ANZAC 2012

I don’t think that many romanticise war too much these days. And there is something very poignant and compelling about seeing the fruits of war.Picardie-2010-Dec-074-225x300

In northern France and Belgium the unimaginable scale of loss wrought upon so many families in the great wars of the twentieth century is still visible at every step.

It was in north eastern France that I found some family graves. Here is the the resting place of young ANZAC Rupert Alexander, aged 31 years, along with his compatriots lost in France in 1917.

This poem by Gellert captures the melancholy of war:

Anzac Cove

There’s a lonely stretch of hillocks:
There’s a beach asleep and drear:
There’s a battered broken fort beside the sea.
There are sunken trampled graves:
And a little rotting pier:
And winding paths that wind unceasingly.
There’s a torn and silent valley:
There’s a tiny rivulet
With some blood upon the stones beside its mouth.
There are lines of buried bones:
There’s an unpaid waiting debt :
There’s a sound of gentle sobbing in the South.

By Leon Gellert

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them”
Lest we forget

ANZAC Day: remembering some ordinary diggers, not famous, not important #ANZAC

Another ANZAC Day and another day to remember the sacrifices made by Australian and New Zealand forces. Those who serve in battle never get off lightly, even if they manage to survive seemingly unscathed.

This year I remember some family members – Claude and Tim from Crows Nest, and Henry Demas – who fought in the Second World War. These men were ordinary working class blokes, not famous, not important. Based on stories and their military records they were larrikins with some disrespect for hierarchy and authority.

Local boys from Crows Nest in Sydney, Claude and Tim fought in North Africa and the Pacific. They sailed to the Middle East and were at Tobruk for part of the siege. After being withdrawn from Tobruk and following a training period in Palestine they took part in the two epic battles at El Alamein (first battle of El Alamein and second battle of El Alamein) before returning to Australia in time for offensives against the Japanese in the New Guinea campaign. Their fourth and final campaign took place in British North Borneo.

Claude and Tim returned at the end of the war. But they did not return the same as they had left. Not physically damaged, yet they were each damaged in some ways.

Claude returned as an extremely angry man. He became an alcoholic, abandoned his young family, lived an itinerant existence and died alone in a veteran’s hospital on a Christmas Day in the 1960s. Ironically, after so many years of wandering away from his family, the hospital in which he died was only a few minutes away from his family who were celebrating Christmas. A sad end to the life of a man who, by all accounts, was intelligent and easy going in his youth.

Tim – a polite, kind and unassuming man – married, worked in a factory and lived a quietly medicated existence until his death in the 1980s. He never could sleep very well after the war and only rested with the help of medication and beer. Always a natty dresser, Tim never left the house without wearing a ‘proper’ hat; and he maintained meticulous personal hygiene throughout his life.

Washing and carefully drying his feet was an extremely important ritual for Tim several times a day. As a young child I did not understand any of this. I never understood why he was so obsessed with keeping his feet clean and dry. But I bet if we’d fought in tropical New Guinea and Borneo during that fierce fighting in impossible jungle terrain we’d want clean and dry feet for the rest of our life too.

I can truly understand why the generation of men who went off to fight in World War 2 wanted to come home and live quietly ordered lives. I can see the attraction of a world where supper was on the table at 6pm and everyone was safely behind their white picket fences.

Henry Demas was much more unlucky than Tim and Claude. He was part of the Australian 2/18th Battalion and was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in February 1942. This is such a sad story. He survived Sandakan – one of the most horrific parts of the war in the Pacific – until the war was almost over. Henry survived several of the Sandakan Death Marches only to die very close to ANZAC Day in 1945 – 28 April 1945. That simple fact made me cry. The Japanese surrender was only a few months away in September 1945. To be so close to the end and not survive seems terribly poignant.

But then only six men survived the horror of Sandakan, which some refer to as “Australia’s holocaust“. The exact numbers of the dead at Sandakan, as recorded by the Australian War Memorial: 2428 “known” dead: 1787 Australians and 641 British.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Source: The Ode

Lest we forget.

What’s in a name? Pirate, freedom fighter or terrorist

I recently discovered that one of my ancestors was arrested by the British in 1828 as a pirate and sent to Australia as a convict. He had originally been sentenced to death, but he appealed to the King and his sentence was commuted to life as a convict in Australia.

