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Posted on 6 Jun 2017 in Non-Fiction |

DAVID STEPHENS AND ALISON BROINOWSKI (eds) The Honest History Book. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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This is a passionate argument for a wider Australian history. Never have so many ringing phrases from so many historians rung so true.

Every weekend I drive down Anzac Highway to my home in Plympton, passing the Keswick Army Barracks, and note a sign to the Army Museum beckoning me in. This past month (May) is History Month, rebadged as the South Australian History Festival, so I finally make the turn. The museum contains substantial holdings of all manner of equipment and memorabilia, the most fascinating of which is probably the Cheer Up Piano signed on all panels by hundreds (if not thousands) of service men and women prior to embarkation for the First World War. The museum’s items are arranged according to wars and campaigns but there is little interpretation of the material. As I’m wandering through the collection I pass into the Vietnam section where an old-timer (not much older than me) is explaining Australian heroism at the battle of Long Tan to a 10-year-old boy. The military record is that the Australian troops fought magnificently, but I’m tempted to break in with a question — ‘Why?’ Why were we fighting there at all?

A year ago on this site I reviewed Henry Reynolds’s book Unnecessary Wars in which he stressed that Australia had fought only one war it needed to be involved in – the Second World War. The Honest History Book is an important successor to Reynolds. As it boldly asserts on its cover, ‘Australia is more than Anzac – and always has been’. Organised in two parts, the first, ‘Putting Anzac in its place’ offers eight chapters arguing for the Anzac story to be reduced and thus given a proportionate place in Australian history, while the second, ‘Australian stories and silences’ proposes enlarging many other aspects of our history which are being neglected or sidelined – the environment, immigration, the economy, egalitarianism, a wider pool from which to draw heroes, women’s leadership, coming to terms with the concept of European invasion and settlement and its consequences for Indigenous inhabitants, the frontier wars, republicanism, and our role in wars as imperialist lackeys.

Let’s hear some of those ringing phrases (and sentences):

‘All historians select evidence. It is how they select it that matters, not the fact that they do.’

‘The study of history involves choosing not just evidence but also subject matter.’

‘… war is important in our history – not so much because of what Australians have done in war but because of what war has done to Australia.’

These are all from David Stephens and Alison Broinowski’s introduction and we’ve only reached page two. Reading on we are told:

Honest History believes the best way of coming to terms with Anzac – and of countering its extreme version, Anzackery [a term coined by historian Geoffrey Serle 50 years ago] – is to display the richness of our broad national tapestry, of which khaki is but one strand. 

To do otherwise is surely ‘a sign of arrested development’ as a nation. We have now reached page five.

Writing with an international perspective, Douglas Newton asks us not to think of our glorious dead but to ask, ‘For what precisely were Australian lives given up?’ – 46 000 of them on the Western Front. He reminds us that the Anzac centenary has narrowed our understanding of the fact that we were fighting an imperialist war, before closing his chapter with a chilling assessment: ‘The Great War should rattle our souls, not raise our national self-esteem.’

The international thread runs through several chapters and especially those by Mark McKenna and Alison Broinowski in the second part. In ‘King, Queen and Country: Will Anzac thwart republicanism?’ McKenna shows that whereas we originally engaged in battle as ‘the ultimate proof of the right to belong to a global British community’ now we do so for nationalist reasons. The trouble with our nationalism is that we have never grown up. According to Broinowski in ‘Australia’s tug of war: Militarism versus independence’, the independent strand has continually been trumped by the militarist. What is worrying about Anzackery is that to question it is regarded as disloyal.

Perceptions change, myths abound.

In ‘Adaptable Anzac: Past, present and future’ Carolyn Holbrook writes:

As tales of the Anzacs’ fighting capacity spread through the years of the war, so did stories about passive and ineffective Tommies ineptly led by pompous officers. Australian chests puffed out with pride; our men were natural soldiers, we told ourselves, slack on the parade ground but highly disciplined and effective under fire. They were different from Britons but not inferior. The Anzac legend thrived under the umbrella of British imperialism, but it was the story of Anzac distinctiveness and achievement.

This was the first myth and the first perception of the Anzac story, one which by the 1950s was fading, and by the time of Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year (1958) seemed outdated. Fresh perceptions, however, followed publication of Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years in 1974, and the growth of family history and the release of Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli offered interpretations that were emotional, intimate and sympathetic as well as enabling new audiences to understand the traumatic suffering experienced by men and women at the Front.

