Between 2006-2009, Rowan Cahill published a number of commentaries relating to the Anzac tradition, and to the Australian martial tradition generally, on the Leftwrites experiment in progressive group blogging. A selection of these commentaries follows; they represent views of the Australian martial experience at radical odds with mainstream Australian histories. The issues raised are still relevant, especially as the Australian government is currently spending its way through millions of dollars as it prepares to commemorate/celebrate the centenary of the Gallipoli landing (2015). Leftwrites is archived in the Pandora web archive of the National Library of Australia. Also included is an account of the author's experiences as a conscientious objector to conscription during the 1960s, first published as 'A Conscription Story, 1965-1969', in The Hummer, Vol. 2, No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 17-22.
Anzac Magic [posted 3 July 2006]
In an Anzac Day 2006 Opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sydney Institute's Gerard Henderson was enthusiastic about the popularity of Anzac Day amongst Australians, particularly the young who are unwilling to embrace the prevailing leftist critique that their relatives died in vain fighting other peoples wars.
According to Henderson, despite efforts post-1945 by leftists and other denigrators dishing out self-proclaimed expert opinion and intellectualised cynicism, Anzac Day has become a popular celebration and representation of Australian values. What is more, this growth and popularity of Anzac Day has evolved organically from the bottom up; it has grown out of the Australian people.
Martial Blindspot [posted 13 July 2006]
A Visit to the Dark Side [posted
22 July 2006]
Terror and profiteering:
military history began with colonisation. The European occupation of the
continent did not go unchallenged by the Aborigines. A state of war existed
from Governor Phillip’s time, right through the nineteenth century, as the
invaders met with Aboriginal resistance. Australia
The defenders strategically employed
guerilla-type warfare against the superior military might of industrial
. Because this resistance was effective, and the enemy elusive, a bloody and
vengeful military campaign was conducted in retaliation. There were punitive
raids on camps, and terror was officially used to bring about Aboriginal
submission. This protracted warfare resulted in the violent deaths of an
estimated 20,000 Aborigines and 2000 Europeans. Britain
For twenty years between 1790
preoccupied with conflict in Britain Europe. The
colonial outpost of was
turned over to a specially created infantry force, the NSW Corps. Recruited
from adventurists, opportunists and New South Wales ’s
military prisons, this outfit had a free hand. An officer clique used its
weapons monopoly to self-advantage. The small non-convict population was cowed
into submission, and the clique used thuggish corruption to generate huge
personal fortunes, especially in land deals. Britain
Before Federation in 1901,
thousands of Australian volunteers participated in three imperialist military
ventures: against the New Zealand Maori tribes (the Maori Wars, 1863-72); against
the Islamic rebellion in the
(1885-86); and against emerging Chinese nationalism during the Boxer Rebellion
(1900-01). In each case the involvement was presented in adventurous,
jingoistic terms, and the enemy portrayed as heathens devoid of human rights.
This was a recipe for callous and criminal military behaviour. The 2600
Australian volunteers in the Maori Wars, who helped the British army subdue the
Maori tribes defending their fertile tribal lands, were attracted across the
Tasman with the promise of land grants from captured enemy territory. Sudan
emergence as a nation was marked by the involvement of 16,175 troops in the
Boer War (1899-1902) in Australia , on behalf of British gold
interests. It was a brutal war in which the British used scorched earth tactics
and concentration camps to crush the resistance of the Boers, who were the
descendants of Dutch, German, and French immigrants. South
In 1902 four Australian
lieutenants were court-martialled, and two subsequently executed, by British
military authorities following several incidents in which Boer prisoners were
killed, and a German missionary murdered. The episode is mythologised in the
1980 film Breaker Morant. Arguably
the officers were frustrated by the Boers’ guerilla warfare and resorted to
“vigilante justice” in retaliation, in much the same way Australian soldiers
years later. Vietnam
Mutiny and VD: Twelve years later,
war again. The Great War (1914-18) realised the dream of those Federationist
polemicists who maintained that a nation should be born in the heat of battle
and blood sacrifice. Out of the blood-fests of the Western Front, and the
impossibilities of Gallipoli, the Anzac myth was crafted, telling of larrikin
heroes imbued with mateship and derring-do. Australia
Popular accounts of the war
conveniently ignore uncomfortable bits and pieces: like the racism of
Australian troops in the
Middle East as
they cleaned out the Turkish Empire to
make way for European petroleum and strategic interests. The locals were
referred to as “wogs”; the order to round up Bedouin tribesman, and execute
those who resisted in any way or who acted suspiciously, was enthusiastically
On the home front, in February 1916 the Liverpool Mutiny took place.
