April 2014

Arts & Letters

James Brown’s ‘Anzac’s Long Shadow’

By Judith Brett
Redback; $19.99

This is the most interesting and original book I have read on contemporary Australian public policy for a long time. Its author is a former member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), writing from the other side of the chasm that separates today’s military personnel from the society they serve. James Brown was an army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a military fellow with the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Had Brown still been in the ADF, his book would have been subject to lengthy processes of formal review and clearance that discourage all but the most persistent from writing. The novelty of Brown’s arguments and examples is evidence for the case he is making, so rarely do we hear what our professional soldiers think about what they do.

For, although the marketplace is flooded with books about Australians who served in the two world wars and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam, there is very little published material on Australia’s recent military engagements. There is no official history of Australia’s role in the conflicts in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq or Afghanistan, and almost no unofficial history. And while a fascination with the wars of the past is put to all sorts of political, cultural and commercial uses, those Australians who fight the wars of the present are on the margins of public interest, only visible when they return in flag-draped coffins to increasingly elaborate state commemorations.

Brown argues there is a profound ignorance among Australians about the nature of contemporary warfare, a general indifference towards our current military engagements, and no interest in serious discussion of the nature and justification of war. When he tells a well-known journalist he was a cavalry officer, the journalist wants to talk about horses. For Australians, war is first and foremost history, seen through the myth of Anzac and grainy black-and-white photos of diggers in slouch hats. Many, especially politicians, want a slice of this history. According to Brown, Australia’s efforts to commemorate World War One will cost more than three times as much as those of the UK.

Brown is engaging and persuasive on the impact that our national obsession with Anzac has on Australia’s defence forces and operations: the way contemporary military personnel can feel they have not lived up to the legend, the army’s focus on egalitarianism and tactics at the expense of officers and strategy, the need for reform of Australian veterans’ charities such as the RSL, the paucity of public critical debate about everything to do with defence, and the slowness of the ADF to admit to and learn from its mistakes. One would have thought there was nothing more to be said about Anzac; this book proves that wrong.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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