Sacked for tweeting remarks about Anzacs that are considered “inappropriate” and “disrespectful”? Let me try and put SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre’s tweets in historical perspective. Over the Anzac Day weekend, McIntyre was fired from SBS for a series of tweets about the grimmer aspects of Australian military history.
We know the Anzacs could get up to mischief. That was part of their image even during the first world war. Take my grandfather, for example. Frederick George Fazey joined the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1918, but it was only when I looked up his records in the National Archives in Canberra that I discovered he was “apprehended” in London, and fined four days pay before being sent to the Western Front.
That was a story he never told the family, but his transgression is excusable, and seemingly innocent. He was a boy after all, only 16 or 17, and no doubt wanted to experience a bit of life before being sent to a place where there was a good chance of being killed or maimed.
Less excusable and far less innocent, even with the knowledge of hindsight, is the behaviour of the Anzacs stationed in Egypt before being shipped to Gallipoli. There the men treated the locals in an overtly racist manner.
One soldier, Victor Ault, wrote about how “we thrash the black fellows with whips … Every nigger who is impudent to a soldier gets a hiding … I can’t say how many I’ve belted and knocked out.”
On Good Friday 1915, things got out of hand. Around 2,500 Anzacs rioted in the Wazza district of Cairo, sacking and setting fire to brothels, terrifying the locals, and clashing with military police who tried to intervene. These were no angels. Between 12% and 15% of the AIF had contracted venereal disease.
The battle of the Wazza, as it was dubbed, was not the only riot that took place. Others followed. Drinking and whoring, leaving bills unpaid, threatening, bullying and beating locals because they were “niggers”, and generally behaving in ways that we now condemn our sportsmen for behaving was standard fair for these boys who had money, were far away from home, and had no one to control them.
All this is well known to historians, but clearly less well known to the public. There is an obvious disconnect between what historians know and what the popular perception of our past is. It is this disconnect that has jarred with some in the public and led to McIntyre’s sacking.
It is difficult if not impossible for historians to overturn popular myths. Myths are popular because they represent stories we want to hear; they feed into the collective psyche. Anzacs behaving badly is not something we want to acknowledge.
The “summary executions” tweet (below) made by McIntyre is a case in point. Most people are familiar with the Japanese treatment of Allied POWs, but Australian soldiers killed Japanese prisoners in Papua, including on at least one occasion wounded Japanese soldiers in hospital.
Take the 1943 diary entry of Eddie Stanton, an Australian posted to Goodenough Island off Papua New Guinea. “Japanese are still being shot all over the place,” he wrote. “The necessity for capturing them has ceased to worry anyone. From now on, Nippo survivors are just so much machine-gun practice. Too many of our soldiers are tied up guarding them.”
This was tit-for-tat killing. Anzac and American troops systematically shot Japanese prisoners in the Pacific, in part because it was expedient to do so, in part out of revenge after being witness to what the Japanese were capable of, and in part because there was so much racial hatred. The Pacific theatre was a racialised war in which atrocities were committed on both sides.
It is naïve to expect men to kill and die for their country, to live through the horrors of a particularly barbaric war, and to come out the other end unscathed. Hence McIntyre’s tweet that Anzacs raped – among others – Japanese women.
Listen to the testimony from an Australian officer, Allan Clifton, who acted as interpreter in Japan in 1946:
I stood beside a bed in hospital. On it lay a girl, unconscious, her long, black hair in wild tumult on the pillow. A doctor and two nurses were working to revive her. An hour before she had been raped by 20 soldiers. We found her where they had left her, on a piece of waste land. The hospital was in Hiroshima. The girl was Japanese. The soldiers were Australians.
The moaning and wailing had ceased and she was quiet now. The tortured tension on her face had slipped away, and the soft brown skin was smooth and unwrinkled, stained with tears like the face of a child that has cried herself to sleep.
Every invading army, regardless of the side they are on, regardless of the war, rapes. The Allies raped in France and the Philippines, in Italy and Japan. According to American historian Bob Lilly’s estimate, between 14,000 and 17,000 women were raped by American military personnel in Europe between 1942 and 1945.
And that is not counting the Pacific. Australians may not have behaved as badly as the Russians in Germany, but thousands of Japanese women were raped in the years after the war, some of them by Australian and New Zealand soldiers who made up the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan.
As for Hiroshima, as well as Nagasaki, we think that a combined total of the number of civilian deaths was a little under 100,000. This was comparable to the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945 and of Tokyo in March 1945, which led to the deaths of, roughly, around 25,000 and 97,000 civilians respectively.
Was the Allied bombing of civilians a war crime? Some respected historians, among them Donald Bloxham, professor of modern history at the University of Edinburgh, would argue that it was.
Historically speaking then, McIntyre is not all that far off the mark, but he has been sacrificed on the altar of populist outrage. I try to teach my students to see the world differently, to think differently, to always question accepted opinion and then, when necessary, to speak out.
The decision made by the managing director of SBS is disappointing. Are journalists, academics and public figures only ever to tell people what they want to hear?
The response to McIntyre’s tweets is a demonstration that the popular perception of Anzac is completely out of step with the historical reality – but his remarks are also timely. We should not forget that war is never a one-sided affair in which our boys are squeaky-clean heroes and their boys murdering, raping villains.
War brings out the worst (as well as the best) in people. Some Anzacs were neither heroes nor particularly likeable characters – and some behaved little better than thugs and hooligans. I certainly would not have wanted to meet some of them in the back alleys of Cairo in 1915 after they had been on the piss all night.
But in the atmosphere of nationalistic chest-beating that surrounds the Anzac commemorations, there are not likely to be too many dissenting voices.
Professor, Director of the Centre for the History of Violence, School of Humanities and Social Science at University of Newcastle