Salute to Service: A History of the Royal New Zealand Corps of Transport and its Predecessors, 1860-1996
Victoria University Press, $49.95
ISBN 0 86473 324 0
Jayforce: New Zealand and the Military Occupation of Japan, 1945-48
Oxford University Press, $39.95
ISBN 0 19 55836 20
It’s a fact: the genre of military history is not held in high regard by many professional historians, who believe it lacks academic rigour, contains far too much anecdotal and emotive narrative, needlessly creates heroes and villains and, worst of all, glorifies warfare.
It is certainly true that much military history is poor, a problem apparently stemming from the inadequacies of the authors themselves. These writers – frequently “buffs” with little historical training, or former soldiers who cannot maintain any critical distance from past events – focus most of their attention on combat units and the “sharp end” of military operations with little regard to context and issues of truth, objectivity and bias.
Sir Michael Howard, John Keegan and several other scholars have done much in recent decades to rehabilitate military history’s reputation and demonstrate that it can be as rigorous, accurate and substantial as other types of historical enquiry. They have created a standard that numerous postgraduate history students and others are attempting to match. Yet a steady stream of inferior books still appears, confirming in the minds of critics their verdicts on the genre as a whole.
Unfortunately, New Zealand writers contribute to that stream of poor history. For instance, the book version of a popular museum exhibition on New Zealanders at war has sold well and enjoyed a high profile since it appeared in 1996. This beautifully produced coffee-table book contains plenty of interesting photographs but also a text full of anecdotal battlefield narrative peppered with hyperbole, errors and omissions. It adds nothing to knowledge and misleads readers on the size and significance of New Zealand’s contribution to coalition warfare throughout this century.
1997 was a far better year for New Zealand military history. Three substantial works appeared, all of a high standard and capable of proving the critics of military history wrong. The first of these, Glyn Harper’s Kippenberger: An Inspired New Zealand Commander, provides a sound and scholarly treatment of Major-General Sir Howard Kippenberger’s wartime command.
This book is actually the first in-depth analysis of a New Zealand Army commander other than General Sir Bernard Freyberg, the nation’s most famous military son. As such, it not only fills a sizable gap in the historical record of New Zealanders at war, but also demonstrates that even less illustrious New Zealand soldiers are worthy of significant research. It may inspire historians to look more closely at Russell, Puttick, Hargest, Awatere and other relatively unknown, but nonetheless important, commanders. The next two good military history books to appear in 1997, Julia Millen’s Salute to Service and Laurie Brocklebank’s Jayforce, are the subject of this review.
As its subtitle states, Millen’s book is “A History of the Royal New Zealand Corps of Transport and its Predecessors, 1860-1996”. It is, then, essentially a chronological survey of a single organisation’s activities throughout the last 140 years, resembling in its breadth and depth the institutional history of, say, a large government department. It is not the first book to focus on a single corps within the New Zealand military; there have been others, the most recent – Laurie Barber’s and Cliff Lord’s solid history of the Royal New Zealand Corps of Signals – appearing in 1996.
One problem with institutional histories, however, is that they tend to focus narrowly on the institution or structure under investigation, devoting too little space to the creation of adequate context. Barber’s and Lord’s book is a case in point. Although it covers deeply and accurately the development and activities of the corps, it frequently fails to explain sufficiently the causes and consequences of those activities. Millen’s book is no different. Despite its size – with 420 pages of text and photos, plus another 52 of scholarly paraphernalia, it’s a big book – it devotes too little space to context. I sometimes found myself thinking, “Hmm, that’s interesting, but I wonder why that happened” or “Boy, I wish there was more on that”. This occurred most when reading sections dealing with the transport corps’ peacetime activities.
Millen mentions the Great Depression, for example. Yet she does so in little depth, pointing out that defence expenditure dropped and that military personnel “saw action” during unemployment riots, but failing to devote sufficient attention to either of these important events. Instead she discusses promotional examinations and training. Nor does she discuss the Depression’s wider impact on the army in general and the transport corps in particular.
Despite this weakness, I thoroughly enjoyed Millen’s book, and not just for its marvellous selection of photographs, many of them published here for the first time. It’s impressively researched, meticulously documented and well-written text focuses on an area of military endeavour that usually receives little coverage: logistics. Most historical accounts of New Zealanders at war have downplayed or ignored entirely important transportation, supply and maintenance matters, paying excessive attention instead to combat units and their experiences on the battlefield.
