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.