It was pretty cool to discover that my relative was both a pirate and a convict – Talk Like a Pirate Day will probably never be the same.

But then I started to delve a bit further into this story and the layers of complexity began to emerge.

My ancestor, Damianos Ninis, was a Greek freedom fighter in the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832) – a war against Ottoman Turkish oppression.

It is reported that at his trial the defence argued that:

the Greeks who were fighting a war against the Turks had the right “under international law to remove articles of war from a neutral ship proceeding to an enemy-occupied port (namely, Alexandria).” The verdict rendered by the Court stated that Manolis, Ninis and Vasilakis were to be sentenced to death, whilst Boulgaris, Papandreou, Stroumboulis and Laritsos though sentenced to death “but with a recommendation of these four to mercy, since, they had not taken a leading part nor committed any act of violence.”
Source: A History of Greek Migration and Settlement to Australia by Stavros T.Stavridis

It turns out that Damianos survived his time in Australia, having arrived on the ship Norfolk in 1829. He was granted a complete pardon in 1836 and returned to Greece the following year. Two of his sons later returned to Australia, hence the family line continues here.

All of this got me thinking about how important the words we use really are.

It is likely that Damianos and his compatriots considered themselves to be freedom fighters against an oppressive regime. To the Turks they were probably classified as terrorists, and the British categorised them as pirates.

I wonder how we can work this kind of thing out now. Who is a freedom fighter, who is a terrorist?

The question is very apt now with wars and upheavals leading to various waves of refugees, and continuing unrest in Palestine, North Africa and the Middle East. And I suspect that there are no easy answers.

Interesting perspective on war, innovation, skills and strategy from Col. John Boyd

This rare video of US Air Force Colonel John Boyd shows his 1991 House Armed Services Committee Testimony and is worth watching. Many consider him to be one of the best strategic thinkers of the twentieth century and his ideas have influenced many of today’s leading strategists.

Of particular interest is his focus on the essential inputs for winning victories in war, especially given the longstanding involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. They key elements he identifies are people, strategy and tactics, and military hardware.

Also there is considerable insight into the kind of roadblocks that institutions might throw up against innovators.

This video of the U.S. hearings into Military Reform After Operation Desert Storm (APRIL 30, 1991) is not short, but it provides some great food for thought.

Democracy in action, civil society and political change

Yesterday in New South Wales there was a major shift in the state’s political landscape. We saw a significant shift in voting with enormous swings against the ALP across the state and especially in traditional heartland seats.

The Liberals won seats in which they’d never imagined a serious contest. As election guru Antony Green noted:

“It’s very hard to believe it when you see a 30 per cent swing in a seat, which is what we saw in several seats.

They are astonishing figures; I mean there wouldn’t have been swings of that size since the Great Depression, since the defeat of Scullin, they are mammoth swings and that’s a very difficult thing to really get on top of on the night.”
Source: ABC’s election analyst ‘astonished’ by swing

What is of particular interest is that all of this change happened without any bloodshed. In fact, the leaders of each side – Kristina Kenneally for the ALP and Barry O’Farrell for the Liberal-National Coalition – maintained a civil demeanour towards each other throughout the campaign.

Apart from the odd bit of local bastardry – such as defacing posters – there were no reports of shots fired, no reports of fisticuffs, and no emotionally tinged polemics.

Instead, Barry O’Farrell (who has performed the miracle of unifying the Liberal-National Coalition) in his victory speech noted that his opponent, Kenneally, was a “skilled communicator and gutsy performer“.

While Kenneally noted in her concession speech:

“Tonight we acknowledge and accept the decision of the people of NSW,” she said speaking from the Randwick Labor Club. “And we accept their decision with humility and good grace.

“The people of NSW always get it right and so tonight I congratulate Mr O’Farrell and I wish him, and the government that he will form all the best.

This is a great place to live and to be free to exercise our democratic rights in peace. Unlike Ivory Coast where elections saw fifty-two people killed only a few days ago.

Complain about the political system in Australia if you like, but we are really a lucky country.

A real concern is the rise of divisive and un-civil behaviour in Australian federal politics. We need to fight against this rise of invective driven politics where personal attacks are the norm. It’s time to keep our traditions of a good fair fight that lets the people decide at the ballot box and which follows the rules of engagement set down in legislation.

