Cheeseburger Gothic

The Cost of a National Obsession

Posted March 21, 2014 into Books by John Birmingham

James Brown is a former army officer who commanded a cavalry troop in Southern Iraq, served at Task Force HQ in Baghdad, and went onto to Afghanistan to serve with the special forces elements there. He's also a very thinky bloke who's written one of the best books about the creator/destroyer mythology of Anzac that I've read.

A particular bugbear is the canonization and commericalisation of Anzac worship. The extract below gives us a brief taste of that. But the book also contains the sort of granular detail of the commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan that governments of both persuasions spent a lot of time suppressing. Totally worth a read with The Day approaching.

32 Responses to ‘The Cost of a National Obsession’

BigWillieStyle puts forth...

Posted March 21, 2014

Thanks for this, I just reserved the book at my local library. Will stroll down to collect later today.

The crass nationalism that Anzac Day cloaks itself in has been a bugbear of mine for years. Might start my preparations now to be either out of the country or perched up a very tall tree when the centenary rolls around next year.

I've often wondered - how would Straya feel if there was a spot on the coast of say, Queensland, where Japanese troops went ashore in WW1, suffered massive troop losses, and have treated the site as sacred ever since? If Japanese citizens, in their thousands, made a pilgrimmage here every year, to mourn their forebears who were intent on slaughtering our forebears?. Would we treat them with the good grace and tolerance that the Turks do for us in Gallipoli? Would we hell.

S.M. Stirling would have you know...

Posted March 21, 2014

Lots of Japanese visit Pearl Harbor every year, by the way.

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S.M. Stirling swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 21, 2014

All nations need their myths.

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w from brisbane puts forth...

Posted March 21, 2014

The sacrifice of soldiers is used by governments to inspire the populace to overlook their own narrow personal interests and gallantly submit to the narrow personal interests of the ruling classes.

S.M. Stirling is gonna tell you...

Posted March 21, 2014

Dude, that is such bullshit. You run across it all the time, and it invariably masks intense selfishness with a pretense of cynical wisdom. Though charitably, it may just be deep ignorance.

All nations have ruling classes, always have and always will. Revolutions generally just substitute a new (and worse) ruling class for the old one.

More often than not, and particularly in foreign affairs, the interests of the nation as a whole and the interests of the ruling class actually are pretty much the same.

They certainly were in Australia in WWI, where the spontaneous reaction of people of all ranks to support Britain and the Entente reflected an accurate appraisal of both their own national interests and the broader world's.

Germany started the war, and a German victory would have been an utter disaster. Not quite as bad as in WWII, but still very bad. Read the Treaties of Brest-Litovsk or Bucharest that Germany imposed on Russia and Rumania, or Berthman-Hollweg's "September Program" of war aims in the West for a sampler. They make the much-reviled (especially by Germans) Treaty of Versailles look like a Gandhian love-feast.

Incidentally, one of my brothers came down here from Canada and volunteered for Vietnam; another went to Royal Military College; another was a fighter pilot; I was in the militia; my father was a professional soldier for 25 years; my grandfather was gassed at Passechendaele and died of it in 1939; -his- father fought at Omdurman and in the Second Boer War; and according to unverifiable family legend, -his- father was at Maiwand and/or Ulundi.

w from brisbane mutters...

Posted March 21, 2014

Dude, there is not much you said that I disagree with.
I was more talking about how national 'myths' (to use your term) are so often so enthusiastically promoted by governments during peace time. I thought that was on topic.

There was no irony when I started my comment with 'The sacrifice of soldiers'. Nor was it a comment on WWI or WWII. I would broadly agree with your comments there. Though perhaps not all wars in history can be so persuasively defended. What about from the German perspective? In retrospect, were the decisions of their government in the interests of the nation as a whole. I have great respect for the soldier.

Incidentally, I have never been in the military, however, my family has many people who have served. I won't list them all, but my grandfather fought in WWI with the Fifth Light Horse. Two of my uncles were wounded on the Kokoda Track during WWII. My brother's son served in Afghanistan very recently.

Funnily enough, of the people I have met, my two wounded uncles were the ones who were most angrily dismissive of Anzac Day.

Rob has opinions thus...

Posted March 21, 2014

My experiece of returned service men is the same. Some very angry grandparents in the mix. They fought so their kids didnt have to. and they didnt want anything to do with militarism afterwards.

