Devil in the detail

‘Why are there so many long, bad war books written by journalists just at the minute?’ The question was raised first in Eureka Street by Peter Stanley in March 2005. Big, journalistic treatments of Gallipoli, numerously of Kokoda, and here of the POW experience in the Pacific theatre, from mainstream commercial publishers, have graced the bestseller lists and the front-window display cases over the last two or three years. Big books, big marketing budgets, big sales. Academic sour grapes aside, it’s probably not as simple as that, and never is.

Big books on popular themes by well-known journalists are nothing new, and neither is the ‘journalist as [good] historian’. C.E.W. Bean and Gavin Long had significant careers as journalists before they became official historians of Australia’s war effort between 1914–18 and 1939–45. More recently, Max Hastings in Britain and Tom Ricks and Rick Atkinson in the United States have shown that the marriage of accomplished journalism, careful research and sound historical sense produces good, serious books able to reach a wide, interested readership. That isn’t really the issue at the heart of my friend’s question, either.

Commercial publishers recognise two things: that there is a large audience out there keen to read (and pay money for) books that retell the Homeric aspects of our military history; and that academic historians are probably the last people willing, or able, to write them. This second proposition isn’t strictly true, of course. There are historians out there with a gift for clear, concise prose who can make the transition from seminar room to living room in the way they deal with issues and ideas, just as there are plenty of journalists with a cloth ear for language and a tabloid sense of history. But the way in which many historians have written more and more about less and less, and in a less and less interesting manner, here as elsewhere, has left the return of the big, popular synoptic history to the journalists, the popularisers, and the occasional academic ‘stars’ like Simon Schama or Niall Ferguson.

Does this matter? Probably not, so long as we understand what we are dealing with when we consider books like Cameron Forbes’s Hellfire. He tells us that his purpose is ‘to tell through individuals the story of the prisoners’ war, Australia’s relationship with Japan and its strategic shift’. He has read the secondary literature carefully, done some useful work in the archival collections, and talked to a range of former prisoners, their families, and others in order to elicit the personal stories through which he frames the book. It is capably done, but frankly tells us nothing we do not know already, or that cannot be found in the fairly extensive literature on the prisoners of the Japanese already in existence.

His judgments and conclusions on bigger issues are less sure, more open to question. 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, already cited. This is much too simplistic.

It is certainly true that the prewar style of British colonial rule was ended by the Japanese victory in 1942, and that the nature of colonial rule changed irrevocably thereafter. But Britain remained the most significant military and economic power in the Malay region until London finally chose to withdraw in the early 1970s (having mooted the possibility since the late 1950s). As Coral Bell argued nearly 20 years ago, Australia’s strategic relationship in the decades after World War II is a triangular one, focused on both London and Washington, rather than a bilateral one emphasising one over the other, and her insight helps make much more sense of Australian policy and military experience in the region in the following quarter-century.

Forbes’s treatment of the controversial commander of the 8th Division, Henry Gordon Bennett, is likewise open to challenge. The sequence of events that led to two inquiries finding against him in the matter of his desertion of his command and escape from Singapore is presented as a conflict between professional soldiers in Australia and Britain and the amateur citizen-soldier Bennett. There was certainly an element of that, and Bennett had gone out of his way before the war to antagonise regular officers in public and the press. But there were citizen-officers equally dismayed by his behaviour and critical of his performance, and the fact that he had behaved bravely and commanded ably at lower levels in World War I tells us very little about his capability and performance at higher levels in a subsequent war.

Hellfire deals with the details of often-horrific human experience well. These are stories worth retelling in each generation, and this book can be read for what it tells us about them.  

Hellfire: The Story of Australia, Japan and the Prisoners of War, Cameron Forbes. Pan Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 1 405 03650 8, RRP $45

Jeffrey Grey is a professor of history at University College, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.



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