The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Luke Slat­tery The Kokoda Cam­paign 1942: Myth and Re­al­ity

IF I were an au­thor look­ing to make a motza, I’d make mil­i­tary his­tory my thing. In this coun­try it’s big busi­ness. But not just any mil­i­tary his­tory: I’d turn my prose tone up to pur­ple and re­tail sto­ries of un­sung Aussie su­per­heroes fight­ing against for­eign hordes, and the in­ep­ti­tude of their com­man­ders. There are writ­ers for whom this is their metier and meal ticket. I want to dis­cuss an­other kind of writer: one whose sole aim is to get at the truth by pa­tiently dis­man­tling myth. The mil­i­tary his­to­rian Peter Wil­liams is such a writer. I think it’s largely as a re­sult of his dogged con­vic­tion to ex­ca­vate the truth about Kokoda — no mat­ter how un­palat­able — that there’s been not one no­tice in the main­stream press about Wil­liams’s re­cent his­tory of the sub­ject.

Wil­liams’s the­sis is that around the Kokoda cam­paign of 1942 we’ve erected a glo­ri­ous, self-serv­ing le­gend. It’s strange that his book has failed to get much pur­chase on the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion, for he writes bet­ter than most in the mil­i­tary his­tory busi­ness.

Wil­liams has pur­sued his con­trar­ian ar­gu­ment not be­cause he aims to den­i­grate the Aus­tralians who fought and died on the Kokoda Track. He ques­tions nei­ther their brav­ery nor their for­ti­tude. What makes his ac­count dis­tinc­tive is his painstak­ing use of orig­i­nal source ma­te­rial that a more par­ti­san or jin­go­is­tic writer wouldn’t dream of ex­ploit­ing. Wil­liams has spent time in Ja­pan in­ves­ti­gat­ing mil­i­tary sources, and the ev­i­dence gleaned from the ar­chives al­lows him to chal­lenge the ac­cre­tions of myth that have built up steadily around Kokoda since the 1960s, and with a great rush since the 80s, as Aus­tralian mil­i­tary his­tory be­came big busi­ness.

The Aus­tralian de­feat at the vil­lage of Isurava, as one ex­am­ple, has been de­scribed in pop­u­lar ac­counts as our Ther­mopy­lae: an in­vo­ca­tion of the de­feat in 480 BC by a mas­sive Per­sian in­va­sion force of the Spar­tan-led Greek re­sis­tance at a nar­row coastal pass. But that bat­tle man­i­festly was a clash be­tween forces of vastly dif­fer­ent nu­mer­i­cal strength.

The Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial has this to say about the bat­tle of Isurava: ‘‘ The Aus­tralians had been over­whelmed by su­pe­rior num­bers which, poorly equipped and sup­ported, they could never match.’’ But this was sim­ply not the case at Isurava, Wil­liams ar­gues, where the bel­liger­ents fought in roughly equal num­bers.

The Pa­puans and Aus­tralians were out­num­bered by 11/ to one up to the first bat­tle of Kokoda, he writes, while at the sec­ond Kokoda and Deniki they were slightly out­num­bered. But at Isurava, he main­tains, there was one Aus­tralian for each Ja­panese en­gaged in the fight.

‘‘ Dur­ing the re­treat from Eora to Efogi the Ja­panese su­pe­ri­or­ity was at its high­est, at close to two to one for five days from 1 Septem­ber. At Efogi the two sides were about equal strength, and at the last Aus­tralian de­feat at Iorib­aiwa it was the Aus­tralians who out­num­bered the Ja­panese two to one.’’

The myth, on the other hand, as­serts that Aus­tralian forces were vastly out­num­bered dur­ing the Ja­panese ad­vance. The de­feats along the Kokoda Track were not, in sum, the re­sult of nu­mer­i­cal in­fe­ri­or­ity. They prob­a­bly had more to do with su­pe­rior Ja­panese fire­power and im­pla­ca­ble mo­rale.

How, then, did the myth of over­whelm­ing Ja­panese nu­mer­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity take hold? Wil­liams en­ter­tains sev­eral pos­si­bil­i­ties, one of which is that we like to read of vic­to­ries or, fail­ing that, de­feats against over­whelm­ing num­bers; what we don’t much care for are ‘‘ bat­tles lost fairly and squarely’’.

This sce­nario is not amenable to myth, es­pe­cially not myth laced with nationalism. And the cen­tral myth, as Wil­liams puts it, is that ‘‘ the eight-week-long se­ries of de­feats from the first Kokoda to Iorib­aiwa can cor­rectly be de­scribed as a feat of Homeric pro­por­tions, a David and Go­liath strug­gle, or like stem­ming a tidal wave’’. But of course the cam­paign did fi­nally end in an Aus­tralian vic­tory, which set the scene for the Ja­panese evic­tion. And the main rea­son for this fi­nal Aus­tralian vic­tory in the Kokoda cam­paign? Su­pe­rior Aus­tralian num­bers. ‘‘ More than twice as many Aus­tralians as Ja­panese fought on the Kokoda track,’’ Wil­liams con­cludes.

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