World War 2: Just War or Just Lies?


Peter Hitchens, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, I.B. Tauris 2018.

Hardcover 288 pages

ISBN 9781788313292.
In Public Library system.
$27 online. Kindle edition $19.98

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Peter Hitchens knows this book will create controversy. His basic argument is that World War 2 was not a simple victory for the ‘Good Side’: it was both more complex than that and more ambiguous.

Hitchens is a journalist, the brother of the late and more famous Christopher Hitchens, who, unlike Christopher (author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) has made the journey from atheism to faith. The focus of this book is to make moral judgements about a war that has been lauded and romanticised as a victory over evil.

He cites the fire-bombing of German cities, Rostock, Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin, as an example of the moral wrong committed by Britain. He shows that killing many human beings was the explicit, if secret, policy of the War Cabinet.

He demonstrates that, as a tactic to improve the chances of victory, it was a failure. Even British high command after the war rated the bombing as ineffective. British bombs were both inaccurate and the German people, like the British, were not so easily cowed. In any case, the bombers targeted poorer areas, where resistance to the Hitler regime was most likely to reside.  

Hitchens worries that people will respond, ‘Well, it wasn’t as bad as the Holocaust,’ as if comparing it to a worse evil justifies the action. Hitchens clearly believes that the deliberate slaughter of 6 million Jews is immorality at its very worst, but that doesn’t make the deliberate murder of hundreds of thousands of others good.

Hitchens salutes the bravery of the men who operated the bombers: it is their superiors who conspired in their headquarters to fire-bomb cities whom he censures.

Similarly, the British were complicit in the forcible removal of Germans from Central Europe after the war. Many hundreds of thousands of German women and children died in this act of essentially ethnic cleansing. Some were even forced into Auschwitz two weeks after its liberation. Some were simply lined up at the edge of villages and shot.

Hitchens also debunks the myth of the ‘special friendship’ between the USA and Britain. In fact, the United States demanded that Britain’s gold should be shipped to the States. All of Britain’s reserves ended up in Fort Knox! The USA consistently acted in its own interests and stripped Britain of its imperial power.

Even the Resistance fighters and their supporters in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) played little part in the winning of a war. At the most, the SOE was a declaration that Britain was still in the fight. Hitchens laments the romanticisation of the SOE in much contemporary fiction, not to doubt the bravery and skill of individual operatives, but because of their irrelevance to victory.

While Churchill’s determination to fight the evil of Nazism is recognised, Hitchens is clear-sighted about other decisions of Churchill: the disastrous withdrawal from Malta, his insistence on keeping troops and boats in the Mediterranean and refusing all help to Singapore. It was certainly not Churchill and the British who kept the Japanese enemy out of Australia!

Hitchens concludes,

‘Learning of these events after decades of ignorance, I felt deep shame, combined with immense gratitude for the fact that I live on an island which has for many centuries been safe from invasion, subjugation and arbitrary rule. It is this fact that has kept me safe from suffering and from committing the crimes of war, not any virtue of my nation. It should not keep me from acknowledging that the 1939-45 war was morally far more complicated and compromised that I – a more than usually well-informed citizen – had been led or allowed to believe.’ (219)

Hitchens’ honesty will not be greatly rewarded, but we learn from history only when we know it to be truth. Britain needs to have a complete, not romantic, understanding of its relationship with Europe as it withdraws from the European Community.

The lesson of the book is that all of us need to question war: there may be times when war is necessary, but it is never good. And it is only all of us acting together as an informed citizenry that can call our leaders to account for their false narratives of good versus evil.

A courageous book, accessible in style and well worth reading.

Disappearing Arts


From today until Christmas Eve, my poem ‘The Disappearing Arts’ will be printed on patrons’ printouts when they borrow from Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library in Melbourne.

The Federal Government has moved responsibility for the Arts from the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet to a new super Department (Infrastructure, Transport, The Regions), where the Arts do not even feature in its name.


The Disappearing ARTS


The ARTS are so subversive now
(for we are young and free)
They lock them up in ‘Infrasport’,
and hide away the key.