Protesting against their camp working conditions, thousands of uniformed troops
deserted their base on the outskirts of
commandeered trains, and took over Sydney for a
riotous day of rampage and looting. Civilian and military authorities quelled
the mutineers with rifle fire at Central Station. The alleged ring leader was
killed, others wounded, eight seriously, and many others placed under arrest. Sydney
Venereal disease was a major problem amongst Australian troops during World War I. In the four months before the 1915 Gallipoli landing, 2000 of the proposed landing force were incapacitated by, and 3% constantly sick from, venereal infection. Prior to leaving Egypt for Gallipoli, the troops went to the Cairo brothel area they believed was the source of infection and burned the brothels; some of the buildings were eight storeys high. Prostitutes were injured and their personal belongings destroyed in retribution. Overall more than 10% of Australia's World War I diggers contracted VD, one of the highest infection rates experienced by the warring nations.
After the end of World War 1, Australian troops fought
against the Red Army during 1919. They were part of the anti-Bolshevik North
Russian Relief Force. Australians won two Victoria Crosses in this bloody and
useless British initiative. The campaign aimed at advancing British interests
in the Baltic region and in
force was withdrawn after British capitalists decided it would be better to
develop trade links with the infant Soviet Russia. Persia
Some Australian ex-servicemen found a market for their skills post-war. They were conspicuous amongst those who joined the notoriously brutal, internationally reviled “Black and Tans”, the special British force used during the Irish struggle for independence in the early 1920s. This set an unacknowledged precedent, and ever since, Australian ex-service personnel have been conspicuous amongst the ranks of adventurist, mercenary outfits worldwide, including today’s Iraq in the richly rewarded private security industry. Ironically, for a time during the post-1960s conflict between the IRA and the British army, there were reports of Australian Army weaponry finding its way into IRA hands, something never publicly explained, but possibly pointing to an international black market weapons trade within the ranks of the Australia's armed forces.
Desertion and treason: And so to World War II. In
February 1942, Japanese aircraft attacked
the first time: eight ships were sunk, 243 people killed, and some 400 wounded.
Early warnings were either misinterpreted or ignored; the RAAF had no
operational aircraft in the area at the time. Australian troops defending the
town panicked and fled in significant numbers; looting took place. The shameful
episode was the subject of a Royal Commission. Darwin
When Japanese troops entered
1942, Australian troops, facing defeat and capture, resorted to riotous
behaviour. They looted, and fought for places on civilian evacuation craft.
