‘The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia’ by Christina Twomey

twomey

2018, 320 p

Over the last few years, there has been a steady flow of books by historians written to counter the tidal wave of WWI centenary ‘celebration’. The ANZAC legend, which has been contentious for some decades, has been given a good working-over, and there will probably be further retrospectives once the various centenaries are over.

But although it’s not yet possible to know how and if opinion about the ANZACs will be resolved, there are some other questions about the relationships between the Australian military overseas and broader society ‘at home’ where the tide of opinion has already swung.  In her book The Battle Within,  Christina Twomey focuses on the WWII  prisoners-of-war, particularly those imprisoned by the Japanese, and traces through the changes in society’s reception and recognition of them. Unlike the WWI re-evaluation still under way, the trajectory of opinion about POWs can already be discerned and has probably settled, although who knows what a centenary in 2039-45 will bring. Her title The Battle Within is a neat one. Not only did individual POWs have their own own internal battle, but there was a public-relations and repatriation battle among POWs themselves too.

It is the POWs of the Japanese who most starkly captured the Australian imagination on their return after the war. Cameras captured their skeletal frames and their 36% death rate was much higher than WWI POWs (9%) or those who had been taken prisoner in Europe during WWII (3%).  Donald Trump’s 2015 jibe at John McCain (“I like people who weren’t captured”) goes to the ambivalence about the reception of the returning POW back in 1945. Even though it was broadly recognized that the Australian forces in Asia had surrendered as a consequence of decisions made by British and Dutch commanders, there was still an internalized and tacit suspicion that POWs were ‘second-class’ soldiers.  As prisoners, they were removed from the masculine arena of aggression and valour; they were unable to protect the women who were taken prisoner too, and worse still, they were humiliated by being taken captive by Asian forces. WWII propaganda had depicted the Japanese as small, short sighted, simian and Asian (p. 27).  To be treat as a ‘white coolie’ triggered resonances of slavery and indentured Indian and Chinese labour.

Twomey’s book has four sections. In Part I she examines official attitudes to Prisoners of War; in Part II she looks to the former-POWs themselves as they tried to rebuild their lives and take up marriages. Part III ‘Coming to Terms with Asia’ looks at post-war Australian relations with Japan and Asia in general, and Part IV ‘The battle resolved’ traces changes in official and public perceptions of the POW experience.

The authorities were determined not to make a special case of the POWs, as distinct from other soldiers and the post-war campaign for a subsistence allowance for each day of captivity failed. Nor did medical understanding following the war help their cause. After WWI, governments and psychiatrists had largely abandoned ‘shell-shock’ as a way of understanding the psychiatric casualties of war, instead defining it as ‘neurosis’ that arose among people predisposed to mental illness through existing weakness, imprisonment or not.  If pre-existing mental weakness did not exist, then medical problems were explained as tropical bacterial and intestinal illnesses.

In this, POWs were not served well by those other POWs from the officer corps who had the ear of government, who strongly resisted the idea of ‘barbed wire disease’.  This class aspect comes through strongly. The death rate of 37% in ‘other ranks’ of POWs of the Japanese dropped to close to 10% among  officers, many of whom spent their war years separated from other prisoners. Through pre-existing networks and dynamics of education, opportunity and wealth, it was men of the officer class who were appointed as the spokesmen of POWs and served as their representatives on different consultative bodies.  Some of the most prominent, e.g. Ted Fisher from the Council of the 8th Division, were dismissive of ‘sob stuff’.

The Prisoners of War Trust Fund was established by Prime Minister Menzies in October 1950, after the failure of the campaign for subsistence payments. It was open to former POWs from both the Pacific and European theatres of the Second World War.  The Repatriation Department held the line that POWs were not to be treated as a ‘class apart’ from other ex-service personnel, but there was constant pressure from ex-service organizations and parliamentarians to take some action towards former POWs. The Prisoners of War Trust Fund was more like a charity than a government service, with rigorous vetting of applicants and no avenue of appeal.  The board of the fund, which oversaw its distribution, comprised two senior public servants and three former POWs, all from the officer class.

The letters of application to this fund forms the archival basis of Twomey’s book, most particularly in Part II.   In the absence of  POW repatriation files  (which are not yet available), the application letters to the fund provide her with an available and valuable resource that reflects both how the POWs conceptualized their needs, and the board’s concern for respectability and determination not to be ‘taken in’ by spurious claims. As she notes,

The applicants to the fund were, by and large, from the ‘other ranks’: men of limited education who often had menial jobs and sometimes lives blighted by alcoholism, depression, marriage breakdown or loneliness. Yet many of them took the opportunity, in shaky handwriting or in bold, capital letters, to make known their views about the treatment meted out to former prisoners, their family troubles and their struggles to rehabilitate. (p.xvi)

The ex-POW board representatives were from the officer class, and their class perspective  came through in the rejections and restrictions imposed by the board when administering the fund.

