In 1992, at the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda Campaign, then-Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating proclaimed that Kokoda should be ranked higher than Gallipoli in the Australian consciousness. He argued that the soldiers at Kokoda “died in defence of Australia” and so, for Australians, “the battles of Papua New Guinea were the most important ever fought”.
This Professional Military Education (PME) exercise asks you to consider the historical significance of Kokoda, the impact of history on our profession, and the military lessons that can be learned from the campaign. The discussion will address mythmaking in military history and the relevance of the Kokoda Campaign.
Alongside Gallipoli, the Kokoda Trail is a significant campaign in Australian collective memory and national identity; it remains a popular ‘pilgrimage’ and has been written about widely in popular historical non-fiction books (think of the work by Peter Fitzsimons). As set out in the National Institution Statement, public familiarity with the role and history of the Army stand it in good stead to achieve public acceptance and support, as well as recruiting. However, military professionals have an obligation to ensure our own study of military history isn’t emotive.
Begin by reading The Kokoda Myth, released by the Australian War Memorial. Dr Steven Bullard’s article says: “Many Australian accounts… do not place the campaigns in Papua within a wider context, fail to examine Japanese strategy, and rarely document the personal experience of Japanese soldiers. This often results in an unbalanced assessment and even glorification of the battles”. Does the wider public discourse distort our understanding of the reality of these battles?
Next, listen to an episode of The Dead Prussian Podcast. Episode 39 – On Kokoda interviews Karl James, a senior historian and editor of Kokoda: Beyond the Legend. They discuss the legend and reality of Kokoda as well as its significance to Australia.
- Did you feel uncomfortable hearing the significance of Kokoda questioned when James described it as “the fringe of a fringe battle” in World War II? This is a nationally memorialised battle.
- Do you think it would have helped the soldiers fighting at the time to think that the campaign was a battle for Australia’s survival, rather than not particularly important for the strategic outcome of the war? Why/why not?
- What does history tell us about the strategic significance of the Kokoda campaign? Why does Kokoda matter?
- Do you think a myth has been created around Kokoda? If so, what impact does this have? Think about Gallipoli, has a myth been built up around this campaign?
- If the myth of Kokoda is put aside, what does the campaign teach us that could be useful for future combat?
- Do you think ‘popular historians’ like Peter Fitzsimmons – those who focus on telling a readable story rather than the finer detail of history – are helpful?
This PME exercise modifies an original publication by Sally Graham here on The Cove.
To contextualise the Kokoda Campaign, read about:
- The Fall of Singapore. Did you know that despite ordering Australian troops to stay at their posts, the Australian commander General H Gordon Bennett and two of his staff officers fled Singapore for Australia on the night of the surrender?
- The bombing of Darwin
- The Kokoda Campaign
- The Track: A Historical Desktop Study of the Kokoda Track
WANT EVEN MORE?
For a modern, current look at Papua New Guinea, try the ‘Know Your Region’ series which looks at PNG through the lens of Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economy, and Hot Topics.
Watch the animated video Australia's Gallipoli Campaign.
If you enjoyed this activity, why not try the other PME activities for junior officers available on The Cove?
Want more material for your junior officers? Find it here. This article collates articles from across The Cove designed for junior officers and Troop/Platoon Commanders.
If you have suggestions for improvements – additional readings or reference material, alternative discussion points, new delivery methods – or just wish to provide feedback, please contact The Cove Team via email@example.com.
Here are the Facilitator's Notes (PDF) for this PME.