Culture

James Brown
Anzac’s Long Shadow

My grandfather was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, starved and beaten in Changi, then deployed later to bang sleepers on the Thai-Burma Railway. He and his mates became ghouls, malnourished and stained with jungle sores. Attrition was high.
Like many POWs, he returned to his family psychically bent – violent, selfish and furiously insolent.
To think that the best way to honour this complicated sadness would be to watch Jimmy Barnes squawk at Anzac Cove, or to take my grandfather’s medals as my own, is peculiar. James Brown would no doubt agree.
Brown, who commanded troops in Iraq and is now a military fellow at the Lowy Institute, dryly compares the engraving at the War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park – “Let silent contemplation be your offering” –
with vulgar public commemoration, slick with a nostalgia that only further separates civilians from soldiers. “This year an Anzac festival begins, a commemorative program so extravagant it would make a sultan swoon … But commemorating soldiers is not the same as connecting with them.”
Brown also sees a great rift between spending many millions on the voices of dead soldiers and the federal government’s suffocation of the voices of living ones. We have one of the more opaque militaries in the Western world, one whose centrally run communications team routinely thwarts media attention and, ultimately, our understanding of modern deployments.
In evaluating our military – and our nation’s fixation with its past – Brown seeks the middle ground. He does away with the either/or tribalism that strains so much of our public debate: a sophistry that declares any criticism of the Anzac myth exposes an anti-military sentiment. He argues that the military is unserved by politicians’ “gratuitous praise”– often the product of ignorance – and finds telling the near absence of former soldiers in Parliament (former defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon is depicted here as glib and uninterested). He is further critical of the military’s idolatry of the larrikin soldier, which he says has forged a culture suspicious of officers that favours egalitarianism over excellence.
Brown is lucid, bright and fierce –
exceptional qualities for a writer and, no doubt, a soldier – and he’s written an important prelude to our Anzac centenary.  RN

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2014 as "James Brown, Anzac’s Long Shadow". Subscribe here.