A similar bifurcation, with some class and education overtones, emerged in the decades after the war when some former POWs publicly supported the need for reconciliation with Japan. In some cases, this was for political reasons, especially amongst those from the ex-officer cohort who were politically aligned with conservative parties, when the fear of Chinese communism meant that alliances had to be formed with the Japanese as a way of countering the sweep of communism. Other considerations were economic, especially in the 1970s and 1980s in Queensland with Japanese-oriented tourist developments and with the mooted Multi-Function Polis in Adelaide, where the Japanese were seen as a lucrative market.  Other POWs acted out of spiritual or conscientious motives. However, this only served to throw into relief those POWs who did not feel this way, and who could not forget, much less forgive. This characterization of the POW as bitter and back-ward looking remnant became a trope for exploring Australia’s xenophobic past.

So what changed?  Opposition to the Vietnam War undermined the national mythology of Anzac and questioned Australia’s role in Asian wars. In the 1980s and 1990s a wave of prisoner diaries and memoirs was published, most particularly Arneil’s One Man’s War which was an instant success, praised by left-wing historians as a means by which to complicate the “jingoes and militarists” (p. 219) whom they believed had come to dominate Anzac Day.  In 1980 the U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognized post-traumatic stress disorder, and new understandings of trauma replaced the older view of a pre-existing mental weakness. In 1984 the ABC Radio National documentary P.OW. Australians under Nippon was published as a book and has been repeated as recently as February 2017 (listen here).  As Twomey notes:

In this confluence of events, POWs emerged as historical figures capable of expressing contemporary tensions about war, identity, race and region. By the 1970s the POW story could pull in many directions at one: as a metaphor to express ongoing anxiety about the potential for domination by Asia, as evidence that forgiveness and racial tolerance were possible, and as a reflection of outdated attitudes towards racial difference. As a victim of war’s terror, ultimately the POW was perfectly placed to revive interest, in a non-belligerent way, in the military history of a country that had, but for a short period, been particularly attached to war as an essential element of its national story. (p. 215)

I very much enjoyed this book.  It is well written and engaging, and refreshingly clean of military ra-ra. She makes good use of her resources in bringing former POWs to life, while acknowledging the class and political influences that affected their treatment by both bureaucracies and the public at large.  She starts and finishes her book with a personal reflection on the Thai-Burma railway, which has come to epitomize the place of the POWs of Japan in the Australian memory of WWII.  It’s a powerful image:

Just as a visitor to Hellfire Pass can pick out the railway line by glimpsing the sleepers beneath the gravel, as a historian I have dug deep in the archive to reveal the foundations of the POW story in Australian culture. It is tempting to see the current veneration of former POWs as running along clean iron rails, from the past to the present.  This book suggests that the sidings were many, that the tracks were buckled and warped, and that the burden of this difficult journey fell most heavily on the people with the least social, cultural and economic resources to carry it. (p.xviii)

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

[An update: My attention was taken by the recent decision to award the Commendation for Gallantry Award for POWs who were killed escaping or after capture. As Monteath noted in his book Captured Lives on internment in Australia, to seek to escape was seen to be a legitimate act of an imprisoned soldier. Nonetheless, it has taken 75 years for them to be recognized. And is there still an implicit question-mark over those who did not escape? The tension remains.]

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have added this book to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

5 responses to “‘The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia’ by Christina Twomey

  1. I bought this one a little while ago too – I think that ABC radio series was outstanding …

    • I haven’t listened to the ABC series- I must download it and add it to my TBLT (to be listened to) list, along side my TBR list.

  2. Resources on this book here http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/twomey-christina-the-battle-within-pows-in-postwar-australia/ Christina Twomey is one of Honest History’s distinguished supporters.

  3. I (we) grew up in a time when most fathers were returned servicemen. I enjoyed your analysis of this work, but I’m sure my, and I think most opinions were formed particularly by The Bridge on the River Kwai and by the legends around Weary Dunlop. My recollection is of sympathy for POWs, not blame. Of course I picked up on the officer class angle in The Bridge but I hadn’t thought about its consequences post war.

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