Letters to Eureka Street

Devil in the detail

It was with a sense of resignation that I turned to page 42 of the last Eureka Street (July–August 2005) where, I had been informed, ‘Jeffrey Grey challenges some of Cameron Forbes’s conclusions in Hellfire: The Story of Australia, Japan and the Prisoners of War.’

I began to read. Immediately I saw a mortarboard peeping over the palisade. I glanced at the endnote. Ah yes, ‘Jeffrey Grey is a professor of history at University College, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.’ Another academic/historian was defending his turf, the tone set by his quoting of Peter Stanley’s question in a Eureka Street review of another journalist’s book: ‘Why are there so many long, bad war books written by journalists just at the minute?’

I have nothing against academics. Some of them are among my best friends. Indeed, I resisted pressure from Professor Solomon Rufus Davis to become one at Monash. I have no objection to academics writing books about anything and I hope they are reviewed on their merits. I am delighted, on the whole, with the way in which Hellfire has been reviewed (Stanley’s review of my book was indeed generous). But now, for the third time, a major portion of a review has been given over to whether journalists should write history books. This I regard as a waste of space.

Both Stanley and Grey then segue into two basic criticisms. One is that Hellfire ‘tells us nothing that we don’t already know’. The ‘we’ is the royal plural of the academic/historian. Grey says that what ‘we don’t already know’ can be found in the fairly extensive literature. I take his point. At the La Trobe library, for instance, where Hellfire will humbly nestle, there is a row or two of books, many of them admirable: Ray Parkin’s majestic trilogy, for instance, and Stan Arneil’s marvellous One Man’s War.

However, if ‘we’ want to garner what appears in Hellfire, ‘we’ will need to consult another 50 or so books, gather unpublished diaries, spend much time looking at primary sources in the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives, talk to more than a score of those incomparable primary sources, the survivors, and travel along both the railway trace in Thailand and further down the Burma trace than Europeans have been since 1946.

Similarly with the development of the Australia–Japan relationship and the making of the World War II Japanese soldier; apart from consulting published works still in print, ‘we’ will have to track down Stephen Bonsal’s Suitors and Supplicants: The Little Nations at Versailles, Kiyoshi Kawakami’s Japan and World Peace and Yoshihiko Futamatsu’s memoir Across the Three Pagodas Pass (a hint: that is in the Escritt collection in the Imperial War Memorial but a friend of mine in Thailand had a copy), and go to Japan to interview former Kempetai interpreter Takashi Nagase and engineer Renichi Sugano as well as very helpful academics. I could go on, but the point is that whether Hellfire is good or bad, there is not another book like it.

The thrust of the second criticism is that while it is within my compass to gather and use the stories of individuals, I should not stray onto strategic ground. Mea culpa. This is what I have done over decades as a journalist. I watch Palestinian kids throw stones at an Israeli armoured patrol on the Gaza strip during the first intifada and I write about the creation of modern Israel and the forces swirling round the Middle East; I go to Bougainville during that sad little war and I write about colonisation and decolonisation; I am sickened by the church in Rwanda filled with the slaughtered and I write about what the European powers did to Africa and whether there can be an African salvation.

Grey says an underlying theme of the book ‘seems’ to be that the fall of Singapore brought an end to British imperialism in the Far East and occasioned the strategic shift in Australia’s relations. This is much too simplistic, he says. I do quote Lee Kuan Yew, whom I interviewed in Singapore, saying to a school friend at about 8am on 31 January 1941, ‘That’s the end of the British Empire.’ Lee had heard the explosion that blew the Malaya–Singapore causeway behind the battered, retreating Allied troops. Lee does not really think the empire ended then. Nor do I. But it was the beginning of Lee’s remaking himself as a nationalist and it was the beginning of the end of the empire in the Far East.

As for the strategic shift, John Curtin certainly thought he was making a significant one in 1941. That’s what I was recording. Grey quotes Coral Bell saying that the relationship remained a triangular one between Australia, the United States and Britain for decades after the war. Perhaps. There were the sideshows of the Malayan Emergency and Konfrontasi, but I do notice that in 1950 Australia went to Korea in part to cement the alliance with America and that the next year ANZUS came into being. I don’t notice an ANZUK as Australia’s defence cornerstone. And what did Vietnam have to do with the Australia–Britain relationship?
Grey gets my assessment of Bennett’s generalship and the inquiries he faced plain wrong, saying I present the matter as a conflict between professional soldiers and Bennett, the citizen soldier. I did not. A major source for me was another citizen soldier, John Wyett, staff officer and closely involved with Bennett. (Wyett signed the order that officially sent the Australian troops into captivity.) Wyett was, I think, properly critical, even as, years later, he watched Bennett’s coffin borne away.

