Deputy sheriffs, deluded diggers and ‘the dirty work of empire’.

Feb 28, 2022
Cover of Blood and Ruins- The Great Imperial War 1931-1945
In his latest book, the West's pre-eminent military historian, Richard Overy, fundamentally redefines the context of World War II by locating it within the continuum of Imperialism. (Image:

Few peoples define themselves through their military history more stridently than Australians. The truth, though, is that our military history primarily is one of imperial subservience, self-delusion and denial.

There’s a passage in Hilary Mantel’s brilliant historical fiction of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, in which Maximilien Robespierre is explaining to his colleague Camille Desmoulins how history is written:

‘The entire record of the human race has been falsified, it has been made up by bad governments to suit themselves, by kings and tyrants to make them look good … to wipe the names [of their opponents] out of the record’

This is an overstatement. Robespierre was a revolutionary who dealt in extremes; furthermore, thousands of admirable scholars spend years labouring in archives to reveal the truth.

Nevertheless, Mantel’s Robespierre has a point. Historians can only read the records that exist and those that they find, and they then decide what to use and what to ignore. In many cases, what they choose to write eventually becomes received wisdom.

Populist Australian military history provides an example, with the allegations being raised in the defamation trial initiated by Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith shining a contemporary light on the broader historical narrative.

There is no more admired symbol in our national psyche than that of the digger – the archetypal courageous, laconic, irreverent Aussie, who for 121 years has excelled on battlefields around the world. So indoctrinated is this belief that the creator of the myth of the digger, Charles Bean, chronicler of the Australian Imperial Force in the First World War and founder of the Australian War Memorial, should be regarded not as an historian, but as our most powerful agent of socialisation.

There is no question that our soldiers, sailors and aviators have consistently fought with bravery and distinction. In the narrow setting of military campaigns that is praiseworthy. But in the broad setting of defining a national self-image it is insufficient.

In his latest book, Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War 1931-1945, the West’s pre-eminent military historian, Richard Overy, fundamentally redefines the context of World War II by locating it within the continuum of Imperialism. ‘Standard Western accounts [of the war]’, Overy tells us, ‘have focused on the narrative of the military conflict between the Allied and Axis states’. The problem with that approach, he argues, is that it merely deals with the how of war, rather than with the why.

And it is only by asking ‘why’ that we can understand the truth of what we did.

For over one hundred years we’ve been little more than eager, self-styled ‘deputy sheriffs’, hoping to earn the gratitude of our imperial patrons by carelessly despatching forces to a succession of unjust wars of choice, about which most of us have had no understanding whatsoever: of the cause, the people, the society, the politics, the economy, the religion, the culture, the language, the beliefs – even where the country was.

Thus, for example, in the Boer War, our troops fought for British imperial and financial interests and incarcerated civilians in the world’s first concentration camps (which we celebrate with a triumphal monument on Anzac Parade in Canberra); in China, we fought to enforce Britain’s state-sponsored opium trade; in Vietnam, we invited ourselves to interfere in what was first and foremost an anti-colonial war of national liberation. And so on, through to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Can any country other than the most avaricious Imperial powers of the 20th century, the UK and the US, lay claim to such a list of morally corrupt campaigns? To paraphrase George Orwell, the self-image we celebrate above all others was forged ‘doing the dirty work of empire’.

‘The standard you walk past is the standard you accept’, Governor-General and former chief of the defence force General David Hurley famously told Australians some years ago. Which leads to our most egregious national denial.

This concerns a war most of us either know little about or choose to ignore. It was the longest, most brutal and most morally corrupt war Australians have ever fought; and it was, of course, the misleadingly titled ‘Frontier War’, waged for 140 years, from 1788 to 1928.

This wasn’t a ‘frontier war’, it was ‘The Australian War’, and it is the most important event in Australia’s 50,000 years of human settlement.

Serious historians no longer dispute the facts:

The landing of the First Fleet was an invasion; soldiers, police and settlers conducted a sustained campaign against First Nation peoples; the nature of the fighting took the form of a ‘war’; First Nations’ warriors conducted campaigns to protect themselves, their families and their land; white Australians carried out at least thirty massacres; in Tasmania those massacres were to all intents and purposes genocide; and some 60,000 First Australians were killed.

Yet the war is all but ignored by official Australia, including the Australian War Memorial, and it has little influence on our national identity. This is denial of grotesque dimensions.

At the end of his discourse, Robespierre puts his hand on Desmoulins’ arm. ‘Camille’, he says, ‘history is fiction’. Again, he’s overstated his case, but again, he has a point. Indeed, his statement that ‘bad governments … falsify … to suit themselves … wipe names out of the record … to make them look good’, might have been referencing contemporary Australia.

Most of us believe we’re lucky to live in Australia. We’d be even luckier if we confronted our past, stopped deluding ourselves about our military history, and fostered a self-image shaped by our many alternative, inspirational narratives.

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