Wednesday, 17 August 2016

An open letter regarding the Elsie Locke Award and 'Anzac Heroes'

My grandmother, Elsie Locke, was a highly regarded author of children's books. Although I'm proud that her name is associated with several different awards for children's fiction, I am angry and offended by the fact that her name is now associated with an abysmal book called 'Anzac Heroes'. This is a copy of my letter to the three judges of the New Zealand Book Awards (Children's Non Fiction section):

Dear Fiona Mackie, Kathy Aloniu and Melinda Szymanik:

I am writing to you to express my deep distress and concern regarding your choice of the recent winner of the Elsie Locke Award for Children’s Non Fiction. I believe that my grandmother, were she alive today, would be deeply shocked and offended by the selection of Maria Gill’s ‘Anzac Heroes: 30 Courageous Anzacs from WWI and WWII’. Elsie Locke fought hard for the causes of peace and social justice, and this struggle necessarily involved a considered opposition to war propaganda and war glorification. Maria Gill’s book is a textbook example of ‘Anzackery’, the sentimentalised and militarised version of Anzac remembrance which currently dominates the school system and the mainstream media.

I struggle to find a suitable analogy for the contrast between the book and my memory of Elsie Locke. “Chalk and cheese” metaphors do not begin to describe the intellectual and spiritual dissimilarity between the two. Imagine a parallel universe in which Winston Peters had some connection with children’s literature and had his name bestowed on the award instead of Elsie Locke. Consider the inappropriateness of this Winston Peters Award being given to a book about, say, ‘Chinese Heroes: 30 courageous immigrant stories’. Multiply that inappropriateness by a factor of one hundred or so, and you will have some sense of the contrast and contradiction your recent decision has created.

Elsie Locke did not write very much about Anzac day. I’m not sure if she ever attended an Anzac service, but I vividly recall the fact that as a child my mother prevented me attending Anzac dawn parades because she thought them ethically and politically compromised by a more or less pronounced attachment to pro-war sentiments and ideas. This attitude makes perfect sense when you consider the influence her mother Elsie had upon her:

‘In the aftermath of the First World War, April 25 was a day of deep mourning, when no one would have dreamed of suggesting to grieving families that their men had died for no good reason. As time went on, the emphasis on the sacrifices they had made was increasingly linked with the glorification of war itself and the idea that boys growing up must be prepared to do the same again. The Returned Soldier’s Association, later the Returned Services’ Association, held the premier place in the ceremonies. Fighting for one’s country was regularly emphasised as a virtue in itself, with no questions raised about why the men were called upon to fight, or whether their sacrifice was necessary.’

That’s a quote from Chapter 40 (‘Anzac Days’) of Elsie Locke’s book ‘Peace People: A History of Peace Activities in New Zealand’. The rest of the chapter is about how anti – Vietnam war protestors mobilised against the reactionary imperialist sentiments of Anzac day to further the causes of peace and social justice.

Although schoolboy tales of Daring and Heroic soldiers were not the kind of stories my grandmother indulged in, she was an insightful commentator on the effects of war and the way that it can change people’s minds about politics and society. Here’s another quote from Chapter 13 (‘The Aftermath of War’):

‘But there were many counter-currents flowing. The peace settlement of 1919, the Treaty of Versailles, was a shock and a revelation to many humane people who had sincerely expected some kind of a better world. The terms imposed on a beaten Germany were so vengeful, onerous and humiliating that the ‘war to end war’ was exposed as a hollow slogan. Germany could never be expected to remain permanently disarmed and saddled with the war guilt. Retaliation was sure to follow. This vindictive settlement was a key factor in the conversion to pacifism of O.E. (Ormond) Burton, a twice decorated returned soldier and the author of the official history of the Auckland regiment. He was not the only one who felt betrayed and cheated, and who now probed into the politics behind the fighting.’

Had Elsie Locke ever written a book about New Zealand war veterans, it would very likely have included Ormond E Burton. She would likely have quoted passages from his book The Silent Division, which vividly portrays the horrendous and inhuman reality of the trenches of WWI. Had she written the book for a younger audience she would have had the highest respect for the natural inquisitiveness of children. Why was New Zealand involved in such a far away war? Did everyone support the war? What effect did it have on women and children? What happened to the soldiers when they got home? Why were we fighting the Germans? Who benefitted from the war?

It is exactly these sorts of pertinent and critical questions which are completely and utterly lacking from Maria Gill’s book ‘Anzac Heroes’. Rather than looking at WWI and WWII in a broad social and historical context, Gill takes the perspective of military history. What’s important is battles, and in particular Heroes. Each Anzac Hero gets a full two page colour spread. They pose heroically with guns or binoculars or stethoscopes. We learn about all the medals they received, and detailed timelines tell us about the battles they fought. There are maps showing the details of military manoeuvres, historical photos showing scenes from the trenches (without a speck of blood) and a glossary at the end of the book with entries like ‘adversary’, ‘flak’, ‘booby trap’ and ‘garrison duty’. There is a cartoonish and commercial quality to the presentation. It is easy to imagine a very similar looking book describing ‘Star Wars’ heroes, with detailed diagrams of the Death Star and hyper-real pictures of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo posing next to their spaceships.

Buried at the end of the book in the ‘Medics’ section is a table of casualties, accompanied by a small amount of text which describes some of the horrific injuries suffered by the soldiers. This token recognition is massively outweighed by the dominant tone of the book: it’s about Brave Soldiers and exciting War Stories. ‘Anzac Heroes’ is a 21st century Boys Own adventure, a history lesson for 12 year old boys who want to continue playing with toy soldiers with all of their illusions intact. History is reduced to the violent acts of men in uniform, and the violence itself is cloaked behind a sentimental narrative of bravery and sacrifice. Let’s recall those words of my grandmother once again: ‘Fighting for one’s country was regularly emphasised as a virtue in itself, with no questions raised about why the men were called upon to fight, or whether their sacrifice was necessary.’ This book clearly exemplifies this attitude exactly: it glorifies the bravery and character of the people who fought without any sort of critical thinking about why they fought. This reverential and sentimental approach towards our history is noxious. It not only fails to engage in any sort of critical thinking about war, it effectively encourages a moral prohibition on such critical questions being posed. Respect for bravery and sacrifice prevent us even considering the difficult questions around the impact of violence, war and politics.

There are many other criticisms and comments I could make about ‘Anzac Heroes’, but it is probably more worthwhile to simply point out the review I wrote on my blog:  Heroic Hogwash

I would also encourage you to read Carolyn Holbrook’s speech to the UNSW History Teacher’s Summer School, which discusses the question of how Anzac history should be taught in Australia. It begins with these words:

“Tonight I want to make an argument about how the history of the First World War should be taught to Australian school children. I agree with Stuart that we need to teach our children about the Australian experience of World War One within a broader, international setting. But I think we should go further. I believe that we need to educate our children, and indeed broader society, about the fact that Anzac commemoration itself has a history. That the ‘spirit of Anzac’ did not descend in its present form on 25 April 1915. That it has been a dynamic and fascinating phenomenon. And, in its changing forms over the course of a century, the Anzac legend has held a mirror to Australian society.”

I have spoken to other members of my family who also feel that the award is offensive and inappropriate. It has been pointed out that Elsie deeply respected the values of autonomy and free speech. So it would be appropriate and honourable for us as a family to not interfere or prejudice your decisions as judges of the award, to avoid any form of what might be judged to be censorship. Freedom of speech goes both ways however, and I will be exercising my right to express my critical opinion on this book loudly and publicly.

Yours Sincerely,

Tim Leadbeater (grandson of Elsie Locke)


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