In April 2005, I attended the ANZAC Day memorial services at Hellfire Pass and at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand. The Australian representative at both services was the then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. The content of his speech in Kanchanaburi raised several questions in my mind. Was Ruddock representing Australia per se, or did his partisan political standing make that impossible? Was he performing a commemorative duty, or using commemoration for political ends? Was he there as a neutral Australian or an active member of the Coalition? The multitude of tour buses raised other questions. Were the tours, many run by Australians, interested in commemoration or commerce? Were they, and others elsewhere, conducting themselves ethically and treating their subject with the appropriate solemnity?
To politically exploit commemoration, one must construct a certain type of history. It must be established as simple and sacred, a highly specific version of the past designed for contemporary consumption. Bill Haskell, an ex-POW who preceded Ruddock on the 2005 Kanchanaburi program, had something genuine and personal to say about the past. In contrast, as a speaker with no connection to it, Ruddock’s portrayal of the past had a bland uniformity. His speech was standard in tone and may be taken as representative of speeches by Australian functionaries at war services. It began with the assertion that the soldiers buried at Kanchanaburi “left their homes to defend their way of life, and the principles they believed in. Those principles were based on democracy, and on respect for human life.”
While this is attractive rhetoric, it is a historical generalisation of appalling scope. What is more, the generalisation has been widely adopted. In national memory, Australian servicemen become a conglomerate mass with uniform beliefs and characteristics. We forget that every soldier and prisoner of war was an individual. They were young, old, radical, conservative, and of every level of education. The reasons they enlisted were as individual as the men themselves. The social pressure for men to join up during the war was immense; vast numbers surely joined for no other reason. Some were desperate for a guaranteed income, some to escape personal problems. The young especially joined out of a naïve expectation of adventure, or to make an otherwise impossible escape from their towns or suburbs. To suggest that all of these men joined out of idealism is at best ignorant and at worst deceptive.
This generalisation gives rise to a second, more important one. If men joined to fight for “democracy and the way of life we hold dear”, then every death is noble, a sacrifice for the good of the nation. Accordingly, the deaths and their memory become sacred. Nations are built upon the ideological foundation of previous sacrifice. Commemorating and sanctifying it draws populations and governments closer together, and reflects well on politicians.
Of course, the idea of sacrifice is as much a construction as the identical attributes ascribed to soldiers. The survivors of wartime generations and those of us who follow them prefer to think of men dying nobly for their principles than of men being slaughtered by incompetent commanders or for the sake of craven realpolitik. The first idea is not nearly so confronting. The sanctity of that sacrifice then makes an excellent shield for politicians. As the deaths of soldiers are sacrosanct, the ideals that supposedly led to their deaths become equally so. By associating themselves explicitly with these ideals, politicians are unimpeachable. The close of Ruddock’s speech is a case in point:
But we can ensure that the memory of them lives on – that their suffering, their courage, their fortitude, and their commitment to each other – is not forgotten. We honour the memory of the men who lie here when we defend freedom, democracy and the way of life we hold dear. We honour their memory when we fight injustice, tyranny and inhumanity – whether the fight is on the battlefield or whether it is carried forward by other means, such as economic sanctions. Ultimately, we honour them, as we honour the Anzacs, by staying true to the ideals for which they went to war, and paid the ultimate price.
Many of these concepts were prevalent in the contemporaneous rhetoric of the Coalition government and their ally the United States: freedom, democracy, injustice, tyranny, inhumanity, ‘our way of life’. The post-hoc justification for invading Iraq, once a great weapons cache had failed to materialise, was the exportation of freedom and democracy, and the corresponding destruction of tyranny. Australian and U.S. rhetoric regarding the ‘war on terror’ relies on these same terms. The mention of economic sanctions is another implicit reference to Iraq. The Coalition’s ‘border protection’ policy is supposedly a defence of “the way of life we hold dear” against the peril of unrestricted immigration. Harsh immigration laws are purportedly aimed at “inhumanity” in the form of people smugglers, not at their human cargo. His assertion that Australian POWs “should, at the very least, have been treated with the basic humanity and dignity with which each human being should treat another” was bitterly ironic considering the conditions inside the detention centres over which he presided.