Well played to both Barry O’Farrell and Kristina Kenneally. Good to see a change of government in NSW – sixteen years was a tad too long for any one party to rule.

Twitter turns 5: will it rule? via @stilgherrian

I had a chat with Stilgherrian (@stilgherrian) on ZDNet’s Patch Monday along with Open-source software advocate and developer Jeff Waugh (@jdub) and James Purser (@purserj) from Collaborynth, a consultancy that develops collaboration tools for business, government and not-for-profits.

You can listen to our discussion on this nifty embedded player:

A lucky country indeed …

Even though it was once said ironically, it has always seemed to me that Australia really is the lucky country. Our national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, sums it up:

We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil…
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts…
We’ve boundless plains to share…

In recent times the troubles of far off places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and others have made me think about Australia.

We have been very lucky. Australia has a good economy, stable government, social cohesion, rule of law and a very congenial way of life. We have adjusted to the rigours of our climate, which has been so well described by Dorothea Mackellar in her poem My Country.

Australia alternates between flood and fire in ways that would make most people blanch. But in between we enjoy weather, beaches, mountains and scenery that are breathtaking in their beauty. And our healthy economy means that we enjoy amenities that inhabitants of other countries might envy.

But given the challenges that we face as part of the world community – climate change, food security, refugees, religious and political extremism – Australians need to start thinking about how we can best meet these challenges.

It is somewhat disconcerting to realise, given the enormous challenges facing us, that neither of the major political parties in Australia has any proposal or policy to deal with them.

Instead the political parties are consumed with petty internal divisions and ignore those for whom they supposedly stand. Our political parties and the current crop of hacks certainly live up to the second part of Donald Horne’s saying:

“Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.”

When did the Liberal Party become the party of naysaying cold-hearted xenophobes? When did the Labor Party become a cold-hearted machine driven by internal polling and factions?

I think the past elders of each party would be horrified to see the nasty polemical poll driven machines that each has become.

How do they sleep at night when they fight against each other, not for principle nor for policy, but for petty gain that sets the needs of the nation and its people as naught?

We need leaders of of vision. We need leaders who can look twenty or more years into the future, then build and plan for it. We need the kind of vision that built us a nation. We need the kind of principles that gave us a fair and equitable system for determining the treatment of working people. We need an engaged citizen populace who are educated enough to participate in democracy as educated citizens.

Most of all we need leaders who do not fall back into polemical and party driven positions that do not reflect the many shades of grey in the real world. We need leaders with compassion for people and who are true to the spirit of a fair go for all in this nation.

Some preliminary thoughts about revolutions

There is a lot of talk about revolution happening now in online communities given the unfolding events in Tunisia and Egypt. This has got me thinking about the nature of revolutions. There’s a rather nice list of revolutions and rebellions on Wikipedia for those who are not up to date with the history of revolutions.

Revolutions come in different forms. Revolutions in ideas and thinking have changed our society and belief patterns. Political revolutions have reshaped our polity. Revolutions can be peaceful, dangerous, bloody. But rarely are they run according to a plan and rarely do they achieve a set outcome. And many times the unintended consequences shape the future as much as did the intentions of the revolutionaries.

This issue makes me think back to one of the seminal thinkers about the nature of scientific revolutions – Thomas Kuhn. He wrote before many of us were born; and one of his most controversial and revolutionary works was a monograph called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this work Kuhn argued that scientific progress was discontinuous and driven by human subjective behaviour that was not always entirely rational.

Kuhn proposed the notion of “paradigm shifts” (which were later adopted by various business gurus with gusto) that were driven by what kind of things were thinkable at a particular time. And it is this part of his thinking that seems important about revolutions. A revolution moves through a cycle where the unthought becomes thought and then is manifested in action.

Some might also base their thinking about the start and spread of revolutions on Dawkins’ notion of memes and the associated idea of memetics.

Unless certain external factors have shifted then new ways of thinking (which go on to drive behaviour) are not possible. An interesting example of this is the recent death by self-immolation of a protester in Tunisia. The Guardian outlines the sad story whereby Mohamed Bouazizi was so angry and disenfranchised within his society that he set himself on fire. This action inspired other young men who felt similarly to commit suicide in protest. And within days this had translated into riots in the capital Tunis.

