Reynolds, Henry: Forgotten War

Henry Reynolds

Forgotten War, New South, Sydney, 2013

The book (winner of the Victorian Premier’s award for non-fiction) chronicles in relentless detail the frontier war between settlers and Indigenous Australians, which saw upwards of 30 000 Aborigines and at least 3000 whites killed. It also notes the reluctance by the Australian War Memorial to treat the Indigenous dead in the same way as it treats Anglo-Celtic dead from even the most insignificant foreign adventures, such as the New South Wales contingent to the Sudan in 1885.

‘We will know that we are all members of the same nation’, the author says, ‘when a shrine in memory of the fallen warriors is placed side by side with the tomb of the unknown soldier’. (p. 237) The book contrasts the revived interest in Anzac with the relative ignorance about conflict between whites and Indigenous Australians. About the Anzac centenary, Reynolds says:

Since 1994 there has been a continuous program to commemorate the men and women who have served in Australia’s overseas wars from 1885 to the present. It will certainly continue and then be swept up into what will be an even more overwhelming carnival of commemoration to mark in 2015 the centenary of the landing on Gallipoli. This extraordinary flowering of military history has taken many older Australians by surprise because it is unprecedented. The generation that grew up between the 1950s and the 1980s has no experience to compare with the relentless, lavishly funded public campaign to make war the central, defining experience of national life. Whether by design or chance, the campaigns inevitably elbow aside all other competing interpretations of our history. Bravery on the battlefield outshines all the achievements of civil society. The soldier, not the statesman, has become the paragon of national achievement. (p. 4)

Reynolds notes that the growth in interest in Anzac occurred at the same time as significant events in indigenous history, notably the Mabo judgement and the ‘stolen generations’ report. Reviews of Forgotten War are here and here and here and here and extracts are here. The author talks about the issues here and here and here.

Reynolds also makes a general point about war in Australian history. Australia was at war for much of the twentieth century but the wars were overseas and the strategic decisions regarding them were made in London or Washington and the legal and moral justifications were developed there also. This has

allowed Australia to avoid the moral and political responsibility for failed or unpopular wars. As a result, Australian war history has concentrated on the battlefield rather than the chancelleries, on tactics rather than strategy, and on the performance of our troops. It is usually war devoid of politics. (pp. 249-50)

This has allowed us to avoid the questions of whether the wars achieved anything ‘beyond the battlefield’ and whether the sacrifice was worth it.

It allows Australia to treat war as an essentially apolitical test of character, an arena for the display of mateship, courage and endurance. And for that reason war can be considered as purer and more virtuous and beyond the reach of political calculation. The consequent sacrifice of life has continually obstructed any clear-eyed assessment of whether the constant engagement in war has been worthwhile. Once life has been lost, death itself sanctions the cause and places it beyond question. Few have dared suggest the deaths were pointless and unnecessary. (p. 250)

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