When asked what should be done to stop this behaviour, their commander,
Major-General Bennett, said “Shoot them!” He then hightailed it out of Singapore with
two staff officers and escaped to Singapore . Two
courts of inquiry subsequently found his desertion “unwise”. Denied further
significant leadership roles, Bennett resigned from the army in 1944. Australia
the indigenous people were
pressed into service by Australian troops to carry war supplies across rugged
jungle terrain in the war against New
Nicknamed “fuzzy wuzzies”, the locals were driven relentlessly. Legendary war
photographer Damien Parer recorded that pneumonia and ruptured spleens were
common amongst the porters, and that reluctance and exhaustion were treated
with ruthless kicks to the ribs. The popular military version is that it was
all a matter of selfless and willing cooperation by the locals. Japan
Adolf Hitler put together the British Free Corps, a brigade recruited from
fascist-sympathising prisoners of war. It was mainly composed of troops from
, Canada , and South
Africa . The outfit
had its own distinct uniform, but saw little front-line action. After the war
some of its prominent members were executed or imprisoned for treason by Allied
involvement in the Vietnam War was drenched in racism. The nationalist enemy
was characterised as “noggies” and “slant eyes”. A 1968 survey of Australian,
British, and Australia press
reports of the war revealed that Australian troops shot wounded prisoners,
razed villages, and destroyed food stocks. Of the hundreds of prisoners
captured to 1967, only 27 could actually be accounted for. US
One Australian tactic was to turn prisoners over to either South Vietnamese or Korean allies. The Koreans had a reputation for barbaric treatment of Viet Cong prisoners; decapitation and genital mutilation were specialities. The commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Charlesworth, was quoted in 1967 saying, “The Koreans know just how to handle the Vietnamese … we are tolerant to a sometimes absurd extent. These people are Asians”. And he went on to explain how you don’t get respect using “kid-glove techniques”.
In 1968 the
Australian public was shocked to hear how modern-day Anzacs went about business
Australian officer was exposed as having used water torture against a female
prisoner. This tactic was a form of torture by drowning; information was
extracted by forcing water down a prisoner’s throat. Vietnam
As the Vietnam War dragged
involvement was increasingly questioned. The relationship between Australian
troops, many of them conscripts, and their officers and NCOs, became
increasingly tense. Cases of soldiers attempting to kill their superiors were
reported. It was not uncommon for those in command to add “please” to their
Training conscripts for duty in
not a kid-glove affair, either. Eventually the Australian press christened the
Puckapunyal training camp in Victoria, “Suicide Camp”, alleging bastardisation
of recruits led to young men attempting suicide; a number of successful
suicides occurred in the Kapooka Camp. Self-mutilation by cutting off the
trigger finger was also a reported tactic by desperate young men caught up in
an increasingly desperate system and war. Vietnam
Something Australian military spin doctors and Anzac Day enthusiasts never point out is that during the Vietnam War, at least 13% of Australian deaths in Vietnam resulted from accidents and illness unconnected with battle and from battle accidents, as Australians accidentally killed their own mates, or as American artillery and aircraft fire accidentally took Australian lives.
Great War, Good War [posted 20 September 2006]
Within the next decade Australians can expect a tsunami of books, journalism, television programmes, and political outpourings celebrating the event. With the emphasis on celebration. By then, everyone directly linked to the Great War will be well and truly dead, and direct memories of the obscene carnage and aftermath will rest with the transformative powers of mythmakers, and war historians who seem to operate a whisper away from political patronage.
In recent years the Australian population has been gently coached away from the anti-war legacies of the 1960s into the embrace of the martial spirit. The Howard government has played no small part in this, but it is a process that commenced in the 1970s, was nourished later by the Keating government, and is now an essential cultural part of the Howard government’s War Against Terror, and its policy of ‘failed state’ interventions.
Simply, if Australians generally are expected to bankroll huge military expenditures and tolerate the immense social and community costs, to support ever growing expensive and risky military ventures, and perhaps even support conscription further down the track, then they have to be softened up to view war, military service, and the martial spirit as integral, vital, normal parts of Australian life.
The tsunami, when it comes, will probably reflect the revisionism currently shaping the writing of WW1 history in
In a recent Quarterly Essay (Issue 21, 2006) discussion of the Australian military tradition, John Birmingham stated that “a German victory in the Great War would have seen a very different, and much darker, history of the last century”. An interesting “What If?’ More interesting though is the question ‘What if WW1 never occurred?’, one which martial enthusiasts and future war-makers seldom raise or ponder.
