.  Names like Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Shiloh (‘Place of Peace’), Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Appomattox would lie deep in the national consciousness, and become well known outside because of the outstanding TV documentary by Ken Burn.  It was a mechanised and industrial war.  The Northern economy was so much stronger, and they had the numbers to win, but dreadfully inept military leadership against a brilliant Southern general prolonged the war until the North produced two generals that were as good.  In the meantime, the emancipation of the slaves had been proclaimed, and the nation is still picking up the pieces.  The whole people of the United States had paid a most fearful price for that lesion in the Declaration of Independence on the equality of all men.

Not the least of the pain and tragedy of this war came from the hold that the States held over men of ‘honour’, a term of elevated content in the South.  Nearly one hundred years after the Union was born, there were many who saw their paternity and therefore loyalty in their home States, something that most Australians now, one hundred years after federation, find very odd.  There is no doubt that State loyalty is still much stronger in the US.  It strikes people as odd that a man could be Virginian first, and American second.

Robert E Lee had served the Union for thirty-two years, but he could not raise his hand against his family in Virginia, and he resigned his commission.  God knows how many other families would mourn that decision.  Lee was a great commander, and he was not scared to take risks.  He had the stamina to go on to win and not just avoid defeat.  He was brilliant in manouevre.  Those were all qualities that his early opponents did not have.  He developed an aura of invincibility, and later trumpeted virtues led to a reaction.  This is the balanced assessment of a British military historian:

Lee’s victories were won against the odds….This is an unusual experience for American commanders, who usually enjoy the benefits of plenty…His victories remain among the greatest humiliations ever inflicted on the armies of the United States.  None the less, the link with the other American commander, George Washington, who battled against the odds, is a just one.  For this reason, Lee still ranks among the very finest of American generals, for like his hero, Washington, he managed to achieve much with the most meagre resources.

What other general on the losing side, including Hannibal and Rommel, ever inflicted so much loss and damage on the enemy?

Ulysses S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman had been failures before the war; Grant hit the bottle, and Sherman was deeply unstable, too wobbly to command.  After the horrendous first day of Shiloh, when Grant had lost about ten thousand men, Sherman sought him out to discuss withdrawal.  He found Grant under a tree, hurt and leaning on a crutch, rain dripping from his hat, and chewing on a cigar.  Sherman decided against withdrawal, and the next day they won the biggest Northern victory so far.

Grant was a gift from God to his president, and Sherman held the same place for him.  Grant had force of character and military intuition; Sherman was an intellectual and widely read in history and theory (as Patton was).  They both had the iron nerve and steely determination required of commanders in a bloody civil war.  Their comradeship was sustaining.  Sherman wrote to Grant: ‘We cannot change the hearts of the people of the South, but we can make war so terrible that they will realize the fact that however brave and gallant and devoted to their country, still they are mortal….’Sherman and Grant were facts of life men.  ‘They cannot be made to love us, but may be made to fear us.’  Grant said this of Sherman: ‘I know him well as one of the greatest and purest of men.  He is poor and always will be.’

Best of all, Sherman said of Grant: ‘He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now, sir, we stand by each other always.’  You may not find that in the Iliad of Homer, but it is a thing of great beauty.  Grant and Sherman are, like Lee, assuredly American heroes.

The Americans were latecomers to both world wars, but their intervention was decisive, especially in the Second World War, both in Europe and in the Pacific.  In the Second War, America was directly attacked and its military and industrial mobilization left it the most powerful nation in the world.  Wilson and America failed at Versailles, but so did other Allies, but worse.  America produced more real military heroes in Bradly and Patton, and the future President Eisenhower.  The Marshall Plan was statesmanlike and humane, and by crushing Germany and Japan militarily and then being generous in victory, the US avoided the awful errors of Versailles.  Korea was at best a draw; Vietnam was a moral and strategic black hole; and whatever else might be said about the perceived failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, their memory is not inducing America to try that kind of thing again.  America has retired hurt as the world police officer.

The defining war for the US, at least to one outsider, is the Civil War, and its enduring legacy not just for America but the whole world is Abraham Lincoln. What might be called the original sin of the young republic was a blood libel that would have to be redeemed in blood.  Abraham Lincoln was the chosen instrument of the redemption of the United States.

Born poor and low down in the back blocks, Lincoln learnt English through the King James Bible and Shakespeare.  While doing labouring jobs, he largely taught himself law, often reading with his long legs up a tree.  He was also a crack shot.  He practised rough and tough law before rough and tough juries, commonly sleeping head to toe fully clothed with his opponent when on circuit.  He rose up through state politics and came to national renown in great debates on the poisonous issue of slavery.  His marriage was difficult and he knew personal tragedy.  His election as President effectively signalled the beginning of the Civil War.  He had a God given ability to get to the heart of the matter and then express himself in language that will not die.  He also had the political gifts of being forever underestimated, and of having immense personal appeal and humour right up close.

