While not disagreeing that respect should be paid to those who have served in the Australian Defence Forces, especially those who died, and while not applauding the cheerleaders of the extreme Left either, I do worry about some of the points made today by Gerard Henderson in Due respect at last – from most.
…As Remembrance Day approaches, it is appropriate to recall that the fallen have not always been so honoured. For years, many academics and commentators have maintained that Australians fought in other people’s wars – which covered every commitment from World War I [1914-18] to the first Gulf war (1990-91), with the exception of the Pacific war against Japan in the early 1940s.
This fashionable leftist view – which reached its zenith with the release of the film Gallipoli (director: Peter Weir; screenplay: David Williamson; historical adviser: Bill Gammage) in 1981 – essentially maintained that Australia’s fallen had died in vain…
My uncle, Driver Alan Dargavel, died 90 years ago tomorrow on the Western Front during the final stages of the Third Battle of Ypres. This was not a stunning military success, although, as Australia’s official war historian C.E.W. Bean pointed out, it did have a deleterious effect on the German army.
Uncle Alan’s death had a devastating impact on my mother’s family and I learnt of him at an early age. I still think often about Alan Dargavel and I visited his grave at Dickiebusch in Belgium during my first visit to Europe.
My family did not want to be told by tenured academics that he died in vain. Yet this was the view that emanated from universities around the 1960s until relatively recent times. In The Anzacs (Viking, 2007) Dr Peter Pedersen, who has served in the Australian Defence Force, makes a compelling case that “Germany’s defeat was vital for Australia’s future” and that the members of the Australian Imperial Force “were fully aware of that”. As were their family members and loved ones on the home front.
The myth that “they died in vain” prevailed in relation to World War I. It was soon dropped as a description of the early years of World War II because it was not in the left’s interest to remind others that it had opposed the war effort when Britain and the Commonwealth nations stood alone against Nazism.
In his A Concise History of Australia (CUP, 1999), Stuart Macintyre makes no mention of the Hitler-Stalin pact or its domestic impact.
Likewise Macintyre makes no specific reference to the early wartime alliance between Nazism and communism in the introduction of his bibliography Communism in Australia, written with Andrew Wells. But he does mention that the Communist Party joined the “anti-fascist struggle” after “the Soviet Union entered World War II as an ally of Britain and Australia”. By then the extreme left had dropped its claim that Australian military personnel were murderers. This was not repeated. However, some members of the left continued to barrack for communist forces that were engaging Australians in battle…
My family did not want to be told by tenured academics that he died in vain. Think about the implications of that. Is it the task of the historian to tell us what we want to hear, to devote themselves to making us feel good? I would not have thought so. As for Gallipoli, which is after all a movie not a work of history, I would have though that in the end it has done more than academic historians of either the right or the left — or neither — to keep alive the Anzac legend. But it is no more strictly true than The Man from Snowy River is.
There has been a tendency in Australia to put a somewhat Nordic spin on those who fall in battle, however; I can recall Cam Williamson, himself a veteran, Presbyterian minister in Sutherland in the 1950s and early 60s, saying that one thing that worried him about Anzac services is that some seemed to believe in Valhalla. I know what he meant. Somewhere between cynicism and apotheosis a proper attitude of respect may be found.
See also Late Anzac Day thoughts.