S.M. Stirling asserts...

Posted March 21, 2014

"I was more talking about how national 'myths' (to use your term) are so often so enthusiastically promoted by governments during peace time."

-- well, of course they are, and a very good thing too. That's a big part of a government's -job-. It's like repairing the roads.

It's a bit late if you wait for a war, and there's always going to be another war.

National consciousness is built up in time of peace, and drawn on in war. It's sort of like establishing a cash reserve.

The main reason Russia came apart in WWI, for example, was that the degree of national consciousness in the average Russian peasant was rather low. "Russia" just meant "the world". His main loyalty was to his village and, if anything beyond that, his neighborhood. Note that in that period it was the peasant armies that broke under the hammer of industrialized war, and the advanced countries that fought to the end.

Human beings are instinctively (in the literal sense of that world) tribalistic, but the "natural" tribal unit is small and based on close blood relationships. The "natural" way to regard people outside that is with intense suspicion easily tripping over into muderous hostility, and then you're back to clans and blood feud.

Something as big and distant and abstract as a nation-state requires construction and maintenance on an ongoing basis, if the average person's sense of close idenfitication is to be maintained.

You can't wait until it's -needed-. That's much too late.

Hence bonding rituals -- oaths of alliegence, July 4th, Anzac Day.

Back when I was in secondary school, I was already an atheist; I had been since I was a little kid.

But I went to chapel every morning and sang hymns with enthusiasm. It was part of the symbolic rituals of the tribe I was in, linking us with each other and with our predecessors, and to attack the symbols is to attack the thing.

NBlob reckons...

Posted March 23, 2014

"the interests of the nation as a whole and the interests of the ruling class actually are pretty much the same."

I could not disagree more. They are frequently mutually exclusive. This a bald faced lie sold to the populace by those with the most to gain.

I'm not anti-commerce. One must accept the beast for what it is: a dynamic engine of self interest. Every business seeks to maximise profitability.

The interests of the Ruling Class are to minimise competition, costs & tax, while maximising workforce "flexibility" & access to markets. The interests of the nation state is to maximise the value of the population's toil & the tax take so as to provide services to the population.

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S.M. Stirling is gonna tell you...

Posted March 21, 2014

Considering that the Turks spent a lot of WWI massacring about 1/4 to 1/3 of their own population (and have spent the time since denying it and trying to trash anyone who points it out) it's not surprising they've accomodated Australians and Kiwis about Gallipoli.

Gallipoli was a clean encounter between uniformed fighting men, fought with ruthless determination on both sides but on the whole honorably.

The Armenian Genocide, not so much, so by contrast Gallipoli is something Turkey has no problem with, especially since they won. Even the Allied soldiers who fought there (the Anzacs were a minority, most of the troops and the dead were Poms) came away with nothing much bad to say about the Turks.

Neither side has anything to be ashamed of, and a good deal to be proud of.

The attack was a monumental cock-up of course, but as Claustewitz pointed out, 'in war everything is very simple, but the simplest things become very difficult'. Critique by hindsight is easy. World War One was full of situations that simply didn't -have- any good solutions, and Gallipoli was one of them.

You're just as dead whether it was a disaster like Gallipoli or a triumph like Vimy Ridge, which fulfills the same role for Canadians, albeit in a more modest way.

NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted March 23, 2014

That would explain the cenotaph in every backwater Australian town celebrating the Hounorable Lost of the Armenian Genocide.

Guru Bob mumbles...

Posted March 25, 2014

Gallipoli was also part of the founding myth of modern Turkey, the main Turkish leader who held the Anzacs back was Ataturk who later became their first President. Over here we don't learn much about him or his acheivements, but his role in our defeat became the event which made him stand out.

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MickH is gonna tell you...

Posted March 21, 2014

As a 20 year vet, I have felt increasing isolated in my feelings about what ANZAC day should be about.

I don't get it.

Sure I get the memorial thing and the whole ' Lest we forget' dogma but the rest?


Gallipoli was a disaster, organised by a callous British Army as a canon fodder exercise. We shouldn't be celebrating it.

The whole commercialisation of the centenary event disgusts me to the core!

S.M. Stirling has opinions thus...

Posted March 21, 2014

"Gallipoli was a disaster, organised by a callous British Army as a canon fodder exercise. We shouldn't be celebrating it."

