Title: Zombie Myths of Australian Military History
Author: Craig Stockings (editor)
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: University of New South Wales Press (2010)
A fascinating look at the difference between received ideas and facts. It covers ten major historical myths across 200 years from the original settlement of the country by Europeans to our recent involvements in Southeast Asia and East Timor. It strives to show the reasons or circumstances which created and have sustained each zombie myth until it gained a life of it own and needs no more prompting. In many cases, the purpose for which the myth was created had to do with legal or propaganda value at the time.
Without giving too much away, here’s some highlights to whet your appetites:
The first chapter debunks the idea that there was no organised or violent resistance to colonisation from the indigenous peoples. There was. According to these accounts from the early days of Sydney, they were quite effective at instigating such a campaign of terror and resistance that significant military resources were devoted to ‘the problem.’ The issue for the government was that in admitting they were fighting a war, they admitted that the Aboriginal people held sovereignty over their land – denying the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ which allowed for colonisation in the first place.
The conversion of Breaker Morant from a criminal who murdered his prisoners in the Boer War to a hero and Australian legend paralleling Ned Kelly is largely the result of the actions of one disgruntled ex-Digger.
Several popular stories about World War One and Two are discussed including the the campaigns in Gallipoli and the Hindenberg Line, the sinking of the Sydney and Australian success in the Western Desert.
One of the best chapters looks at the propaganda campaign centring the imminent invasion of the country by Japan in 1942-3. Put simply, it was a fear campaign to galvanise the country into action and into a war economy. Japan had no plans to invade and the Australian (and US) governments knew this from about May 1942. This chapter is perhaps the best in the book and draws extensively on the Australian parliamentary record and captured Japanese documents to make its case. It details an amazing story from the initial fear of invasion through the intelligence and evidence collection operations until the realisation that the fear was unfounded and subsequent propaganda campaign.
The post world war chapters are fascinating and are bound to be controversial as they track our involvement in Southeast Asia in Vietnam and more recently in East Timor. Among the points of note are that as a country we fight wars for our own ends and to satisfy the demands of internal politics rather than being pushed into them by any perceived duty to external powers, that Vietnam was a war no different to any others we’ve fought and that our returning soldiers were treated no differently to those of previous wars.
Only in one chapter did I catch the faint sound of an axe grinding in the background and that did little to spoil my enjoyment of the book as a whole. This is a fascinating and well-research work which should be on the bookshelf of everyone with an interest in Australian history. (All citizens of this wide brown land, I’m looking at you.)