Grey helpfully points out the way Bennett antagonised regular officers, as if I hadn’t noticed. That is discussed on page 103 of Hellfire. Grey says that the fact Bennett behaved bravely and commanded admirably at lower levels in World War I tells us very little about his capability and performance at higher levels in a subsequent war. Perhaps Grey did not notice on page 98 my attempt at prophetic character assessment: ‘Young Bennett could make an outstanding leader of men under fire when daring action is required; he may not have the coolness and analytical skill required to plan strategy for and command large-group formations; he could be his own worst enemy.’

Still, Grey does say my work was ‘capably done’. I suppose that’s a C.        

Cameron Forbes

Constitutional shortcomings

While I agree with Andrew Hamilton’s conclusions (‘Poisonous Seeds’, Eureka Street, July–August 2005) about the self-interest engendered by economic globalisation and the souring of public life in Australia by the encouragement of narrow nationalism, I do not share his interpretation of the rejection of the European constitution, at least in France.

I was in France at the time of the referendum, and the campaign that preceded it, so I do not know how it was reported in Australia, but I suspect some of the subtleties may have been lost. To be sure, groups like Le Pen’s Front National campaigned for a ‘no’ vote for predictable reasons. However, the wider public debate, and the weight of opinion that finally carried the ‘no’ vote, was focused on the shortcomings of the constitution itself, particularly in the social area.

There was a widespread perception that it failed to protect hard-won rights, particularly for workers, and for women. Many who argued against the constitution were not opposed to the ideal of cultural and economic union in Europe; rather, they felt that the project had been derailed by economic liberalism and that to vote against the constitution was the last chance to force a reconsideration of the direction it was taking.

Jan Pinder
Carnegie, VIC

Patients and sensitivity

In the July–August issue, Professor Tim Usherwood wondered ‘how would a Muslim, a Jew or a committed atheist’ feel about a crucifix on the wall near his or her bed in a Catholic hospital.

Tim Usherwood’s consideration for others is most commendable. I cannot speak for Muslims or Jews, but I can certainly reply as a committed atheist for half a century.

If I were admitted to a Catholic hospital I would expect religious symbolism to appear somewhere: in the gardens or entrance lobby, or in the chapel and staff rooms. I would be mildly annoyed if a crucifix were placed above my bed, but I would not object if a crucifix or religious picture were placed by the bed of a Catholic patient who derived some comfort from this. The right to personal or corporate symbols is not the same as ‘in your face’ triumphalism, and good manners and tolerance are knowing the difference.

My annoyance would be far, far greater if I were subjected to carols, rock music, ‘background’ music and sports commentary, which only too often happens in secular settings like supermarkets and shopping malls. Jews and atheists (and probably Muslims) are occasionally asked, ‘What’s your Christian name?’ This rankles, but I normally bite my tongue to save embarrassing a (usually young) questioner who does not mean to offend.

Being a staunch atheist did not deter me, in the late 1970s, from giving blood regularly at a Catholic hospital. After all, the hospital was very near my workplace; the hospital staff were charming, and were interested in my blood group, not my philosophical opinions; and I was refreshed, after my donation, with a generous libation of stout. (Red Cross Blood Bank: please note!)

Professor Usherwood can sleep soundly at night. He knows when to draw upon his beliefs and when to be sensitive to those of others.

Nigel Sinnott
Sunshine West, VIC

Subjective reading

In stating that I have ‘failed to completely understand the subject of this book’ (Eureka Street, July–August), Joan Kimm is correct about one thing. It was her own reflective position as subject that I found, most significantly, was missing and that I could not understand. When we, as non-indigenous people, analyse and comment on the complex issue of violence within indigenous communities, I believe we also need to be critically aware of our own social and gendered position in that discussion.

It was this absence that I found most disappointing, and could not understand, not the seriousness or the critical challenges of the issues involved.

Dr Brian F. McCoy sj,
Parkville, VIC



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