“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.
Talkback Classroom is a forum program run by the Education section of the National Museum of Australia. Each year panels of three secondary students, selected from schools Australia-wide, interview leading decision-makers on important current issues. The panels participate in a ‘learning journey’ (researching the issues and developing interview skills) to explore the issues and prepare for the forum.
This clip comes from a 2007 forum on the topic of “Australian history in the classroom”. Alistair Grierson, director of the film Kokoda was interviewed as part of the students’ Learning Journey in preparation for the Forum.
In the early days of the British colony in Australia, education was managed by church groups and private individuals. Between 1872 and 1895 Education Acts were passed which made “free, compulsory and secular” primary education a state responsibility. Currently all school education is administered by state and territory governments. All government and independent schools follow the learning outcomes set by the states or territories.
Whether schools should conform to a national framework or curriculum is presently the subject of national debate. National consistency in curriculum, testing and reporting, alongside performance pay for teachers and transparency of reporting procedures have been key features of this discussion. In specific reference to Australian history, the emphasis placed on this subject in the school curriculum has been much debated. The importance of teaching a national story, a defined body of historical knowledge and a clear set of historical skills has been identified by commentators, historians, academics and teachers as a priority in the construction of a national history curriculum.
Before you watch
- The Kokoda Track in New Guinea was a crucial part of the fighting in the South-West Pacific Area in the Second World War. Try these methods of gaining some knowledge of the Kokoda Track before you watch the clip:
- Locate the Kokoda Track on a map. Try drawing a cross-section of the Track using information on the map. Estimate the difference in height between the lowest and highest points of the Track. Imagine having to climb and descend that distance carrying a weapon, rations and water while having to fight a better-equipped and trained enemy through jungle, mud, torrential rain every night and day. Discuss your imaginings with others in your class.
- Visit the Australian War Memorial website and use the online collection search engine to gather information on the Kokoda Track.
- Imagine that fighting were to take place on the Kokoda Track in 2008. How would the battle be different to the 1942 conflict? What advantages would modern weapons technology give to the soldiers on either side? Discuss these notions with your entire class.
- Discuss in small groups what may have happened if the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track hadn’t been stopped. What may have been the result if the Japanese had reached their objective of Port Moresby?
While you watch
- Alister Grierson refers to the challenges that faced him while making the ‘Kokoda’ film. List these challenges on a large sheet of paper then try this activity after watching the clip:
- Put the sheet up where all of the class can see it. Examine each challenge in isolation; discuss it and come up with ways that would overcome that challenge.
- Write those suggestions down near the challenge in a ‘mind-map’ style. Examine all of the challenges in this way. c) Once the class has examined all challenges, divide the class into small groups. Each group will select one and its possible solutions and develop a presentation that shows in a visual and written way how the solutions would work.
After you watch
- Australia’s film industry has produced several feature films on the subject of war. These films have been set in locations such as the Middle East (Tobruk, Second World War and Palestine, First World War) and Vietnam. Imagine you are a film director and you want to create a film based on a contemporary conflict zone e.g. Iraq or Afghanistan. You are ‘pitching’ your idea to a major film studio and need to prepare for the ‘pitch’. Your preparation should include the following:
- An outline of the story, including major characters and the ‘hook’ in the story that will keep audiences interested. Remember that your story needs some sort of main theme e.g. a relationship, the futility of war, heroism, the ‘journey’ of a character and so on. The story may be presented in a ‘storyboard’ format commonly used in the film industry.
- The location of the story e.g. in Baghdad or provincial Afghanistan
- A title for the film – something that will inspire people to see it but not give too much of the story away.
Some internet research may be required; the Internet Movie Database is a good resource, as is the National Film and Sound Archive. More information is also available at Making the Movie.
- Have three people in your class take on the role of film studio executives. Select a group of directors from the class and have each of them ‘pitch’ their film idea to the studio executives. Each director will get no more than 2 minutes to present to the executives. After all of the directors have presented, give the executives 5 minutes to discuss in private the presentations and select a successful ‘pitch’. While the executives are deciding, the class can discuss the ‘pitches’ and perhaps choose a candidate. Bring the executives back in and have them announce their decision. Have them provide reasons for their choice. If they choose someone different to the class choice, discuss the executives’ choice and find out what made that ‘pitch’ more successful.