But under that rustic open charm lay a mind of rat cunning and political genius.  He had to endure awful generals and awful defeats.  It is very doubtful if any lesser person could have held the nation together.  But in Grant and Sherman, he found generals who could and did win the war for him.  Lincoln had seen his job as being to preserve the Union, and he did so.  It is impossible to imagine what might have happened if he had failed.  He also emancipated the slaves.  He was assassinated at the end of the war.

Here is the full text of the Gettysburg Address.

Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on the great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract.  The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who have fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause or which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead men shall not have died in vain; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here is the full text of a letter to Grant.

Not expecting to see you again before the spring campaign opens, I wish to express in this way my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it.  The particulars of your plans I neither know nor seek to know.  You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon them.  While I am very anxious that any great disaster or capture of our men in great numbers shall be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine.  If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know.  And now, with a brave army and a just cause, may God sustain you.

Here is the text of a telegram to Grant.

I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are.  Neither am I willing.  Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.

The second inaugural contained the following.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and sustaining.  Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us not judge that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.

There follows a passage of remarkable Biblical intensity to a people raised on the Old Testament, in which Lincoln says that the scourge of war might continue ‘until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’.  And then, as in Wotan’s farewell, we reach distilled peace at the end.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all that which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

Lincoln was a colossal achievement for the humanity in us all. When Lincoln left us from the wounds received at the Ford Theatre, a member of his cabinet said ‘Now he belongs to the ages.’  He certainly does, and we stand in awe of him.

***

The Australian war experience got off to a bad start.  The colonies jointly – this started just before federation – went off to the aid of the leading world power in a fight that had little or no intrinsic merit or interest to Australia, that was deeply divisive at home, with consequences that are at best disputed, and for no discernible benefit to Australia, apart from paying some kind of respect or dues to the world’s leading power.  Very much the same damning assessment would later be made of Australia’s tagging along behind America in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  One difference is that in the case of both Vietnam and Iraq, the government of Australia told its people untruths, to put it softly, when that government determined to send off its young men to be killed in foreign conflict.

‘Plain George’ Turner had done the articled clerks’ law course, become an honorary officer of a number of friendly societies, and a senior chief warden in the Masons before becoming the first Australian born premier of Victoria and then the first Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia as the Right Honourable Sir George Turner, P C., K C M G.  Truly, it could only happen in Australia.  He achieved his own kind of immortality in joining the decision to send colonial troops to help the British War on the Dutch settlers in South Africa (the Boers): ‘If ever the old country were really menaced, we would spend our last man and our last shilling in her cause.’  When the Vietnam War got very bad under President Lyndon B Johnson, an Australian Prime Minister called Harold Holt, who later disappeared while snorkelling in waters known to be dangerous, alarmed even his own supporters by declaiming ‘All the way, with LBJ.’  Some Australians have grovelled better than others.

The Australians were just showing solidarity, or fraternity, with Britons everywhere.  They were after all Australian Britons.  They were ‘For the Empire, right or wrong.’  The troops were mainly bushmen and the officers tended to be squatters.  These were the sort of men that Kitchener for the British wanted for the Bushveldt Carbineers to put the fear of God into those diamond hard Boers.  But the Boers were fighting for their own land, and an Australian called ‘Breaker’ Morant – he was a gifted horse-breaker – was adjudged to have gone too far in shooting prisoners, and he was executed.  In his last ballad he said he was ‘Butchered to make a Dutchman’s holiday.’  There are still Australians who want him as a hero.

The early confidence turned sour, as happens.  It was a very dirty guerilla war, and the British use of concentration camps appalled many.  Billy Hughes said that the English were cowards and bullies.  Cardinal Moran gave intimations of martyrdom; Mr Barton offered the troops one of those peculiarly useless bromides that Australian troops would come to expect from their politicians.  He said that Australia stood for ‘truth and justice, not militarism’.  (When the then Prime Minister in 2013 reviewed Australia’s role in the Afghan War, Mr Abbott said that that that war had ‘ended not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that is better for our presence here…..Australian troops do not fight wars of conquest; we fight wars of freedom’.)  The new nation was overjoyed at the return of its troops, but what had it got for the 518 of the 16, 175 men who did not come back?

