Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/September 2012/Op-ed

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Conference report: "Kokoda : Beyond the Legend"

By Nick-D

On 6 and 7 September I attended the Australian War Memorial (AWM) conference "Kokoda : Beyond the Legend". This conference was conducted to mark the 70th anniversary of the Kokoda Track campaign during World War II, and was focused mainly on the Pacific War during 1942. The conference featured an impressive cast of Australian and international military historians, including Antony Beevor, David Horner, Richard B. Frank, Edward J. Drea and John B. Lundstrom, as well as several less famous, but well regarded, specialist historians of the fighting in New Guinea (most notably, Mark Johnson and Philip Bradley as well as several of the AWM's historians).

As some background for non-Australian readers, the AWM has the dual mission of serving as the main point of commemoration for the casualties of Australia's wars and fostering improved understanding of the country's military history. It has historically interpreted the later task as involving publishing (generally) unvarnished and scholarly military history, as well as supporting other historians who want to take a 'warts and all approach'. As a result, it was appropriate that this conference - which covers the best-known Australian campaign of World War II - was focused on countering some of the myths which have sprung up about the events of 1942. In the last couple of decades many books and TV series have promoted a romantic and overly dramatic view of Kokoda, with the result that many Australians believe that the campaign saved the country from Japanese invasion (it didn't) and that that the Australian Army units and commanders fought well but were betrayed by Douglas MacArthur and senior Australian Army officers (while they generally made the best of very difficult circumstances, some commanders and units failed, the Japanese also generally performed well and the campaign was a learning experience for the senior Allied commanders).

The presentations

The conference was held in the AWM's theatre (pictured here during the GLAM Wiki - Canberra 2009 conference)

The conference started on a high note, with Antony Beevor providing an overview of the events of late 1941 and 1942 during his keynote address. Beevor placed the Kokoda campaign in context through an excellent analysis of the strategies implemented by the main countries, noting that while the first half the the year contained a series of major disasters for the Allies, their underlying military and economy strengths and some important battlefield successes meant that their ultimate victory was inevitable by November 1942. Unfortunately I had to miss the next couple of speeches (by David Horner and Edward J. Drea), but John B. Lundstrom's speech after lunch in which he dissected the US Navy's activities and infighting among the senior admirals was superb. James Zobel (the MacArthur Memorial's archivist) then gave a highly entertaining, but not always very convincing, account of General Douglas MacArthur's performance during 1942, which made a pretty good case for MacArthur and his senior staff all being half mad. The first day ended with a study in contrasts; historian and Kokoda track guide Rowan Tracey gave a rather old-fashioned speech which focused on the famous units and leaders of the campaign and AWM historian Karl James presented a detailed, but very clinical, account of the battle of Eora Creek (I enjoyed this speech more than Tracey's, but James' use of modern Australian military slang was rather jarring).

Mark Johnson (the Head of History at Scotch College and a well respected historian of the Australian military in World War II) opened the second day of the conference with an speech on the Royal Australian Air Force's performance during the Papuan Campaign; he successfully used anecdotes to illustrate his analysis, and made a fairly convincing argument that the campaign marked the RAAF's 'finest hour'. Following an panel discussion by several of the historians who'd spoken on the first day, Peter Williams gave an interesting speech which outlined his recent research which found that the Japanese forces involved in the Kokoda Track campaign were smaller than is often thought. Haruki Yoshida (an independent historian who often works for the AWM) followed with a first-rate speech which discussed several of the key Japanese commanders in the Kokoda Campaign and made a convincing argument for them being, by and large, professional soldiers who did their best to execute orders they knew were unrealistic. Phillip Bradley, who has written several books on the fighting in New Guinea throughout the war then followed with a good, though slow-paced, presentation on the Battle of Milne Bay which featured excellent maps of the battle. After lunch Robyn Kienzle gave a rather lightweight account of her father's role in arranging supply lines for the Australian forces engaged in the Kokoda Track campaign. She was followed by Deveni Temu (a senior librarian at the Australian National University), who made much better use his father's experience as a porter for the Australians to discuss the conditions endured by New Guineans at the hands of both the Allied and Japanese forces. Politician and experienced Kokoda trekker Charlie Lynn then gave an awful speech which mixed political attacks with tedious rambling about why the term 'trail' should be used instead of 'track'. Two academic historians spoke during the the final session; Peter J. Dean gave an scholarly and interesting speech on the performance of the Allied commanders during the poorly-handled Battle of Buna–Gona, and Garth Pratten finished the conference with an overly academic, but very convincing, discussion of how the Australian Army institutionalised the lessons it learned from the fighting in 1942.

Ideas and issues for Wikipedia articles

An obvious issue that the conference raised is just how limited our coverage of the fighting on the Kokoda trail is. While the Kokoda Track campaign article is in OK shape, we don't have articles on the campaign's individual battles, despite each of them being individually notable, and several being mildly famous. The deep knowledge which the conference's speakers and many people in the audience had about the campaign suggests that there's scope for good quality articles on all the key engagements. The detailed literature on this topic would also support specialised articles on topics such as how the armies were supplied, the methods used to evacuate casualties and the historiography of the campaign. Wikipedia's excellent coverage of the contemporary Guadalcanal Campaign (which is largely due to Cla68 (talk · contribs)'s work) shows what can be done on individual campaigns during this part of World War II.

Another issue which came out of the conference is the need to avoid overly 'dry' narratives while also not falling victim to a romantic or melodramatic perspective. I found Mark Johnson and Peter Dean's approaches to be particularly good; both men had researched their topics in great detail and developed well considered arguments, and they used anecdotes to help communicate their messages. This was much more effective than the presentations which consisted only of clinical analysis of battles as well as those which were a series of anecdotes strung loosely together.

Finally, the conference's main shortcoming also has lessons for our coverage of conflicts. While many of the speakers discussed Australian operations at the company and platoon level, there was little coverage of the experiences of the Japanese forces. Haruki Yoshida did a great job, and Edward J. Drea is an expert on the Imperial Japanese Army, but most of the other speakers focused only on the activities of Australian and American forces, and didn't cover the perspective from the 'other side of the hill' in any detail. While this reflects the difficulty in accessing Japanese sources, in several instances the speakers don't seem to have gone the extra mile to piece together the evidence which is available in English-language publications.

All up, this was a high quality and thought provoking conference. When the conference's proceedings are published (which will probably not be until late next year or the year after) they will be a useful reference for articles covering this period.

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  • Interesting - a really good writeup. Hchc2009 (talk) 08:07, 6 October 2012 (UTC)
    • Thank you Nick-D (talk) 23:06, 6 October 2012 (UTC)