Prime Minister John Howard was using the same technique the same day at Gallipoli, telling the crowds that the “valour and the sacrifice” of the ANZACs lived on in the Iraq deployment. By using the language of government rhetoric in the context of a commemorative speech, both men attempted to render current government goals indistinguishable from the goals of Australia’s war dead. If the dead are sacred, and their goals are likewise, then a government professing to have the same goals can shelter behind that sanctity, laying claim to it for their own ends.
Stereotypes of Australian servicemen are used to construct concepts like ‘Anzac spirit’, which are also open to political exploitation. The mythological digger is a brave tough idealist, a laid-back larrikin and an all-round good guy. His image is co-opted to define what is truly Australian, and what is the converse. From this, moral values are constructed and used as political tools. When someone is called ‘un-Australian’ it is a powerful blow, because it implies they are insulting Australia’s untouchable war past. To attribute ‘Anzac spirit’ to someone is a true superlative, derived as it is from mythological qualities. When policies are phrased using the digger idealism lexicon evident in Ruddock’s speech, they become more difficult to oppose. If border protection is about the digger ideal of defending the Australian way of life, then opposing it is un-Australian. If Iraq’s invasion is about the digger principles of freedom and democracy, then opposing it is un-Australian. Politicians set the parameters of commemorative history to their maximum advantage.
Similar manipulation occurs in business. Gallipoli tour advertising uses ideas of national identity, playing up notions of an indomitable Aussie spirit, the crucible of nationhood, and self-sacrificing idealism. When dealing with Asia in WWII, where Australians were involved in few significant military actions, the public gaze is squarely on the POW experience. For Asian WWII tour operators, their selling points are horror and degradation. Unfortunately (though unsurprisingly) these are exaggerated to inflate tourist flow or meet expectations, even expectations based on misconceptions.
One case is the Changi Prison development in Singapore. As Kevin Blackburn notes, the site was developed according to what tourists expected and wanted, rather than to represent its history. “Stereotypical images of the POWs as human skeletons toiling under poor conditions, supervised by brutal Japanese guards, became etched in the public imagination,” he says. Singaporean tourism authorities did not want to discourage tourists with the truth. Their publicity portrayed Changi as the setting for the novel King Rat, where “only one man in fifteen had the strength, the luck, the cleverness to survive”. Photographs from the Burma Railway were displayed with and not distinguished from Changi pictures. The two experiences were presented as interchangeable.
In fact, conditions at Changi were vastly better than at any other major Japanese camp, and its death rate was comparatively slight. Of an eventual 87 000 prisoners only 850 died, many from pre-existing battle wounds. The total death rate was less than one per cent. Compare that with Tanaka’s figures from other camps: 12 000 dead from the 60 500 prisoners on the Burma Railway, at a rate of 20 per cent; 405 out of 528 at Ambon, at 77 per cent; and all but six of the 2434 at Sandakan-Ranau, a rate of 99.76 per cent. These true sites of tragedy are also far less known. Their small number of survivors had their voices drowned out by the crowds from the Railway and Changi. The horrors of the Railway became emblematic of Japanese atrocities, while recognisable and accessible Changi became the best-known location. The smaller camps of Asia were lost in the wash.
A much more blatant fiction was constructed in Kanchanaburi, which attracts masses of tourists with what is allegedly ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ featured in David Lean’s film. In fact, no bridge ever crossed the Kwai (a European version of its real name, Kwae Noi, or ‘little tributary’), although the railway ran alongside it for much of its length. The Kanchanaburi bridge actually crosses the river Mae Khlung. However, sensing commercial opportunities, local authorities changed the name of the Mae Khlung to the Kwae Yai – ‘big tributary’. A ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ was thus created. Most astonishing is its widespread acceptance, even though the film’s bridge was wooden and built by POWs while Kanchanaburi’s is a pre-fabricated steel structure imported from Java. No corresponding structure to the film’s bridge ever existed, but at the time of my visit all local museums referred to the steel bridge as ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’. Even the Lonely Planet guidebook makes no mention of the hoax, which remains the centre of Kanchanaburi’s tourist economy. 
The latest POW site to be commercially misused and misrepresented is Sandakan-Ranau, in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. With only six survivors, Sandakan’s tale went a long time unheard, until emerging through the efforts of authors like Don Wall in the last fifteen years. The memorial park at Sandakan was significantly upgraded and a government funded history published in 1999. Jonathan Mills, now chief of the Edinburgh International Festival, produced a well-received choral/performance art piece called Sandakan Threnody in 2004. In August 2005, on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of WWII, I joined a commemorative march organised by the Sabah Society which retraced the entire 270 kilometre route of the forced marches from Sandakan to Ranau – marches which killed so many of the Sandakan POWs.