-- this is a complete myth.

No serious historian of the period has taken that "lions led by donkeys" or "chateau generals" stuff seriously for decades, though it clings on like a shambling undead zombie meme.

I suggest you take a look at some recent works, like Hew Strachan's.

The British commanders were mostly competent military professionals doing their best in a situation with very few good options.

All combat in WWI involved heavy casualties, and nobody was surprised: everyone involved had been predicting that for years. Everyone knew that modern weapons would be very destructive and that attacking dug-in defenders would be hideously expensive.

They had the lessons of the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan Wars in front of their eyes, all of which were intensely studied.

The career soldiers were told to go out and win by the politicians, and did their best.

They weren't "callous" either, they were just doing their jobs in a field in which casualties were a cost of doing business.

74 British generals died in action in 1914-18; you had to get above lieutenant-colonel before it wasn't more dangerous to be an officer than an infantry private. And the junior officers most at risk were quite likely to be the sons of the senior commanders. Several British generals lost their only sons in the first couple of months.

The problem was that the only alternative was to surrender.

If anyone's to blame for Gallipoli, it's Churchill, who forced through the operation against Kitchener's repeated warning that the odds weren't good.

In both World Wars Churchill had a tendency to let romantic fancy and a gambler's attitude to risk to take precedence over sober professional advice; see Greece/Crete in 1941.

Churchill was perfectly ready to put his own precious pink personal buttocks where his rhetoric was, of course; he'd fought on the NW Frontier and in the Sudan (he charged with the 21st Lancers at Omdurman) and was a battalion commander on the Western Front for a while.

MickH ducks in to say...

Posted March 21, 2014

It was Churchill I was referring to. Maybe I should have mentioned him.

And as to it being a complete myth, that is your apinion, I still hold to mine.

My Grandfather was a stoker on the Sydney and he told my father an entirely different story.

S.M. Stirling is gonna tell you...

Posted March 21, 2014

"My Grandfather was a stoker on the Sydney and he told my father an entirely different story."

And my grandfather was gassed at Passchendaele; his lungs were scarred, he was never really healthy again, and he died slowly of pneumonia 22 years later. His opinion, according to my parents, was that it was a dirty job but that there was no easy way to beat the Germans, so it had to be done, and Haig had done about as good a job as could be expected.


What sort of perspective on a war as a whole do you get from being a stoker, or for that matter an infantry subaltern like my grandfather? Every battle is a disaster from a grunt's point of view.

And as anyone with legal training could tell you, there's absolutely nothing more completely unreliable than eyewitness testimony.

It takes a century or so before a really major war can be considered objectively.

ShaneAlpha is gonna tell you...

Posted March 21, 2014

Have to disagree here.

Major General Alymer Hunter-Weston was a raving loon.

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S.M. Stirling ducks in to say...

Posted March 21, 2014

On a more general level, keep in mind that human life is not a melodrama. It's not White Hats and Black Hats, for the most part. Nor is the presence of evil the result of Bad People doing Bad Things to drag events away from the course of Natural Goodness (or -potential- Natural Goodness).

Human life is a -tragedy-. We exist in a world not made for us, and as members of a species whose evolutionary imperatives have absolutely nothing to do with individual happiness.

The intervals may have a lot of humor, but as the man said, "the last act is over, a little dirt upon our heads, and all is done forever."

insomniac mumbles...

Posted March 21, 2014

In this country it is all about Tony's "goodies" and "baddies"

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S.M. Stirling ducks in to say...

Posted March 21, 2014

The strategic -aim- of Gallipoli was perfectly sound; establishing a shipping route to the Black Sea and the Russian ports was desperately necessary.

The lack of it was a large factor in Russia being knocked out of the war, and that put the Allies in desperate peril. It very nearly won Germany the war, and if it hadn't been for their own stupidity in wantonly driving the US into belligerence, it would have.

The -execution- was deeply flawed, but nobody knew the full difficulties of a large-scale amphibious operation under modern conditions until it was tried. Kitchener did warn the political leadership that it was a very risky proposition, but he was overruled.

And remember that the Anzacs weren't going to sun themselves on the beaches of Egypt (or catch VD in the souks of Cairo) much longer.

The alternative was going to the Western Front to chew on barbed wire and breathe chlorine.

NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted March 21, 2014

Wow Mr Stirling. You're like some kind of savante.

