“Good Afternoon Australia, tell me a bit about yourself”
When Kokoda is mentioned in conversation, it holds a similar reverence to that of Gallipoli. Yet it’s only in the past two decades it has really been adopted into the ANZAC story. Australia has latched onto the ANZAC story when attempting to describe our national identity.
Debates around national identity often venture into the question:
“Why is it important at all to be able to articulate a specific national identity?”
The simple answer to that is, it’s national identities which can create patriotism and patriotism is an incredibly powerful tool for politicians, journalists or even a sporting coach to utilise.
Kokoda in context
Kokoda has become a victim of a young nation searching for courageous moments in our history. As one of few major battles Australia has been involved in, the troops in Kokoda displayed impressive amounts of bravery in the face of hardship. Their incredible feat has influenced an exaggeration in popular memory of many factors of the campaign.
This exaggeration has been shaped by several key people and works. In addition to countless media reports, Paul Keating and John Howard both gave famous addresses expressing the importance Kokoda had to Australia’s national identity and in both addresses made several misleading statements which I’ll address later. The two other works which shape Australia’s popular memory are Kokoda (2006), a feature film directed by Alister Grierson and the book, Kokoda by Peter Fitzsimons which became a bestseller.
The Story of Kokoda (with directors commentary)
The World’s Most Difficult Battleground
There is no doubting the difficulty of the terrain faced during the campaign. The problem with some recounts of the conditions, is that as the popularity for people to make the pilgrimage grows, there has become a trend of attempting to out-do previous descriptions. It’s not uncommon to hear the track described as “green hell” or “the toughest terrain in the world”. In fact this year, Kevin Rudd commented that he was a “survivor” of the Kokoda track, sparking a justified outrage among veterans.
The fact of the matter is with the terrain, that it isn’t even the toughest track in Papua New Guinea let alone the world. So hyperboles can mislead people in understanding the difficulty of the terrain.
The Owen Stanley Rabbit Infestation
Another factor that is often exaggerated is the incompetence of the officers in charge. One well-known event that occurred after the 2/14th battalion had just finished a week of enemy assaults was when General Blamey came to address them. Expecting praise for their efforts, he called them “running rabbits” and issued orders that no retreat shall be made. This sort of ignorance was typical of the commanding forces with their lack of reconnaissance and knowledge of the fighting conditions their troops were facing.
Highlighting the incompetence of many leaders, leaves a few omissions such as the desertion of the 53rd battalion during a battle, who were sent back to Australia as a result. (It’s worth noting, that it was again the commanding officers fault, for lack of training and preparation that the 53rd battalion was ill equipped for combat)
The Youngsters that Prevailed
It’s also an exaggeration to say that the troops average age was 18. It was in fact closer to 25.
Mr. F. W. Angel
The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels are often remembered as the brave and generous helpers who carried our wounded back to medical help. What is not often recalled is the fact that they were mostly forced labour. They were punished if they deserted and suffered poor conditions with little food etc. There is also a distinct lack of memory for individual Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels and as a result the memory is an anonymous one.
The most common and key exaggeration that occurs in the retelling of the Kokoda story is its strategic importance. This is what Paul Keating and John Howard are guilty of. Its worth noting that there is a genuine (and historically proven) belief that the troops thought they were defending Australia from invasion however it has since been discovered, after examining Japanese sources, that they had no intention of ever invading Australia.
What should be remembered?
If Kokoda is going to be consistently attached to Australia’s national identity, then respect needs to be paid to the facts, otherwise generations to come won’t be able to respect the sacrifice which should be remembered. The retelling of Kokoda doesn’t need to take the form of “A legendary battle, where 18-year-old kids without direction saved Australia from certain invasion”. What actually happened was incredible and the troops demonstrated values that we should and can aspire to. Remembering individual stories of troops is an effective way to identify what the Australian forces experienced. One example, even though is unique is something that should always be included in the retelling of Kokoda. That story is of Victoria Cross recipient, Bruce Kingsbury. His award citation is found at http://www.awm.gov.au/people/8275.asp and below is a picture of his platoon.