Given the growing interest in the Sandakan story, it was only a matter of time before commercial interests moved in. In 2006 Lynette Silver, who published a book on Sandakan in 1998, joined Sabahan company TYK Adventure Tours (the company who had plotted the Sabah Society’s 2005 route) to offer commercial treks along part of the route. The effect of the commercial imperative was obvious from their itinerary, the first 150 kilometres having been excised for not being scenic enough, despite the highly significant sites along that part of the route. Sceptics have noted, tongue in cheek, that the route “conveniently goes through the Nalapak tea plantation with a comfortable stopover in the plantation rest-house where the Japs and the prisoners all sat down to tea and their cucumber and watercress sandwiches.”
Such alterations are the prerogative of tour operators, but the publicity for their inaugural trek was more concerning. With Silver as their Australian mouthpiece, the group got widespread Australian media coverage in 2006. An AAP article condensed from the group’s own press release was published in newspapers nationwide from 5 March, and several television programs picked up the story. The publicity claimed this would be the first trek along the route since the War Graves team went through in 1946, despite the fact that the Sabah Society’s march (with which Silver had been involved) had happened nine months earlier. It claimed that the route had been “Lost behind impenetrable jungle”, when almost all of eastern Sabah is now cultivated farmland. Mostly, it lauded Silver as “the woman responsible for discovering the path”, claiming that she and TYK’s guides had done so “using a highly detailed hand-drawn map – the only known and complete map in existence given to her by a member of the 1945 body recovery team”. This was apparently new and exclusive evidence that allowed them to plot the route more accurately than ever before and so claim that they had unearthed a lost path.
In correspondence with Fairfax Media’s South-East Asia correspondent Connie Levett, who had interviewed Silver, I learned that Silver’s map was drawn by Corporal G.D. Robertson of the 31st Australian War Graves Unit. Copies of Robertson’s map have been in the public domain for years: a huge copy is even displayed in the Sandakan Memorial Park. TYK used the Robertson map for their 2005 survey, long before forming their business relationship with Silver. The talk of vital new evidence, mysteries uncovered, impenetrable jungle and pioneering expeditions is great for attracting potential customers, but is historically a mixture of inflation and invention. This is no surprise coming from business operators, but TYK and Silver claim credibility for their assertions on the basis that Silver is a historian. It must be noted that their venture is at odds with the integrity and professional acumen that ‘historian’ implies.
The group’s website descends further into sensationalism. It seems to take a lewd pleasure in describing the POWs’ condition as graphically as possible: “skeletal creatures, barely recognisable as human, struggle to their feet […] The grimy, wasted bodies of these once fit and strapping Australian and British servicemen are covered in sores and scabies, […tropical ulcers] so large that shin bones are clearly visible.” It goes on to offer a “POW pack lunch” to trekkers, apparently disregarding the sick irony. POWs are reduced to caricatures, mascots to help increase sales, and even while stripped of real dignity in this way are lumbered with an artificial replacement. Like Ruddock did, the website idealises the POWs, turning them into “Death March heroes”, whose “heroism…equals that exhibited on any battelfield [sic].”
These are the same crass simplifications, whether they are being used to defend government policy or sell yet another tour. The soldiers, leached of their personalities, are reduced to a symbol used cynically to foster patriotism. Every soldier is marked as an idealistic defender of nation and principle. The gravestones at Kanchanaburi overwhelmingly reflect this view, most featuring some variation of ‘His duty nobly done’. Apparently there were no terrified seventeen year olds among the dead, no-one deluded or coerced into signing up, no-one betrayed by selfish or incompetent commanders. Lives were sacrificed by men, not squandered by authorities. This view cannot reconcile with the clear burning anger of Wilfred Owen’s WWI poems, or the sense of betrayal felt by Vietnam veterans as portrayed in The Herd’s song ‘I Was Only Nineteen’.