Thus we see that the idea of rioting in the streets of Tunis went from not-thought to thought-and-action within only a few days. And that this process leached into the political process in nearby Egypt very quickly afterward.

None of the political revolutions of history has occurred in a vacuum. In each case there is political and economic disequilibrium. And, at some stage a tipping point is reached that enables the unequal people in the system to think and act against their situation.

In a Kuhnian sense this is often a visceral movement, not rational and not driven by clear aims and objectives. I think that this is the kind of revolution we are seeing spread through the middle east now. The result of this kind of revolution is hard to predict since it is often not driven by clear ideology or consolidated group goals.

The other kind of political revolution is that driven by an opposition party or parties who share in the political process but have been disenfranchised in some way. Perhaps locked out of power by a despotic monarch or leader, but still the opposition is part of the existing power structure.

Revolutions are driven by feedback loops and these revolutions occur within systems. Taking a systems approach to thinking about them can be helpful. I’m re-reading a number of thinkers about systems theory and strategy at the moment in response to the popular uprisings in the middle east.

Strangely enough thinking about revolutions and systems theory led me to re-read Aristotle. In his Politics Book V Aristotle outlines the reasons why people turn to revolution and it seems a strangely contemporary list:

  • …Insolence and avarice on the part of government officials
  • …one or more persons have a power which is too much for the state and the power of the government
  • …Either men have committed wrong, and are afraid of punishment, or they are expecting to suffer wrong and are desirous of anticipating their enemy.
  • …a disproportionate increase in any part of the state
  • …the slightness of the change
  • …difference of races which do not at once acquire a common spirit
  • …in oligarchies the masses make revolution under the idea that they are unjustly treated, because, as I said before, they are equals, and have not an equal share, and in democracies the notables revolt, because they are not equals, and yet have only an equal share
  • …Revolutions in democracies are generally caused by the intemperance of demagogues
  • …There are two patent causes of revolutions in oligarchies: (1) First, when the oligarchs oppress the people [or] …the personal rivalry of the oligarchs, which leads them to play the demagogue
  • …In aristocracies revolutions are stirred up when a few only share in the honors of the state
  • …Constitutional governments and aristocracies are commonly overthrown owing to some deviation from justice in the constitution itself

Inspiring women: Louisa Lawson – women’s suffrage activist and publisher

The fight for women to get the vote was a monument to cooperation, ingenuity and collaboration on the part of many women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These women educated themselves and their peers about women’s issues and agitated for women’s rights. And the women of Australia owe a debt to these women of the past who achieved the privileges of full participation in the political process that we now enjoy, and often take for granted.

In the nineteenth century it was true to say:

“A woman’s opinions are useless to her, she may suffer unjustly, she may be wronged, but she has no power to weightily petition against man’s laws, no representatives to urge her views, her only method to produce release, redress, or change, is to ceaselessly agitate.”
Source: Louisa Lawson, speech to the inaugural meeting of the Dawn Club. Published in Dawn, July 1889.

Louisa Lawson is an interesting example of these women who paved the way for our participation as equals in Australian democracy . Louisa is one of my favourite characters from the Australian history – strong willed and cantankerous, she was one of the key progenitors of the women’s suffrage movement in Australia. And among her important contributions was The Dawn, a journal for women:

“In 1888 Louisa Lawson, who had previously edited the Republican with son Henry, launched The Dawn; a journal for women. The publication’s purpose was to be a “phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood”. It advised on women’s issues, including divorce, the age of consent, and women’s right to vote. As well as operating as an important vehicle for the communication of feminist politics the paper also contained short stories, fashion notes, sewing patterns and reports on women’s activities around the country and overseas. By October 1889, the Dawn office employed ten women as typesetters, printers, binders, and unskilled workers. They were harassed by male workers, and by their male union, The New South Wales Typographical Association. In 1905, after seventeen years, the publication ceased production.”
Source: The Australian Women’s Register

Donna Benjamin (aka @KatteKrab) reports that there is no funding for the National Library of Australia to digitise The Dawn. However, Donna estimates that $7,500 should be sufficient to see the entire publication digitised.

Donna has had the brilliant idea of collecting funds to Digitise The Dawn. If we all put in a little bit then it can be added to the Trove Project and provide open access to this important resource for historians around the world.

UPDATE:  The new Digitise the Dawn website is up and you can follow on Twitter or @digitisethedawn.