Australia would lose more than 60,000 killed in World War I, and about half that in World War II.  It was only in the latter war that Australia was directly threatened, and it was Australian troops under their own commanders who halted the Japanese advance into New Guinea.  The appalling war crimes committed by Japanese troops serving under Emperor Hirohito on Australian troops and prisoners of war etched very deep in the Australian consciousness.  The frightful games that the Japanese play with their own brutal history has, to put it softly, not helped.  When Australians look back on their history during the two world wars, Japan is in a place all of its own.

Yet, when Australians commemorate their war dead, they tend to focus on the charnel house of the Great War, which posed no direct threat to them, and where the weight of their contribution to the Allied victory might depend on whom you are talking to.  This concentration on the First World War reflects the mystique, for the want of a better word, of Gallipoli.  The major commemoration day for the Australians is not 11 November, but 25 April, the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

The scheme, largely that of Winston Churchill, and it cost him his job in Cabinet and saw him in the trenches, was part of a grand strategic vision to shorten the war by a dramatic intervention on the bridge between Asia and Europe.  This is how a middle-aged Australian described the landing to the English writer Compton Mackenzie.

He reported that all he knew was that he had jumped out of a bloody boat in the dark and before he had walked five bloody yards he had copped a bloody bullet in his foot and had been pushed back to bloody Alexandria before he bloody well knew he had left it.

He was a bloody lucky Australian.  Mr Mackenzie was there for the second, Suvla landing, and he left this wonderful remark: ‘An absurd phrase went singing through my head.  We have lost our amateur status tonight.’

The trouble was that there were too many on high that had not lost enough of their amateur status.  On two occasions, the infidel invaders were within touching distance of achieving their objective, but on each occasion they were caught in time.  The whole expedition was botched from on high from the start.  The invaders were facing Turks defending their own soil, and with Allah on their side, and they ran into a man of military and political genius called Mustafa Kemal, more the Father of Turkey than George Washington was the Father of the United States.  There were months of stagnant fighting in trenches, the very type of war that the planners had sought to avoid, before the Allies slunk out under cover of night, defeated and demoralized.  The casualties on both sides had been horrendous, and all for nothing – except for the creation of modern Turkey.

It was memorable for the Australians and New Zealanders (Anzacs) because this was a form of debut, and their casualty lists loomed larger in their smaller country towns.  Very few country towns in Australia do not have a memorial to those lost in this war, frequently with additions for later wars.  But this was a complete military failure, what Churchill would describe in another context as ‘a colossal military disaster’, and both the English and the French suffered more casualties than Australia.

The glow that Australians now see this disaster in comes from the need for a sustaining myth that found a little more to latch on to in the U S with the man who could not tell a lie.  So, each year around 25 April, young Australians make what is in truth a pilgrimage from Asia to Europe to sit huddled under a flag that is hardly their own and reflect on an heroic miss just across the water from the ruins of Troy.  If you go there on a clear quiet day, you can feel a marvelous peace where men had torn at each other hand to hand most barbarously for nothing.  There is a moving monument on which Kemal assures the foreign mothers of the fallen that their sons are resting in peace.

They also fought in the desert and the Western Front.  The charge at Beersheba by the Light Horse was one of the last of its kind, but the men had to put the horses down before they came back.  They were part of the sausage factory on the Western Front, the last gasp of ruling monarchies and a cruel and effete ruling class.  They produced a general of the first order in Monash, but he too had to serve under a butcher.

As debuts go, this was a hell of a deflowering, and they lost their amateur status the hard way.  Except when they got pissed on Anzac Day playing two-up, under the gracious licence for the day of the Establishment, the returned men did not want to talk about it.  As if to rub salt into the wounds, some were offered ‘selection’ lots, and that operation was also botched.

There would be lingering resentment about the way that the Poms’ earls, lords and knights had shoveled colonials into the cannon and then got lousy with the medals.  This resentment really flowered when the Poms cheated at cricket in an effort to defeat a boy wonder called Bradman during the Depression.  The Poms were bad winners and worse losers.

In the Second War, the Japs got very close.  Darwin was bombed.  There was real tension with the Mother Country about Australian troops being kept to face Rommel in the desert rather than defending their own homes against the Japs coming down in the jungle.  The fall of Singapore to the Japs – the guns pointed the wrong way – and the loss of English capital ships led Australians to turn their gaze to across the Pacific and look to Uncle Sam as their new protector and Godfather.  That still position holds.  It was by and large American troops that pushed the japs back at the most frightful cost, on the islands and on the oceans.  The American admirals were preeminent, and Australia has nothing like that monument to the US Marines at Iwo Jima.