The ARTS can set the people free
(our home is girt by sea)
So smother them in red red tape
and tangle into braid.


The ARTS nerve our loath bravery
(Advance Australia Fair)
but we are not afraid
to speak the truth so to disempower.


The ARTS cause us to laugh at rules
(of beauty rich and rare)
to denigrate the canny clown
and turn them all to fools.


-Ted Witham

Discoveries before The Second Sleep


Robert Harris, The Second Sleep, Knopf, 2019, 320 pages.

From $23 online. Kindle $AU 4.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The Second Sleep is set several centuries into the future after the great collapse of civilisation. A powerful – and fundamentalist – church has taken power while England has returned to pre-industrial conditions: there are no cars, and therefore roads are poor. The fastest travel is horse-back.  Village life centres around small-scale horticulture, providing just enough for the villagers.

A young priest is sent to a tiny village in Exmoor to bury the parish priest who has died after decades in the same parish. He discovers a world of secrets, from the housekeeper’s relationship to the old priest, to the illegal search for evidence of pre-collapse civilisation.

Many of his discoveries take place between the first and second sleeps, as people have reverted to the pre-electric light habit of having a period of waking between two stretches of sleep. ‘The Second Sleep’ begins to take on more meanings as the novel progresses.

Robert Harris is known for his novels of Ancient Rome (Imperium, Lustrum, Pompeii) and of institutions under stress including the army and the church (An Officer and a Spy, Conclave).  He writes page-turners, and his writing is simple and clear. You feel the mud and slush of unpaved streets and the smell of animals sharing living space with humans.

The Second Sleep is a compelling novel of the new genre of cli-fi (climate science fiction). Itis a meditation on our world on the brink of great destruction, perhaps brought about by climate change, perhaps not, and our values of freedom and progress.

Harris makes no final judgement as to which is worse, our world or his dystopia, but The Second Sleep is an appeal to maintain an open society in which power is shared between citizens and not centralised in a power-hungry institution.

It is also a novel of finding love and the difficulty of holding onto love in a repressive society. After a slow start with the characters, I enjoyed the priest Fairfax, his Lady, Sarah Durston, and Captain Hancock.

Dispatch the Arts nowhere!


On December 6, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the Department of the Arts (then part of the Prime Minister and Cabinet PMC), would come under a new mega-‘Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications’. No mention there of the Arts.

There has been widespread dismay at this change. A petition has gathered 10,000 signatures asking that all art and music be withheld from Parliament House. That’ll show them – literally.

Here is my response to keep the issue alive:

Australians, they have made their choice,
That fruit hangs low on tree,
We now recall that Arts for all
Have gone from PMC
To Infrastructure’s hieroglyphs
To Transport’s slipshod care.
Off off the stage into a cage,
Dispatch the Arts nowhere,
Our trust so strained then let us sing,
Dispatch the Arts nowhere!

The Desires & Disappointments of Being a Missionary: Betty Hay TSSF

Missionaries, especially those in the tradition of Betty Hay, leave the comfort of family and home culture to carry the Good News to people in different places and of different cultures and make sacrifices and are prone to deep disappointments.


The recent death of Betty Hay in Denmark is an important milestone for Australia’s Anglican Third Order Franciscans. Betty was the first Tertiary to be noviced in the Australian Province in 1958. Her admission to the Third Order took place while she was a missionary nurse in Papua New Guinea.

It seems appropriate to re-publish my review of Betty’s memoir, named for the call-sign of their plane and the initials of her vocations: Nurse, Pilot, Missionary.

+++

Betty Hay tssf, November Papa Mike: Nurse, Pilot & Missionary, 2014.

ISBN 978 1 74052 315 8

Available in paperback (200 pages) and hardback.

Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

We Franciscan Tertiaries should pray for missionaries. Our first Aim is to make Our Lord known and loved everywhere, and praying for missionaries is an expression of our solidarity with others working to make our God loved and known.

Missionaries, especially those in the tradition of Betty Hay, leave the comfort of family and home culture to carry the Good News to people in different places and of different cultures and make sacrifices and are prone to deep disappointments.