In the popular view, Australian soldiers are only seen as heroes. POWs are a curious blend of hero and victim, attracting simultaneous admiration and sympathy. The Japanese are the “little apes” of Braddon’s description, or “evil” and “bloodthirsty” as repeatedly stated by Silver. But these simplifications and the self-righteousness they engender are inaccurate. Generalisation is a dangerous thing. It blots out the subtleties and complexities of understanding. The Japanese are hardly alone in atrocity. The Allies rarely took prisoners – they were inconvenient. Surrendering troops were shot. Of the 7000-strong Japanese garrison on Tarawa, 23 survived the Marines’ assault. 3.3 million Russian POWs died in German captivity. 6000 of the 90 000 Germans captured at Stalingrad ever made it home. How to keep score? It is humanity that commits crimes against humanity. This does not absolve Japan, but to single it out is erroneous and smug. As Tanaka reminds us, “while the accounts of mass rape and rape in the form of enforced prostitution committed by Japanese forces during the war were being heard in the Tokyo trials […] the same practice was continuing throughout occupied Japan with the active participation of Allied forces and the approval of the high command”.
We have evidence of Australians murdering their Japanese prisoners, of Australians raping Japanese women, of ‘our’ side doing all of the things for which we revile the enemy. But this is not acknowledged in our national narrative. This will not be mentioned in ANZAC Day speeches any time soon. We are as much in denial of our past as we claim modern Japan to be of theirs. For us as for them, the true information can be found by a determined researcher, but the available public version is scrubbed clean.
Contemporary commemoration is exploited, largely through the use of generalisation. Whether for political or commercial ends, generalisation is worrying for the living and insulting to the dead. For the living, it constitutes a denial of some of the more confronting elements of being human. We are afraid to concede that ordinary people became war criminals, because it means that we could too. For the dead, it strips them of their identities, where we should be remembering the individual human beings involved. Commemorating an amalgamated fiction does those people a disservice. We also do a disservice by allowing the cynical to turn commemoration to their own benefit. We should remember the dead not for national pride, or to acknowledge sacrifice, but purely because we are alive and able to remember while they are not. Remembrance is about offering dignity to the fallen. To be deprived of one’s identity is as great an indignity as anyone can suffer.
Appendix A – Wilfred Owen.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys; – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gurgling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
 A letter from Owen to his mother explains “The famous Latin tag means of course It is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. Sweet! and decorous!” Harold Owen and John Bell (Eds.). Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Appendix B – The Herd.
I Was Only Nineteen
Mum, Dad and Denny
were some amongst many
who turned up to see the passing out parade at Puckapunyal
Seemed every man and his mongrel
watched cadets stumble
on the long march to the Viet jungle.
“Oh Christ”, I mumbled as I drew that card
and my mates came to slap me on the back with due regard
We were the sixth battalion and the next to tour
we did Canungra and Shoalwater before we left, rest assured
Seemed half of Townsville turned out to see us leave
and they lined the footpaths as we marched to the quay
The papers wrote it up like you would not believe
but we were looking to the future for a fast reprieve
The newspaper clippings show us young strong and clean
rockin’ slouch hats, slung SLRs and greens
God help me…I was only nineteen
From Vung Tau the black helicopters
the Chinook pilots seemed relieved at Nui Dat when they dropped us
Feels like months running on and off landing pads
letters to Dad
‘cause it’s like, man, he’s sad
But he can’t see the tents that we call home
cans of VB and pin-ups on the lockers of chicks off TV
The noise, the mosquitoes and the heat surprising
like the first time you see an Agent Orange horizon
So please can you tell me doctor why I still can’t get to sleep
the scar is left in me?
Night time’s just a jungle
dark and a barking M16
that keeps saying “rest in peace”
And what the hell’s this rash that comes and goes
I don’t suppose you can tell me what that means?
God help me…I was only nineteen
Sent off on a four-week long operation
where every single step could be your last one
My two legs were sorta living hell
falling with the shells, war within yourself
But you wouldn’t let your mates down
‘til they had you dusted off
so you closed your eyes and thought of something else
Then someone yelled “contact!”
another bloke swore
we hooked in there for hours then a god almighty roar
Then Frankie kicked a mine
the day that mankind kicked the moon
God help me…he was going home in June
And I can still see Frank with a can in his hand
thirty-six hour leave in the bar at the Grand
I can still hear Frank
a screaming mess
of bleeding flesh
couldn’t retrieve his legs
The ANZAC legend
neglected to mention
didn’t seem quite real until we were sent in
The chaos and confusion
The fire and steel
Hot shrapnel in my back
I didn’t even feel
God help me…I was only nineteen
So please can you tell me doctor why I can’t get to sleep
I can’t hardly eat?
