Sunday, 9 October 2011

Book Review: Australia's Pacific War

Imperialist War in the Pacific
From LSHG Newsletter # 43, (Autumn 2011).

Tom O’Lincoln

Australia’s Pacific War: Challenging a National Myth
Interventions Publishers
ISBN 978-0646-55353-5
Available from Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE
020 7637 1848 enquiries@bookmarks.uk.com

The Second World War is still contested ground. As O’Lincoln points out in his introduction, it is constantly mobilised to justify new conflicts, as with the illiterate description of Saddam Hussein as a “new Hitler” – something socialist historians should be quick to challenge. So it is always good to welcome works like this one which tell the real story of that much mythologised war.

In global terms the Australian part in World War II was small, and will be relatively unknown to British readers. But for O’Lincoln, a longstanding veteran of the Australian left, the main enemy is at home, and his concern in this short book is to tell the story of Australian imperialism, whose pursuit of its interests in the Pacific region brought it into direct conflict with Japanese expansionism.

Mobilisation for the war was achieved by the alleged threat of Japanese invasion, but Australia’s rulers in fact knew such an invasion was highly improbable. They also claimed the war was to protect the “rights of free people in the whole Pacific”, but there were few, if any, free Asian nations. The official ideology was often overtly racist – politicians openly advocated the continuation of white rule in the Pacific, and the Japanese were depicted as being savage and subhuman.

O’Lincoln shows that Australia was guilty of its fair share of atrocities in the course of the war. Often prisoners were simply killed, shot or bayonetted to death after they surrendered. For the natives of disputed territories there was not much to choose between Japanese and Australian rule; in East Timor there was a “common saying that when it came to punishment the Japanese were very cruel, but in matters of justice Australian interrogators were worse”.

O’Lincoln is well aware that such arguments will leave him open to the accusation of being a supporter of Japanese aggression. In fact he shows Japanese brutality quite clearly. But he also shows that, contrary to the dehumanising myths propagated by the Australian state, Japanese society was divided by class and politics, and that there was significant dissent from the regime’s policies. In a fascinating couple of pages on kamikaze pilots, he shows they were generally not fanatical “happy suicides”, but were often dragooned into accepting their role.

He also shows that Australia at war was still a profoundly class-divided society. Strikes continued throughout the war, and though they fell to a low level in 1942 when there seemed to be a threat of invasion, the figures rose sharply before the end of the war. There was also considerable dissent in the army, not just in the form of open mutinies and strikes, but of continual attitudes of non-co-operation. As he points out, if the Australian Communist Party had not adopted a position of whole-hearted support for the war, the opposition could have been much greater.

The war transformed the situation of women in Australian society. Their labour was needed for the war effort, but there were attempts to make them do unpaid voluntary work, something that was vigorously resisted. The war encouraged the demand for equal pay, and in the post-war period there were a number of strikes on this question; in particular there were instances of men striking for equal pay for women.

The war had a major impact on social and sexual attitudes. O’Lincoln notes that with war wages women could afford to get divorced. When families invited black US servicemen to their homes, the US authorities “declared these houses brothels, and off-limits to Negro soldiers”. Gay clubs sprang up but were shut down by the police.

The book is clearly written and full of concrete detail and anecdote. It creates a vivid picture of wartime Australia and undermines many myths and stereotypes. It is an excellent introduction to the history of the Australian working class in this period.

At only 160 pages one might well have wished for more detail and more analysis. The only section that is superfluous is the discussion of Hiroshima, in which Australia was only indirectly involved, and which covers well-worn ground adding little new. An index would have been useful, and for non-Australian readers so would a list of acronyms.

But these are minor quibbles about a book that is well worth reading. There are more details and an article on the role of the Australian Communist Party during the war on Tom O’Lincoln’s website.

Ian Birchall

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