The late Archdeacon John Wardman is mentioned favourably by Betty Hay in this fascinating memoir. Preaching on the 50th Anniversary of his priesthood Fr John expressed intense disappointment and sadness at the doors closed to him when he wanted to return from Papua New Guinea to parish ministry in Perth. I felt blessed by his honesty and tears in the pulpit.

Betty Hay, too, shares not only her deep desire from early in life to be a missionary, but nearly burst with disappointment when, after only four years, her fragile health forced her to withdraw from the rigorous mission environment. Like Fr John, the drive to share the Gospel did not stop when Betty came back to civilisation: she continued to work strenuously, first to support the logistics of the mission work from Port Moresby, and then, on return to Victoria, as a Child Health nurse.

Betty tells her story charmingly. Born in Western Australia, she grew up near Perth and trained as a nurse. As the vocation to the mission field started to grow, Betty realised she needed more training than Perth could then provide, so moved East, where she accumulated every nursing certificate available, a pilot’s licence and married her flying instructor.

Betty and Bob applied to ABM for missionary work as a couple, and ABM placed them in the north of PNG. The building of the health service offered by Bob and Betty alongside a small team was an extraordinary feat.

Betty describes in fascinating detail her treks into the highlands on foot and by canoe, her living conditions both on her journeys and at the mission. Their wide skill sets of both pilot-nurse and engineer-pilot were stretched by God’s grace to meet the needs of both locals and ex-pats.

I did wonder how well prepared the missionaries were to understand and work with the local culture. For example, Betty over-rode the custom of not naming children and insisted on being told the name of each child she cared for and recording it.

The Australian Province of the Third Order marks its beginning from the time that Betty started as a novice in the Third Order in 1958. Her memoir is a wonderful illustration of one Tertiary’s long journey making our Lord known and loved, living simply and in harmony with others.

Testing faith


Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus, Allen & Unwin 2019,
ISBN 9780760875091, 423 pages.

From $AUD19 online, Kindle edition $AUD 16

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Christos Tsiolkas tells the story of Saint Paul in such a gritty fashion that I nearly gave up on the novel several times. It is not for the faint-hearted. Greek-Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas is known for his hard-hitting and relentlessly honest writing. The Slap, a suburban novel exploring whether adults other than parents can administer corporal punishment, provoked controversy.

Tsiolkas’ previous novels, including Barracuda and The Slap, have been turned into movies. I wonder whether anyone will dare to make Damascus – The Movie. The novel skates on blasphemy – not a new charge against Tsiolkas – and its depiction of the brutality of the pagan empire surrounding and threatening the early Christians is sickening. The love between Paul and Timothy, and between Timothy and Thomas, is at the least obsessive, if not outright sexual. This factor alone will make it difficult for many Christians to accept the novel.

Three axes explore the different directions in which the early church was developing: Paul and Timothy represent the more orthodox view, that Jesus is the Saviour, that he has appeared after the resurrection, and that he will return soon and take into the resurrected life all the baptised.

Paul and Able (as Tsiolkas names the ex-slave Onesimus) represent the dilemma faced by the early church when Jesus does not return. Able believes that the Christians should ditch this teaching, and also baptise infants.

The third axis is Timothy and Thomas. This represents the view of some early Christians that Jesus was a great teacher and prophet who died – end of story. (Tsiolkas confesses in the afterword that this is closest to his view.)

The conflicts between these emerging theologies drive the story.

There are underlying themes that are common to Tsiolkas’ other work. The intense relationships between the men in the story reflect Tsiolkas’ own struggles with sexuality. The severity of a faith which requires its apostles to forsake family is portrayed fiercely. The treatment of the refugees who pour out of Judea after the destruction of the temple resonates with today.

I would not recommend this novel to fellow-Christians unless you really want to be challenged. It may be the book for a friend who is amoral and extremely secular, a lover of the violence in the Vikings series or Game of Thrones. Damascus has a depth and a challenge to believe that is absent from those.

Whoever reads Damascus will be moved and outraged. It will divide readers. Any novelist that can achieve those outcomes so forcefully is to be respected!