Millen clearly wanted to do better, as the back cover blurb reveals: “Salute to Service is a tribute to many thousands of ordinary New Zealanders who, with less credit than they deserve, have played a rich part in the long history of the New Zealand Army.” Her tribute to the Army’s logistics personnel is no empty and undeserved eulogy; it is an accurate and truthful documentation of the always important, and sometimes decisive, contribution of logistics personnel to the wartime efforts and peacetime activities of New Zealand soldiers.
Students of the past attempting to make sense of New Zealand military endeavours, both wartime and peacetime, should not ignore this book, which enriches our understanding of why some proved successful and others did not. Libraries should order copies and place them alongside the histories of New Zealand combat units that seem so popular with veterans, military “buffs” and other borrowers.
Laurie Brocklebank’s lavishly illustrated book analyses the role of New Zealanders in what the book cover wrongly calls this nation’s first “peace-keeping mission”: the military occupation of Japan after World War II. The purpose of that mission, although undoubtedly important, differs vastly from that of “peace-keeping” undertaken, for instance, by United Nations “blue-helmets”, or even by New Zealanders currently serving in Bougainville, who separate quarrelling peoples or forces without taking sides. The occupiers of Japan had an aim far more focused and partisan than peace-keeping: to monitor the behaviour of a beaten but still disliked and distrusted foe in order to prevent it again threatening the security of the Pacific region.
The author argues that New Zealand contributed heavily to Japan’s occupation because it shared that antipathy towards Japan and, more significantly, because it wanted “to retain Britain as New Zealand’s security guarantor and to enhance the British Commonwealth”. This is a bold claim, but one that Brocklebank does not substantiate to the degree warranted by its importance.
There can be no doubt, though, that New Zealand took its commitment seriously. To the hastily assembled multi-national occupation force New Zealand contributed “Jayforce”, comprising an infantry brigade (9 Infantry Brigade, 2NZEF) and an air force squadron (No. 14 RNZAF).
Over the three years of the deployment, this contribution involved the services of as many as 12,000 men and women.
Brocklebank bases his thorough account of their deployment on official records, personal diaries and recollections (many not previously utilised) and an extensive body of secondary literature. He uses these records expertly to create a solid, thoughtful reconstruction of events that not only conveys essential information, but also manages something remarkable: through his careful selection of examples and his mature and compelling writing style, Brocklebank brings alive the everyday experiences of participants, and, as a result, creates an absorbing read out of what was, after all, an uneventful peacetime deployment. He admits himself that troop boredom remained widespread, yet even manages to make that boredom, and the reasons for it, seem interesting.
The most fascinating sections are not those that describe the occupation troops’ official duties – their daily routine still makes for dull reading, despite the author’s flair – but those that deal with their black marketeering, which became a headache to authorities, and their interaction with the Japanese. Many New Zealanders enjoyed intimate contact with Japanese women, despite this being illegal according to fraternisation rules. They did not limit themselves to prostitutes, some formed serious and exclusive personal relationships with housegirls or other workers. A high rate of infection with venereal diseases among New Zealanders reveals the widespread nature of this type of fraternisation.
Aside from this, New Zealanders generally found Japanese culture perplexing and, consequently, difficult to enjoy, a problem initially made worse by the common distrust and occasional hostility of many Japanese. Despite the gradual easing of tensions and the eventual relaxation of fraternisation prohibitions during 1947 and 1948, permitted interaction seldom extended beyond visits by occupation troops to sumo wrestling bouts, concerts, dances, markets (in search of kimonos, samurai swords, tea-sets and other items favoured as presents to send home), and historic sites. Sporting contests between New Zealanders and Japanese did take place, but only rarely, perhaps because communication proved too difficult. Few Japanese could speak English, and far fewer New Zealanders could speak Japanese.
Their return to New Zealand was, in many ways, anti-climactic. They certainly enjoyed little public acclamation. On the contrary, they found themselves treated differently from the veterans of “hot” theatres, as if somehow they were not “real” military personnel. Brocklebank quotes one ex-army officer, whose unkind words sum up this unfortunate attitude: “If a medal was struck for Jayforce, well of course the ribbon would be yellow”. Even the Returned Services’ Association initially denied Jayforce personnel membership unless they had served elsewhere overseas, a policy it finally reversed in 1964.
Brocklebank’s work demonstrates just how warranted that reversal was. Jayforce made a small but significant contribution to the establishment of security in the immediate post-war period. That contribution has been overlooked for five decades, a half-century in which numerous books have appeared to tell the “sexier” stories of New Zealand combat units at war. Brocklebank’s fine book should have joined them on our bookshelves long ago; at least it will now.
Joel Hayward lectures in Defence and Strategic Studies at Massey University.