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'Very few historians become novelists. It's a risk. You risk reputation and ego' - Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

‘Very few historians become novelists. You risk reputation and ego’ – Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

Think outside the square. Push the envelope. Go beyond your comfort zone. These are the clichés that are trotted out with monotonous regularity, as though every single one of us isn’t brave enough, we’re all just lazy sods. Then again, we’re also told to be cautious of those who dare to be outspoken, don’t get too close to the people who rock the boat; at all costs we should avoid those who are courageous enough to try turning truth on its head.

Then there’s historian Peter Stanley. Who seems to not care about any of this – he just wants to get on with the job of illuminating history.

Surely if there’s anyone who is qualified to illuminate history it’s Professor Peter Stanley. For twenty-seven years he was a historian with the Australian War Memorial, and after a brief stint at the National Museum of Australia he now works out of the University of New South Wales’ Australian Defence Force Academy campus. Stanley is the author of over twenty-five non-fiction works (he admits to having lost track), including the potentially blasphemous Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder, and the Australian Imperial Force, which was jointly awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for history in 2011. As if he doesn’t have enough to do, he is also the president of Honest History, a relatively new ACT-based organisation that aims to debunk the mythmaking that often occurs in Australian military history, particularly when it’s in the hands of politicians.

If anyone deserves the title of being one of the nation’s most prominent military historians it is Peter Stanley. But is he a towering, intimidating force?

Not in the slightest.

We meet in his north Canberra house, which doesn’t seem to have had much done to it since it was built in the 1960s. Two small fluffy dogs appear behind the flyscreen door, before Stanley appears as well – he looks like he’s no more significant than a suburban tax accountant. (If you’ve seen him during one of his many television appearances, he can be fiery almost to the point of discomfort.) After asking the dogs to behave – they do – the historian leads me through to the kitchen, where he gets together tea and biscuits. We take our places in a small, unassuming loungeroom. There’s a view into a semi-neglected, semi-loved backyard that’s so peaceful it’s hard to imagine that there are any problems in the world.

We’re here to discuss the recent publication of The Cunning Man, which is Peter Stanley’s first novel for adults. (He is the author of a novella for young adults, Simpson’s Donkey, which tells the famous ANZAC story from the animal’s perspective – it’s a memorable yarn.) This latest work is set in 1845 and explores the world of the European soldiers who created Britain’s Indian Empire. Sergeant Major Nelson Mansergh, Bengal Horse Artillery, is given the job of searching the Punjaub for a conspiracy among the company’s European soldiers. There’s a sub-plot of love and, needless to say, the story culminates in battle.

Why the move to long-form fiction?

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Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 28 November 2014. Thanks to Sally Pryor.

But what does she really want him to do?

But what does she really want him to do?

Day in, day out, there they are, on the terrace below, in uniform, camouflage for some, others in blue or green or white, so it’s a military uniform – because they’re soldiers.

It’s not because we’re being invaded, though the assumption is that one day we might be, or it might be us who’ll do the invading, all hell might break loose, yet again.  It’s just that those people, those men and women in uniform, those soldiers, are my environment at the moment.

Because I’m currently the 2013 Canberra Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of the University of New South Wales Canberra.  ‘Creative Fellow’ being just a posh name for writer-in-residence.  Which itself is a posh name for professional day-dreamer.

I haven’t talked about it much, because, primarily, it’s taken me some time to work out what I’m doing.  I’m here for three months, and I’m two months down the track, and it’s only now that things are coming into some kind of focus, though that might not be entirely true, or accurate.  The thing is I’m a natural-born pacifist; I’ve marched in the streets to protest wars.  I’ve always been of the view that there must be better ways to resolve disagreements than standing in a field and pointing weapons at each other.  I like books and music and drinking coffee in my garden while chatting to the chooks – hardly the sort of bloke who gets off on putting an enemy in the crosshairs.

So, no, the Australian Defence Force Academy is not my usual habitat.

Thankfully, as mentioned, I’ve come in via UNSW Canberra, which runs the academic side of ADFA, so that I simply get to spend my days in a very comfortable office in the library, looking down at people in uniform…when I’m not madly researching and reading and writing, of course.  And that’s the thing: I’m finding the place extraordinarily thought-provoking, inspiring even, and bloody productive, in a roundabout kind of way.  As I rather childishly (and potentially inappropriately) said to a senior academic the other day after he’d asked me how I was going, ‘I’m having THE BEST time.’

I came here with the idea of exploring ‘masculinity in times of conflict’; this probably says as much about me as it does about Australian military history.  Perhaps, like always, I’m being driven by that central question: what does it mean to be a good man, which, of course, is almost exactly the same as asking, what does it mean to be a good person?  But the military, especially the Australian kind of military, is all about men, isn’t it, the warrior, that iconic ‘digger’, that myth of our country, that brave saviour of everything we’re meant to stand for (whatever that is).

Those men who could do no wrong.  Except I don’t believe that for a second.

Are all men who've served their country 'good'? Peter Stanley thinks not.

Are all men who’ve served their country ‘good’? Peter Stanley thinks not.

Recently, over the last handful of years, historians – the courageous ones at least – have been turning their attentions to what our soldiers were truly like.  Perhaps the best example of this is Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny and the Australian Imperial Force (Murdoch Books, 2010) by Dr Peter Stanley, who for almost three decades was the Australian War Memorial’s chief historian and is now associated with ADFA/UNSW Canberra.

This excellent book, which jointly won the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History, asserts that an army is a reflection of the society it serves, which means it is a reflection of everything that that society is – warts and all.

Stanley has also been instrumental in establishing Honest History, the soon-to-be-launched organisation based in Canberra dedicated to telling military history how it is without the dramatics, especially as Australia builds up to celebrating the centenary of 1915, when, apparently, though I don’t believe this for a second either, our country formed some kind of identity or purpose – or even found its soul – on a Turkish beach.

So that question remains: who were those men who served, and who are the men who serve now, considering there are just as capable women filling key roles, including in active duty?  Eight weeks down, do I have a clue?  No, not a single one, even though I’ve researched and read and written like a bastard.

Except to say this: (1) I couldn’t do what these men do/have done; (2) I maintain my view that war is senseless, barbaric, and an insidiously bewildering mess; and (3) men who deserted – those who discovered that for what reason they just couldn’t blow up another person, or even go anywhere near a front-line – may well be the truest heroes of all.  Because – and here’s that word again – they were honest with themselves.

Really: deserters as heroes?  I’m serious.  Deadly so.

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