Both Holbrook and Frank Bongiorno in his chapter ‘A century of bi-partisan commemoration: Is Anzac politically inevitable?’ cover some similar ground. Billy Hughes is the first prime minister to exploit war for political purposes but it is interesting to discover that his successor, Stanley Bruce, a British Army captain at Gallipoli, where he was twice wounded, had (according to his biographer) ‘an abiding detestation’ of war. Holbrook dates Bob Hawke’s Gallipoli pilgrimage for the 75th anniversary as smoothing the way for Anzac history into the mainstream and prime ministers from both sides of politics have continued the push. While Paul Keating attempted in the ‘Australia Remembers’ campaign to reroute the Anzac legend to the Pacific war against Japan, John Howard emphasised the role of the First World War in the foundation of the Australian nation. As Bongiorno points out, since Howard, both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard maintained references to a ‘national soul’, but Tony Abbott added a religious dimension:

The Anzacs for him were no longer mere mortals. Like Christian saints, they had become exemplars of a personal holiness to which mortals could only aspire … the Anzacs ceased to be merely virtuous democratic everymen, as they were for Keating and even Howard: Abbott had taken both ‘them’ and ‘us’ out of secular ‘history’. And with a most peculiar turn of phrase – ‘Yes, they are us’ – Australians, dead and living, form into a single spiritual ‘body’, a nation reconsecrated as an Anzac Communion of Saints.

Have we passed the worst of Anzac excesses?

There are understandable overlaps in different chapters in this book but the various authors complement rather than repeat the work of others. Some relate to myths.

‘Myth is not the same as history: the discipline of history is about the search for and presentation of evidence. Myth on the other hand is about providing comfort.’ These words open David Stephens and Burçin Çakir’s astonishing chapter on the persistent referencing of words supposed to have been spoken by Kemal Atatürk some time in the 1930s that, despite being confirmed as only hearsay 15 years after his death, have proliferated in various versions since. The myth of ‘the Johnnies and the Mehmets lying side by side in this country of ours’ may be a comfort to those who lost family members at Gallipoli, and to the Australian and Turkish nations at large, but at heart it is, as the authors claim, nothing more than ‘a confidence trick’.

Myths and denial represent the core of several other chapters. For Mark Dapin, that Vietnam veterans were excluded from Anzac Day marches; for Rebecca Jones, that we ignore regular patterns of fire, droughts and floods when considering future planning and settlement; for Stuart McIntyre, the denial of boom and bust economic cycles and the failure of governments to take advantage of good times and ameliorate the hardships of depressions; for Carmen Lawrence, who sees the myth of the Fair Go blinding us to reality in a nation of greater inequality; for Peter Stanley, it is the previous egalitarian spirit emphasising the fortitude of ordinary soldiers being overthrown by an emphasis on celebrities, whether they be Victoria Cross winners or Sir John Monash as a general; for Larissa Berendt, it is the question of whether Australia was settled or invaded; and for Paul Daley it is facing up to the frequent bloody means by which our land was acquired through frontier wars with Aboriginal people.

A final point that sparked my interest is the disjunction between feting Charles Bean’s role in the Anzac story, while ignoring his views. In his chapter ‘The Australian War Memorial: Beyond Bean’ Michael Piggott argues that championing Bean as the founder of the AWM discounts both Bean’s own efforts to advance Brudenell White’s part in the memorial’s beginnings, and for units to control their own records. And Peter Stanley writes that ‘Bean’s admiration for the egalitarian, volunteer citizen force he documented, celebrated and mourned seems less accepted than it once was’.

Edited collections of essays by 20 authors usually contain obvious highlights and a few dull spots. The Honest History Book maintains a uniformly high quality of presentations from all the contributors.

Honest history, to quote Stephens and Broinowski in their conclusion, would like the place for Anzac to be retained in a ‘quieter and more reflective form’.

In a diverse society, there is a room for this sort of Anzac, but it needs to get beyond sentimental stories of Australian men in khaki fighting and dying heroically. It also needs to look at why wars occur, how Australia enters them, whether they are worth it, what happens at home while the soldiers are fighting and what happens afterwards.

Dishonest history is no history at all.

David Stephens and Alison Broinowski (eds) The Honest History Book New South 2017 PB 344pp $34.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is Adelaide Oval: A Photo-Document 2009.

You can buy The Honest History Book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.