Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 29, 2013

Kokoda (2004), by Paul Ham, narrated by Peter Byrne

KokodaI’m not really very interested in military history or books about war but I picked up this audio book at the library because military history is part of the history curriculum at school and I felt an obligation to be a bit more informed about the Kokoda Campaign than I was.

The six-month campaign on the Kokoda Track in 1942-3 is iconic in Australia, the stuff of legend.  All our best trained troops were fighting overseas when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and they had swept through southeast Asia without check, apparently on their way to invade Australia, a misconception reinforced by the attacks on Darwin and other northern coastal ports.  The task force that set out to check the advance in New Guinea was hopelessly ill-trained, ill-equipped and perilously naïve about the appalling conditions in the terrain yet they managed to achieve the first defeat against the Japanese.  A heroic victory like that warrants more than one work of popular history  and there are numerous books about it around, including the print version of Paul Ham’s Kokoda, at 624 pages long and The Spouse’s copy of Peter FitzSimons’ Kokoda, at 512 pages, but after reading Stalingrad last year I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to read either of them.  The audio book seemed a more palatable way to get myself up to speed on the topic.

Paul Ham’s approach is like Antony Beevor’s in that it presents the perspectives of both sides of the combat.  The bibliography shows that the author researched extensively in both Australia and in Japan, and there are first-hand accounts from front-line troops on both sides.   His sources included official military documents, participants’ diaries, private papers and interviews, but it is these personal accounts which make some aspects of it even more chilling.

While the analysis includes deconstruction of Australia’s shocking unpreparedness, its sometimes poor military leadership, and its unwarranted deference to Macarthur, what stays in my mind is the stories of soldiers battling hunger and disease, struggling along the track without medical help, and fighting to the death because defeat was unconscionable.  For the Australians, the battle was to protect their homeland; for the Japanese it was to obey unquestioningly the Emperor’s command to conquer Greater East Asia. It was a savage battle: in contravention of the rules of war, neither side took many prisoners, and for the Australians, there was the added fear of Japanese cannibalism.  But Ham also faces up to Australian atrocities.  I expect most Australian readers would find that as disconcerting as I did.

In a comprehensive review at The Age (which I hope you can still see as paywalls are introduced) academic Charles Schencking notes that there are some factual inaccuracies, but he doesn’t say what they are other than to contest Ham’s claim that cannibalism was a deliberate policy of the Japanese High Command.   (Ham also says that the failure of Japanese supply lines that caused starvation for its troops to a catastrophic extent was a factor.)  Whether this particular atrocity was or wasn’t policy seems irrelevant to me because so many of the Japanese atrocities were officially sanctioned that it seems like nit-picking to try to exonerate them on this one.  Japanese treatment of POWs and their exploitation of female prisoners as so-called ‘comfort women’ was and remains outrageous, yet apologies have never been made, nor compensation paid.

Like most books about the realities of war, Kokoda is confronting reading,   I’m not at all sure that there’s much in this book that I’d like to share with primary school children…

Author: Paul Ham
Title: Kokoda
Publisher: Bolinda Publishing, 2010, first published 2004
ISBN: 9781742148281
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: Kokoda (audio) or Kokoda (print)

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