As Faulkner explains, the German ‘rogue state’ idea dovetails with an idea gaining currency in rightist scholarship about Empires, that there are ‘good’ (progressive) empires and ‘bad’ empires, the former characterised by “parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, liberal policies, and a desire to enlighten and improve”, the latter having autocratic, repressive, ruthless governments and “no mission to advance the interests of their subjects”. All of which dovetails with, and neatly helps endorse, the contemporary Bush mission to the world. As John Pilger, for one, pointed out in 2002, while the word imperialism has tended to drop from Western intellectual discourse, conservatives and liberals alike have embraced its euphemism, ‘civilisation’.
Rowan Cahill, "A Conscription Story, 1965-1969", first published in The Hummer, Vol. 2, No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 17-22.
A. I am opposed to War. Wars exist because Man wants them to. They exist because mankind in general has made no serious attempt to study the causes of War and the reasons why people are willing to kill each other. I believe that the glorification of war, the worship of things military as is apparent in Society, is obscene.Wars exist because people are willing to fight them. Wars are based on ignorance cultivated by jingoism; respect for, and reverence of, things military; fears and hatreds – conveyed from generation to generation through educational and cultural institutions, the mass media, and by governments.B. I am opposed to any intervention by the West in Vietnam. I believe that the military intervention of America in Vietnam is unwarranted. I will not aid any military machine which helps perpetuate this intervention or supports the imperialist policy of American capitalism, be it in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.America’s presence in Vietnam is due to that nation’s policy of imperialism, one that has its roots in American history. As a socialist I am opposed to this policy and pledge solidarity with all peoples, wherever they are, who are resisting and opposing it.The Vietnam war is essentially racist in nature. I will not aid nor encourage this racism by participating in it or aiding it in any way.The action of the allies in Vietnam, the decimation of the people and the land, represents a crime against humanity. I will not be party to this crime. If the West once had something to offer the Vietnamese people, it no longer has.The militarist role of Australia in Asia, the non-independent perusal of foreign policy, is ultimately to the detriment of the Australian people. I believe in living with Asia and this means understanding the people, their cultures and histories. This does not entail militarist adventures.I believe that the role of the intellectual is to destroy false rhetorics. American imperialism has been justified in the eyes of the Australian people by lies, half truths, distortions, and occasionally truths. I aim to help destroy these false rhetorics in any way I can.The idea of Democracy being opposed by Communism, of a Free World versus a Communist Conspiracy, is a fabric of distortions and, I believe, a deliberate misrepresentation of history. Much of the rhetoric advancing this world view emanates from Washington. I will have no part of it, nor aid in its perpetuation by participating in military systems cultivating this outlook.
Rather than languish in prison a young man may decide to enter the armed forces and continue to fight for his principles there.The Committee for the Rights of Servicemen has been set up to assist members of the armed forces to know and assert their rights under military law, their civil liberties, and their rights as objectors to war in general or particular wars.6Assistance will be given in various ways – for example advice on military law, a writing service to appropriate authorities, and legal representation.
- For an explanation of how conscription worked, and ballot statistics see Ann Mari Jordens, ‘Conscription and Dissent: The Genesis of Anti-War Protest’ in Gregory Pemberton (ed) Vietnam Remembered, Sydney, 1990, pp.67-72.
- Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862); wrote the libertarian classic 0n the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849); went to jail for a night in protest against the American war against Mexico.
- A detailed account of this initial hearing was published in Honi Soit, 25 March 1969, pp.8 & 10.
- Statistics drawn from Alan D. Gilbert and Ann Mari Jordens, ‘Traditions of Dissent’ in M. McKernan and M. Browne (eds) Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace, Canberra, 1988, p.364; Ann Mari Jordens, ‘Conscription and Dissent’, lac. cit., pp. 67-70.
- For the aims and composition of the Committee on Conscience see Honi Soit, 10 September 1968, p.4.
- Copy of press release in author’s possession.
- Rowan Cahill, ‘Dissatisfaction in the US Army’, Broadside, 10 July 1969, pp.6-7.
University of Wollongong,