“Honest History”

Peter Maywald

While Australia’s mass media continue to promulgate unsubstantiated myths about the nation’s military past and its supposedly glorious heritage, in the background there are increasingly fervent debates about the very core of our values and the factual (or otherwise) basis of some of the beliefs we hold dear. Two of those currently causing ripples surround the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and the influence of militarism on our national psyche.

In part, these arise from a deliberate attempt to portray the War Memorial as the “soul of the nation”, in the words of its current director. The institution paints itself as the definitive museum and interpretive centre of the nation at war, including the crucible of wartime activities which indelibly shaped our collective values and culture. But is that a reasonable or accurate description? Some recent work by eminent historians suggests that it is not.

For a start, the AWM has almost no displays or historical records relating to the nation’s longest war – the century-long frontier battle between white colonists and the continent’s Indigenous peoples.

A recent book by historian Henry Reynolds (Reynolds, 2013) explores the dark history of Australia’s Frontier Wars and finds that Australian history is in denial. In reviewing that book, James Rose (Rose, 2013) reflected on a fishing trip to Lake Wyeba, close to a sign reading “Murdering Creek Road.” Rose recounts that “…local lore has it that the name refers to an ambush and massacre in the 1860s of a fatally curious indigenous fishing party by eight white settlers, who shot the group in premeditated cold blood. No-one seems to know what happened after that, but what is clear is that the name is an anomaly, an example of how common culture occasionally supplants the national agenda.”

Henry Reynolds makes clear in Forgotten Wars that the accepted version of colonial history is not about to throw a spotlight on the Murdering Creeks of this world. Rose continues: “the Frontier Wars, the conflict between white settlers and indigenous fighters that occurred mainly pre-Federation, are not part of the national psyche. If they’re memorialised at all, it’s in the sort of bizarrely insensitive names given to the symbols of the banal vanity of the victorious; another road name, a lookout, a tourist attraction, a hill on a farm.”

The importance of Reynolds’ history is the fact that it seeks to rewrite our very foundations as a nation. The visions of Arcadia in the antipodes, inhabited by noble savages keen to yield to the better brains and brawn of the invaders from across the sea, has held this country in its thrall for 200 years or more. Previous attempts to examine it more closely – such as the “culture wars” of the 1990s – have drawn dismissive responses from political leaders, epitomised by former Prime Minister John Howard’s spin on it, as a “black armband view of history”.

As election winners, Howard and his ilk were allowed the gift of writing a form of history they liked. Stability and intellectual dullness discourage diversions from the mainstream approach to history and so the extraordinary story of black versus white warfare, upon which, Reynolds argues, Australia has been founded, has remained, largely, “…a fish that’s never caught on the fishing lines of conventional history”. (Reynolds, 2013)

The Reynolds book details some dark days in the history of Australia, involving warfare, murder, genocide and terrorism. These are at stark odds with the John Howard version or the traditional school history book account of our nation’s foundations. The facts are mostly agreed between serious scholars, but their interpretation causes much debate. Reynolds is clear about his position: “If there was no war, then thousands of Aborigines were murdered in a century-long, continent-wide crime wave tolerated by government. There seems to be no other option. It must be one or the other.” (Reynolds, 2013)

In the frontier wars, at least 30,000 Aboriginals were killed, along with several thousand white settlers. Reynolds says that this was about the economic possession of the country, through unlocking the land for settlers, pastoralists and investors. The Aborigines were simply an obstacle that had to be removed, and if they couldn’t or wouldn’t allow themselves to be shifted, then they had to be eliminated.

Rose says that: “Reynolds uses the facts of the ‘forgotten war’ to launch into a critique of the modern obsession with war. He notes there are up to 5,000 memorials around Australia to remember combatants who did not return from conflicts overseas. But there are just a handful to recall the Frontier Wars.” (Rose, 2013)

The AWM does not regard the Frontier Wars as “wars involving the nation” and so has no exhibits or resource materials relating to Australia’s longest war, which was also very costly in human terms. Reynolds says that this approach skews our thinking even today and allows various falsehoods and untruths to permeate our national historic culture.

Reynolds is one of a group of eminent historians who also questions the myth that Gallipoli saw the birth of our nation.

In 2013, academics Paul Daley, Clare Wright, Marilyn Lake, Mark McKenna and David Stephens established a website and email newsletter entitled Honest History (Daley, et al., n.d.), in an attempt to set the record straight. They were particularly galvanised by the approach of the centenary years of the World War 1 of 1914-19. President Professor Peter Stanley explains in the newsletter that Honest History is “a recently formed loose coalition of diverse views, including historians and others, all concerned that the Anzac centenary is getting out of hand (even before it's begun). We worry that over the period 2014-19 Australians will be exposed to bellicose claptrap – to history that is essentially dishonest.” (Daley, et al., 2013)

Stanley wonders why Gallipoli seems to obsess us: “Some might contend that it is important because the Australian nation was 'born' on Gallipoli. I frankly don't think that is true. I cannot see how that actually occurred; it's too mystical an explanation. If it was believed by the generation that fought the war, then I think we need to regard it as an artefact of that period, along with the idea of a White Australia or the idea that Australia was part of the British Empire. That Australia, the Australia of 1915, believed all three ideas. Our Australia has shrugged off two of them, but one of those beliefs persists.” (Daley, et al., 2013)

It remains a puzzle that we treat a comprehensive military defeat, in a battle against an enemy with which we had no quarrel, as the critical event in the formation of our national values. Australia lurched into a doomed campaign between the British and Ottoman Empires as pawns of our colonial masters, suffering the ultimate humiliation of utter defeat and unconditional withdrawal.

Can this series of events really explain our national character? Or has Anzac Day become symbolic of militaristic nationalist jingoism, egged on by conservative political leaders with reactionary agendas and timid Labor politicians who have lost sight of the internationalist goals of the labour movement?

Those behind Honest History have no doubt that as a nation we have been sold a dud version of the nation’s heritage for base political reasons. It will be interesting to see whether their voices will be heard during the barrage of military events, flowery rhetoric and exhortations to uphold the questionable “values of the Anzacs” in the 2015 celebrations of past, failed, genocidal wars.