And the sound of the Channel Seven chopper still chills me to my feet
still fuels my grief?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes like the dreams
Can you tell me what that means?
God help me…I was only nineteen
 The Herd. ‘I Was Only Nineteen.’ The Sun Never Sets. Elefant Traks/Inertia Records, 2005.
 Philip Ruddock. ‘Anzac Day Closing Address.’ Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, Thailand. 25 April 2005. http://www.ag.gov.au/agd/www/MinisterRuddockHome.nsf, accessed 15 April 2006.
 Ruddock. ‘Anzac Day Closing Address.’
 The only real exceptions are the defence of New Guinea and assorted naval actions like the Battle of the Coral Sea. Australians had some success in the Malayan campaign but it was quickly over nonetheless, and the Australian invasion of Borneo in 1945 was more a publicity exercise than an essential operation.
 Kevin Blackburn. ‘Commemorating and commodifying the prisoner of war experience in south-east Asia: The creation of Changi Prison Museum.’ Journal of the Australian War Memorial. Vol. 33, 2000. http://www.awm.gov.au/journal/j33/blackburn.htm, accessed 5 April 2006.
 James Clavell. King Rat. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1975. Blurb.
 Blackburn. ‘Commemorating and commodifying.’
 Yuki Tanaka. Hidden Horrors: Japanese war crimes in World War II. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. p.11. Percentage figures are my calculations.
 I am using the Romanised spelling of the river’s name that have I found most commonly used by various Western and Thai sources.
 As recorded during my visits to Kanchanaburi in April and in October of 2005.
 Joe Cummings, Sandra Bao, Steven Martin, China Williams. Lonely Planet Thailand. 10th edition. Footscray, Victoria: Lonely Planet Publications, 2003.
 Richard Reid. Laden, Fevered, Starved: the POWs of Sandakan, North Borneo, 1945. Canberra: Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 1999. p.82. Reid’s book is the government history mentioned.
 Raymond Gill. ‘Mills wins plum post.’ The Age, 1 March 2006. http://www.theage.com.au/news/music/mills-wins-plum-post/2006/02/28/1141095741326.html, accessed 8 March 2006.
 The Sabah Society is a non-profit historical and environmental society aimed at educating about and exploring all things Sabahan and Bornean.
 NC Kulang, the local resistance head and architect of the jungle trail, was headman of Kampung Muanad, about 60 kilometres from Sandakan. His son still lives there. Owen Campbell escaped near Muanad and was rescued by Kulang; there was also a massacre of Australians near Muanad. Dick Braithwaite escaped near Sapi, near the 90 kilometre mark, and was cared for by locals in this area.
 Dr. J. S. Sidhu, in personal correspondence with me. 22 March 2006.
 Alyssa Braithwaite. ‘Sandakan death track opens to public.’ The Age. 5 March 2006. http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/deathmarch-track-opens/2006/03/05/1141493551510.html, accessed 8 March 2006.
 Connie Levett, in personal correspondence with me. 8 April 2006.
 In an open letter from Lynette Silver to Sabah Society members, (28 March 2006) Silver stated that she first proposed a commercial venture to TYK after witnessing the success of the commemorative march in August 2005. For information on TYK’s 2005 survey I consulted reconnaissance team member Dr. Ravi Mandalam (correspondence dated 18 March 2006).
 TYK/Silver. Press release.
 Russell Braddon. The Naked Island. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1981 (first published 1952). p.104. Lynette Silver. Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence. 3rd Edition. Bowral: Sally Milner, 2003. passim.
 John Dower. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986. pp. 62-72.
 Charles Schenking. ‘Tarawa: The Beginnings of the Central Pacific Campaign.’ Lecture for Total War: Asia and the Pacific, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, 26 August 2002.
 Omer Bartov. Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis and War in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. p.83
 Joachim Weider and Heinrich Graf von Einsiedel. Stalingrad: Memories and Reassessments. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1993. p.146
 Tanaka. Hidden Horrors. p.105. This quote refers to the establishment of the so-called Recreation and Amusement Association, an organisation set up to provide sex to occupying Allied forces. Many Japanese women were pressed into service. This was an attempt to curb the rapes committed by Allied servicemen at a rate “comparable to that by any other force during the war.” (Tanaka, p.103)
 Dower. War Without Mercy. pp.63, 70. Tanaka. ibid. pp.103-104.