Book Review – ANZAC’s Long Shadow: The cost of our national obsession

Reading Time: 6 minutes

ANZAC’s Long Shadow: The cost of our national obsession by James Brown

As most people who have an understanding of the origins of The Junior Officers’ Book Shelf would know, this organisation stemmed from a WhatsApp group of Junior Officers’ where articles and advice was freely shared on the profession of arms. As a part of this, a book club was formed that was run on a monthly basis out of one of the Officers messes. It was through one of these book club meetings that I first heard of James Brown’s book ‘ANZAC’s Long Shadow’ on high recommendation by a peer. A year later and knees deep wading through books at a second hand book fair, I finally spotted and, full of the unbridled excitement that only comes from having arms full of discounted books, subsequently purchased it. 

Although it only took a day to get through this book whilst out field on exercise, it was somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster, which is in itself a direct reflection of the attachment that Australian citizens and service people alike have for ANZAC Day and the meaning of ‘ANZAC’. 

Brown, a previously serving Army Officer, forms several arguments throughout the book, utilising his own life and experiences to do so. His main argument seems to be that the amount of emphasis placed on ANZAC Day and most things to do with the terminology ‘ANZAC’ are inappropriate, disproportionate to the result of the battle of Gallipoli and detract from current veterans, current operations and funding for future warfare. 

The start of the book was written very emotively. When confronted with emotive verbiage that is used to shape a reader into leaving them feeling as if any opinion contradictory to that of the author is wrong, as opposed to utilising facts to build an argument, I tend to believe the opposite. Emotive etymology, especially of a negative nature, generally indicates a lack of analysis and understanding of a problem to support the perspective of an individual on that argument. It is based on this generalisation that I usually cease reading or listening to that perspective. In this particular instance I am glad that I didn’t. 

The author commenced the book by painting ANZAC Day as a grotesque and expensive portrait of clashing loud colours that would make anyone want to turn away. He likens ANZAC Day to ‘an all Australiana jamboree’. The book was published in 2014, a year prior to the ANZAC centenary, and Brown uses the celebration to highlight the spectacle that he believes ANZAC Day has become. 

Brown uses his operational experience in Afghanistan as a platform to highlight that the population of Australia as a generalisation, does not understand the current operational commitments of the ADF. Despite the obvious signs of aging within the novel, such as his assessment that the Australian government would decide to pull ADF personnel out of Afghanistan ‘soon’, his assessment of the divide between military operations and the understanding that Australian citizens have of them, rings true to this day. Despite information being readily available to the Australian public about most of the operations that Australia is supporting world wide, there remains an air gap between the ADF and the general public. Brown argues that part of this break down in understanding is based on the fact that media outlets spend too much time advertising commemorative events and not enough time educating the public on current commitments. 

Despite being in overall agreeance with this assessment, Brown laboured too long on his personal operational experiences and in too much unnecessary detail, lending the narrative toward personal memoires rather than demonstrating the point. The result of this is that the adulation spent on the ANZACs and the Battle of Gallipoli that Brown is arguing against, is almost one for one replaced by his experience of the middle east and Afghanistan. Due to this, the issue of becoming fixated and learning from what is commonly termed as ‘A war, not thewar’ becomes a real problem and one that has been seen across the Australian Army in the space of professional training and education.

It is also in this middle eastern glow that Brown creates a hierarchy of the different deployed experiences within Afghanistan. With comments such as “Kabul was a surreal circus, as if Faulty Towers had gone to war” and describing Kandahar through a quote by another Australian Officer as “a place where aircraft were launched ‘a cross between the Hilton Hotel and a Westfield shopping complex’” he diminishes the efforts of all Australian personnel who were deployed there. This message is in contradiction to both the dedication at the start of his book to the men and women of the future Australian Defence Force, but also to his current role as the President of the NSW RSL. This is was disappointing to read.

As Brown writes further on the Afghanistan conflict, he highlights the emphasis that was placed on the deaths that occurred in Afghanistan by the Australian media and subsequently, the general public. Brown does a very good job here of demonstrating that through the glorification of commemoration and due to a long period of peace, Australians had lost their tolerance to death on military operations. As much as any death may be unfortunate, it is the price paid for war and is why war should be used strategically and only when other means have been exhausted or are inappropriate. Death in conflict should not come as a shock, nor should it garner as much attention as the deaths in the Afghanistan conflict did, whereby Prime Ministers would attend every funeral. In doing this, Australians have not readied themselves for the shock of real conflict. If history and human nature have taught us anything, it is that a large scale and lethal conflict will likely occur again.

One of the closing points that Brown makes within the novel is directed toward looking after contemporary veterans. Brown uses the example of the RSL to highlight that veterans of recent conflict do not support or feel welcomed within RSLs and as a result, these organisations have lost their way and become commercialised. Throughout this rhetoric, we see the political side of Brown really show itself. At the time of writing the novel, Brown was the president of a branch of the NSW RSL, however he is now, as previously discussed, the president of the NSW RSL. It is hard to not see his argument as a strategic use of his message regarding ANZAC and the ADF as a way for him to move through the ranks of the RSL. Due to this, his message, however true it may be, becomes muddied.

As agreeable as I became with the overall argument that Brown makes regarding the requirement for more attention and funding to be utilised for current and future operations, the book did not examine all sides of the argument in this case. The benefits of ANZAC Day, including the community coming together and the general public having a growing sense of pride in the military, however tainted through rosy glasses, as well as the second and third order effects that this may have on future operations, were not looked at. 

Should Brown’s concepts for ANZAC Day being a quieter affair be observed, there is also no guarantee that this funding would be rerouted to the military. The portioning of government funds is a direct reflection of government priorities. As Brown rightly points out in his opening chapters, ANZAC is bipartisan, however placing a higher priority on military funding is a very political and controversial decision. 

Overall, I highly recommend this book to junior officers. As much as I disagreed with the delivery and presentation of the message, I concurred with the message itself. Australian citizens should have a greater understanding of the operational commitments that its military are involved in and sufficient funding should be allocated to current and future warfare in order to ensure that where possible, large scale loss of life is avoided. Despite measures being sought to avoid unnecessary loss of life, as a nation we should not become fixated on operational deaths when they occur as this is an inevitable factor of warfare.

Further, should the focal point of ANZAC Day commemorations be redirected to respecting current and ex-serving ADF personnel and the operations we are supporting, this will greatly decrease the current divide between the nation and its military.

This was an overall emotive book that elicited an emotive response. This fact is another reason as to why this is an important book for junior officers to read. Forming an opinion and being able to voice that opinion where appropriate (note that this book was released two years after Brown left the military) is an important part of being an Officer.

Jess Ward is a currently serving Australian Army Officer with over a decade of experience. Jess has commanded within Combat Brigades, on Operations and as an instructor. Jess has been published in ‘Winning Westeros: How Game Of Thrones explains modern military conflict’ as well as several professional military education websites. Jess curates The Bookshelf. Follow Jess at @JessPixWard