Watson, Joey & Ian Coombe: Four Australian military legends that are more myth than fact

Joey Watson & Ian Coombe

Four Australian military legends that are more myth than fact‘, ABC News, 14 December 2019

Features the current ABC RN series, ‘Myths of war‘, presented by Mark Dapin, author of, most recently, Australia’s Vietnam: Myths vs History. He also had a chapter in The Honest History Book (2017); the chapter was entitled ‘We too were Anzacs: Were Vietnam veterans ever truly excluded from the Anzac tradition?’ (He says they weren’t.)

Dapin’s first two broadcasts covered the myth of the ‘white feather’ in World War I and myths of Gallipoli, including the famous words, attributed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (‘Those heroes that shed their blood …’), which there is no firm evidence that he ever said or wrote. (More on Atatürk.) The third episode, coming up on 15 December and podcast, is about John Monash and how he did not win World War I.

The Watson-Coombe article foreshadows episodes on Changi, the Thai-Burma Railway, the Battle for Australia, and Vietnam. Much of the myth-busting will be familiar to specialist historians and people who read reputable history books and articles, but may come as a shock to those who believe the stories passed down to them, by families and officially.

Why do we often get it so wrong, then? ‘I think we tend to discard complicated and inconvenient truths and replace them with simplistic and comforting — sometimes allegorical — stories’, Dapin says. ‘Memory, media and muddled thinking all play a part in producing a picture of the past that would have been unrecognisable to the people who actually lived through it’, write Watson and Coombe.

Dapin calls upon historians like Joan Beaumont, Lachlan Grant, Bob Hall, Chris Roberts, Peter Stanley, and Alistair Thomson, as well as referring to his own work. Peter Stanley, former President of the Honest History coalition, and Research Professor at UNSW Canberra, has the last word, in this article at least:

All history is contemporary history — the past serves the present, and at a time of war, and Australia has been at war for nearly 20 years, the past is conscripted to serve … Myths provide comfort and justification … fostered and embraced by those who seek not truth, but reassurance, even if it is based on falsehood or exaggeration. Familiar, comforting stories are more welcome than headlines with no victory in sight.

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