A tyranny of memory?

It’s not often history grabs more than a small slice of the public attention, but this week it did. The incident said something interesting about the relationship between the state and the past.

Military historian David Horner this week revisited the meaning for Australia of the Kokoda campaign. By way of background, what can be said uncontroversially is that in the second half of 1942 Australian and Japanese troops fought a series of engagements on the Kokoda Track (or Trail) in New Guinea. It can also be said uncontroversially that public memory (that is, that of the public generally) holds that this represented Australia holding off an inevitable Japanese invasion, while the preponderance of professional historians consider that there was no Japanese plan for an invasion at that time and that Japanese consideration of an invasion represented little more than thought balloons.

What has been revealing about this latest face-off between these world views is the relationship between the lay public and this particular aspect of the past.

I think it can fairly be said that the reaction from the public, or (which is not quite the same thing) the reaction from the sections of the press which love to help the public feel outraged, was resentment. The Herald Sun’s editorial made little effort to engage with the historyical question, merely saying grudgingly that

Military historian Professor David Horner has every right to opine that Australia has developed a tendency to exaggerate the significance of our country’s military campaigns, including the Kokoda battle.

It’s his belief, and freedom of speech was among the democratic values more than 100,000 Diggers have given their lives to protect.

Mr Derryn Hinch, on radio station 3AW responded with contempt

I guess I should assume that the Japanese bombers who hit Darwin were really lost and their real target was Argentina. That the mini-sub found in Sydney Harbour was a misguided tourist. That the Battle of the Coral Sea was really an America’s Cup event. And that currency found in Japan to be used in Australia post-invasion was really Monopoly money for post-war entertainment. …

At the weekend some proud World War II veterans – 90 years old and older – were in Egypt commemorating their brave mates who died in the desert in the Battle of El Alamein 70 years ago.

Don’t tell the professor. He probably thinks they were playing in a sand pit

The lay public’s own reaction was even less restrained. In the Herald Sun’s letters page on 23 October 2012 one writer said that “[t]o revise history now and claim there was no danger of an invasion … is an insult to the memory of those Diggers whose courageous gallantry maintained the freedom we enjoy today”. Another asked “How dare anyone undermine or underestimate (sic) those of our Australian defence (sic) who were serving Australia at Kokoda”

Writers with the benefit of online anonymity were even more vitriolic. On 3AW’s website one writer described Horner as a revisionist, a term usually reserved for the likes of the Holocaust-denying David Irving. On Sydney’s radio station 2UE, “Peter” said –

Yet again history being re-written by some dumb arsed propeller head hoping that the reaction will boast sales and try to legitimatise his misguided take on history! God save us from the PC loony left!

And “Fuji” said

On 19 February 1942 Darwin itself was bombed. Japanese fighters and bombers attacked the port and shipping in the harbour twice during the day, killing 252 Allied service personnel and civilians!! Evidently the $$$Professor David Horner is obviously talking through his dumb arse.

The fundamental problem is of course that Professor Horner’s assessment is based on the documentary record, and the public response is based, in essence, on the invasion story as something akin to an article of faith.

The more interesting light is thrown by the public reaction as a foundational form of a more troubling current phenomenon: the use of the machinery of the state to create a definitive history, where historical argument alone may not be able to stand on its own. One can see this trend in the attempts to secure a pardon for the Australian war criminal Harry Morant. One can also see it in the review by the Supreme Court of Victoria of the trial of Colin Ross, convicted in 1922 of the murder of a child, long after the trial and appellate judges, witnesses and legal representatives were unable to speak for themselves.

The creation of “endorsed” histories, it seems to me, treat the documentary record, and any differing analysis to be extracted from it, as something to be pushed down a memory hole. For this reason, reading the responses to Horner’s theories, I wondered if some aspiring politician may feel that there was mileage in pressing for, as Prime Minister Keating perhaps began to do, an “endorsed history” of the events of 1942. At which point, I had the uncomfortable sensation of hearing voices insist: “Oceania is at war with Eastasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia”.