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Searching for the truth about a wartime massacre

  • 15 March 2024

Back to Bangka: searching for the truth about a wartime massacre,

–Georgina Banks, Penguin 2023

‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.’  – George Orwell, 1984 ‘Rigorous pursuit of the truth, without regard to criticism, has never been more essential.’ – Elon Musk, X post, 22 Feb 2024 ‘What is truth?’ – Pontius Pilate  I’ve been down a rabbit hole lately: a dark, labyrinthine warren with few restful cul-de-sacs. It all began some time before I read Georgina Banks’ book, but after I reviewed another book last year about the same subject, the journey began in earnest. Going through stored tubs of my own family memorabilia and mulling whether to subscribe to Ancestry.com – these were only a couple of the tunnels that opened before me while I was reading Back to Bangka and kept me up in the not-so-small hours night after night. Context is vital, so bear with me.

In February 1942, the ship Vyner Brook left Singapore, carrying wounded Allied soldiers and nurses. It was bombed by Japanese forces and sank. Those who survived the sinking landed on Bangka Island, off Sumatra. Most of these were killed when they surrendered, including a group of Australian nurses who were gunned down on the beach. A few managed to make their way through jungle to a POW camp.

Two books about Bangka came out last year. One is notable for massive omissions, whereas the other is about as reliable as you can get. Do we need a standard that says: record as carefully and unbiasedly as you can and allow people to form their own conclusions, make up their own minds? Should we add ‘fully’ to that list? If so, what do we include and what can be left out? If we leave something out, are we guilty of censorship? And if we are, then is that censorship a) necessary; b) enforced; or c) unnecessary? If unnecessary then why censor? And then how do we distil and discern the competing necessities of historical truth-telling with artistic/creative freedom and the possibilities of offence? If our truth-telling offends someone else, what is our justification for so doing?

I reviewed Sisters under the Rising Sun, by New Zealand author Heather Morris last year for The Age. It was the kind of book where you end up wondering what was the point of writing it at all. The sufferings of women