I wonder which kind?

ShaneAlpha would have you know...

Posted March 21, 2014

The land campaign was a half-arsed desperate attempt to capture the Dardenelles Forts after Churchills retarded attempt to force the straits using only the Navy and small Marine detachments went tits up with heavy losses.

There were so many mistakes of so many kinds on the Allied side in this operation it hard to pick any one and say that this was the reson it failed.

BTW, Kitchener was way past his use-by date by the time of WW1.

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Dino not to be confused with mumbles...

Posted March 21, 2014

(Tin Foil Hat Alert-Contains Science and Facts- Creationists and Cretins look away!)

I wanna start with da last War that the Australian Politicians sent kids to die and get maimed in- Afghanistan. Look up the causulties now if you don't know them.

Seriously look them up and come back here when you know them off by heart.

OK Good.

The reasons Politicians don't hold the Flag at the Frontline?

Don't get me wrong I am all for a good War and will get to one eventually but I want to start with the last one Afghanistan.

'We' went there because Skyscrapers fell down almost at free fall into the path of most resistance. Fact.

The third Building WTC 7 did in fact fall at free fall for some of it's collapse.

WTC 7? I hear you say. That's not in the Media very much I here you say. Anyway it has been proven by Scienztists and the MSM that OBL did it from in a cave.

Check out Russia's gift to the 9/11 Memorial. It is a droplet, a droplet of molten metal, a very large droplet to show the USA and anyone else no one with half a brain believes in the Phoney 9/11 story and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.

And start me on Iraq.

Ask Gwyneth Todd about Iraq etc.

Mr Stirling you should really study Ezra Pound(AKA Gandalf)

sibeen ducks in to say...

Posted March 21, 2014

Clean up in aisle four...stat!

Dino not to be confused with mumbles...

Posted March 23, 2014

I just found this quote on a website I have never seen before.

The quote is cool-

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damian puts forth...

Posted March 21, 2014

Australia's transition from colonies to Commonwealth was a culmination among many peacefully achieved social advances of which we, speaking on that nation-building level, could be appropriately proud. There was no real need for weirdly fatalistic military adventures to create a national identity: it unquestionably already existed. If anything ANZAC damaged Australian identity, certainly the hoopla leading up to the centenary will do. The only salvageable story from Gallipoli is Sampson and his donkey (itself almost certainly mostly mythical).

On commemoration: we have a terrific opportunity to advance reconciliation now by acknowledging the military history of our own war of invasion, occupation and the eventual eradication of resistance that continued for more than a century. Historians are able to name individuals who engaged in organised armed resistance. These people can be recognised and we have much to gain by celebrating their heroism and rare successes. Many people think that the Australian War Memorial ought to embrace this work. The recent book by historian Henry Reynolds I was pushing for bookclub the other week has some pretty good material on this topic.

I haven't drunk enough yet to engage Mr Stirling on his own level, so I shan't. I do see one notable combination of "no true scotsman" with a straw man, a few strident calls to biology (vaguely reminiscent of Hayek), a slightly orthogonal reference to Clausewitz (Moltke might have been a more apt quote) and a circular argument about the value of nationalism. Maybe later: I have plenty more to drink. Best not though, it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

sibeen reckons...

Posted March 21, 2014

Dude, that is such bullshit.

I think someone may have used that quote earlier.

damian asserts...

Posted March 21, 2014

Yeah maybe a couple more drinks :)

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Bangar puts forth...

Posted March 22, 2014

D Simson and his donkey.

damian has opinions thus...

Posted March 22, 2014

Bah, Simpson. Calling it "mostly mythical" is probably an overstatement too: it would be more accurate to say "often exaggerated".

It's always interesting to see where it comes up in Gallipoli celebreation when people are talking about honorable foes and warrior mystique and all the other bullshit that goes along with that. The type who enjoy talking like that don't usually have much respect for the very human reaction to the stupidity and horror that the Simpson legend embodies.

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yankeedog mumbles...

Posted March 23, 2014

I didn't know James Brown was in the Australian Army. Last I heard he was Living In America:

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Guru Bob is gonna tell you...

Posted March 25, 2014

A lot of people in the history trade have a big problem with how the government has imposed the 'Centenary of Anzac' branding (25 April 1915) upon what should actually be called the Centenary of WWI (1914-18).

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