Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Kokoda by Peter FitzSimons

I thought I knew something about the story of the battle for the Kokoda Track in New Guinea during WW2. I realise now I knew more about many other battles, remote in time and place, than I knew about this one, so close to home and so crucial to my parents' generation. If Australia had lost this battle my Mum and Dad might well have grown up in a country partly or wholly occupied by Japan.

So now, with the zeal of the converted, I can see that all Australians should be educated about this pivotal moment in our history, and learn from both the mistakes made and the incredible heroics displayed there. If you don't know much about it, get hold of one of the many books on the subject or look it up in Wikipedia - it makes for staggering reading.

This is by way of a review of one of the books, Kokoda by Peter FitzSimons (2005, Hodder Australia). As it introduced me to a gripping story I have to say I could hardly put it down. (I saw the film Kokoda when it came out a couple of years ago, but it concentrates on one patrol and doesn't convey much of the big picture. OK film though).

While I was fascinated by the remarkable individual stories, the waxing and waning fortunes of the two sides, and the quite incredible official blunders, I found the style of writing pretty ham-fisted. Before this FitzSimons had written one or two military histories, but his main gig has been rugby books. This one has a bit of rugby about it, and a lot of the Commando comics "banzai Japs".
"..seeing as this particular Jap spoke English and therefore probably understood it, many of the diggers took the opportunity to express their own thoughts on the matter and to tell him just where he could stick his bloody bayonet and, while he was at it, to tell the murderous bastards he was with that they were gonna get their own throats slit before long! And so it went.

Really though, what the hell? In a choice between them screaming or shooting at you, the Australians would take screaming any day. The main thing was that Captain Symington had passed the word that, once it was dark, they were going to pull out anyway and get back to Deniki. [...] They had held the airfield for two days now without Morseby flying anything in to them, so what was the bloody point?

No point, cobber. Saddle up. We're out as soon as the captain gives the word."

It's so liberally sprinkled with bloodies, buggers, bastards and so on, it's as if your only witness to history is a bloke most of the way through a carton of stubbies. All this above is his own author's voice, he's not quoting anyone. The book has sold very well, and I'm sure the old diggers love the way its written, but its not to my taste.

On the plus side FitzSimons gives a fairly balanced warts-and-all picture of the variety of Australians who fought at Kokoda. There are brave, brilliant, cowardly, clueless, compassionate and merciless officers. There are the bronzed Aussie regulars of the AIF, the ragtag 39th Battalion of part timers, and the even less imposing 53rd Battalion, many of whom felt they had been shanghaied. (They signed up on the understanding they would only fight on Australian soil - New Guinea was Australian soil only on a fine technicality.)

The Americans (led by the famous Gen. Douglas MacArthur) generally are depicted as arrogant, selfish and rude, the Australian top brass (led by Gen. Sir Thomas Blamey) as pompous, remote, ignorant and even corrupt. I am keen to read more about the events and personalities to see if there might possibly be another side to the story.

I am proud to say that my mum's father Frank Jackson fought in the New Guinea campaign, although he was not on the Kokoda Track. He didn't speak about his war much, and now he's gone I am trying to find out more about his story too.


Sonja Goernitz said...

Hi Chris,

Interesting to read your review. Came to my mind, if you are interestd in war stories, to read Peter's "Nancy Wake" too. The style is slightly different. I liked that book a lot, marked it with a plenty of green and a bit of red (likes and dislikes). Wish to add: I'm biased, but that is another story.

Best wishes,

chris.dadness said...

I would like to know more about Nancy Wake. Maybe the style is less blokey?

As I said this book has been very popular, and I was gripped by the story. The foreword suggests Peter had his arm twisted to write the book, so perhaps he just approached it the best way he could.