Recent years have seen a steady increase in young people attending Anzac Day parades, Gallipoli commemoration events and trekking the Kokoda Trail. But is it a case of never have there been so many so interested in so few key events with so little learned?
One obvious reason for this increasing participation is growing nationalism and nation-building mythology - even though most of the young Australians who camp out at Gallipoli are probably unaware, among the allies, Britain and France both lost far more men in that bloody campaign than Australia or New Zealand.
However, beyond this over-simplified focus on iconic patriotic events, baby-boomers and their children appear to be fuelling a genuine and perhaps enduring interest in military aspects of history and current affairs, both in Australia and elsewhere.
This is clearly not manifested in a desire to take an active part in war - as demonstrated by the ongoing recruitment challenges facing the armed forces in Australia and other Western countries.
But the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has certainly made military strategy a central topic of conversation throughout the country, and has more young people thinking and arguing and demonstrating about war and military affairs than at any time since Vietnam. Unfortunately, it would also appear that much of that interest is confined to short term political events, with limited real understanding of the historic context of war in general and the Iraq War in particular.
Most libraries have a wide range of histories and memoirs about the 1991 Gulf War, which lasted less than a month and saw perhaps 30,000 Iraqi troops killed and about 400 Coalition dead - a large proportion of the latter lost to accidents and friendly fire. (And even these numbers are hotly disputed.)
By contrast the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War which immediately preceded it (and which has a vital strategic relevance to the current situation in Iraq) cost the combatant nations an estimated one million killed. Yet this bloody nine-year war seldom made our evening TV news at the time, and today is rarely mentioned, let alone featured in the standard literature.
While just about every bookshop in Australia now has an extensive display section marked “military”, the great majority of the books remain Western in outlook and thoroughly Eurocentric. There is, for instance, plenty on red-coated heroes facing the fierce Zulus, but very little on the great Zulu wars of succession which were fought a few decades earlier. And it is even harder to locate anywhere a good English language book on the dramatic military campaigns at the birth of Islam.
With such a highly selective diet of information available, even about contemporary wars, it is hardly surprising that many people turn instead to popular culture, especially movies.
Over the last few years Hollywood has renewed its love-affair with once-popular military subjects, releasing films about recent wars such as Three Kings, Blackhawk Down and We Were Soldiers and the World War 11 dramas, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line and Letters from Iwo Jima. Nineteenth century military exploits were the focus of The Last Samurai and Master and Commander, while growing interest in medieval and ancient military history has produced films including Troy, Alexander, Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven and even Gladiator.
Likewise, Australian film too is now witnessing a revival of interest in military themes not seen since the golden years of the 1980’s which produced classics such as Breaker Morant (1980) and Gallipoli (1981) and television series like 1915 (1982), ANZACS (1985), A Fortunate Life (1986) and The Sullivans (1976-1983).
After a fallow period, this renewed interest in Australia has seen outstanding movies like Paradise Road (1997) and Kokoda (2006) as well as the TV mini-series Changi (2001) and Curtin (2007), not to mention scores of local TV documentaries exploring just about every aspect of Australia’s military past.
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