Battle: an article by Vance Palmer, Meanjin, 1942

I happened upon this yesterday and thought it might be of interest to readers here.

THE next few months may decide not only whether we are to survive as a nation, but whether we deserve to survive. As yet none of our achievements prove it, at anyrate in the sight of the outer world. We have no monuments to speak of, no dreams in stone, no Guernicas, no sacred places. We could vanish and leave singularly few signs that, for some generations, there had lived a people who had made a homeland of this Australian Earth. A homeland? To how many people was it primarily that? How many penetrated the soil with their love and imagination? We have had no peasant population to cling passionately to their few acres, throw down tenacious roots, and weave a natural poetry into their lives by invoking the little gods of creek and mountain. The land has been something to exploit, to tear out a living from and then sell at a profit. Our settlements have always had a fugitive look, with their tin roofs and rubbish-heaps. Even our towns . . . the main street cluttered with shops, the miliion-dollar town hall, the droves of men and women intent on nothing but buying or selling, the suburban retreats of rich drapers! Very little to show the presence of a people with a common purpose or a rich sense of life.

If Australia had no more character than could be seen on its surface, it would be annihilated as surely and swiftly as those colonial outposts white men built for their commercial profit in the East pretentious facades of stucco that looked imposing as long as the wind kept from blowing. But there is an Australia of the spirit, submerged and not very articulate, that is quite different from these bubbles of old-world imperialism. Born of the lean loins of the country itself, of the dreams of men who came here to form a new society, of hard conflicts in many fields, it has developed a toughness all its own. Sardonic, idealist, tongue-tied perhaps, it is the Australia of all who truly belong here. When you are away, it takes on a human image, an image that emerges, brown and steady-eyed from the background of dun cliffs, treed bushlands, and tawny plains. More than a generation ago, it found voice in the writings of Lawson, O’Dowd, Bedford, and Tom Collins: it has become even more aware of itself since. And it has something to contribute to the world. Not emphatically in the arts as yet, but in arenas of action’, and in ideas for the creation of that egalitarian democracy that will have to be the basis of all civilised societies in the future.

This is the Australia we are called upon to save. Not merely the mills and mines, and the higgledy-piggledy towns that have grown up along the coast: not the assets we hold or the debts we owe. For even if we were conquered by the Japanese, some sort of normal life would still go on. You cannot wipe out a nation of seven million people, or turn them all into wood-and-water joeys. Sheep would continue to be bred, wheat raised; there would be work for the shopkeeper, the clerk, the baker, the ‘butcher. Not everyone could be employed pulling Japanese gentlemen about in rickshaws. Some sort of comfort might even be achieved by the average man ‘under Japanese dominance; but if anyone believes life would be worth living under the terms offered, he is not worth saving. There is no hope ‘for him unless a breath of the heroic will around him stirs him to comp. out of the body of this death. Undoubtedly we have a share of the decadent that have proved a deadly weakness in other countries whisperers, fainthearts, near-fascists, people who have grown rotten through easy living; and these are often people who have had power in the past and now feel it falling away from them. We will survive according to our swiftness in pushing them into the background and liberating the people of will, purpose, and intensity; those who are at one with Australia’s spirit and are capable of moulding the future.

I believe we will survive; that what is significant in us will survive; that we will come out of this struggle battered, stripped to the bone, but spiritually sounder than we went in, surer of our essential character, adults in a wider world than the one we lived in hitherto. These are great, tragic days. Let us accept them stoically, and make every yard of Australian earth a battle-station.

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7 years ago

Nicely written, too harsh and miserable, but timely on the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. Anyone who ever thought Japan had the remotest chance in hell of even successfully landing in Aus, let alone conquering it, has or had no knowledge of the capabilities of the IJN and IJA.

(not really the point of the piece I realise).

7 years ago

Japan couldn’t have done it as long as they continued to try for everything else, but if they’d freed up resources by deciding against invading India or holding China they would have pissed it in. (nrtpotpir)
Interesting that he basically writes off city Australians, what with all that buying and selling.

John R Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  ChrisB

Think the city-country boundary was blurrier in those days.
For example years ago I meet an old bloke who told me how he and his brother every summer school holidays, would push a wheelbarrow ( loaded with a 22 rifle, fishing gear and basic camping gear) from their home ,in the area of Canterbury , all the way down to the Georges river at Picnic Point. They spent their summer holidays: sleeping in a cave, swimming ,shooting rabbits , catching fish and swapping some of the catch for fruit and eggs with local farmers.

7 years ago