REVIEW: A War of Words by Hamish McDonald (Review by Justin Cahill)

by |May 26, 2014

A War of WordsBut for an accident of history, we would know very little about Charles Bavier. The chance delivery of his papers to the journalist Hamish McDonald saved him from oblivion. Even then, it was only after 20 years research that McDonald was able to shed more light on this extraordinary figure.

Born in Japan to a Swiss merchant and his lover in about 1888, Bavier was promptly deserted by his father, who left him with his Japanese mistress. Caught between two cultures at a time of increasing paranoia against the West, Bavier left Japan. He ended up in Australia where, anxious for military glory, he joined the Army and served at Gallipoli. There, his background and interest in military strategy did not endear himself to his commanding officers.

As the War’s irresolution played itself out twenty-five years later, Bavier was caught up in the shadowy propaganda battle against Japan. His task ? To persuade Japanese troops determined to die, by their own hand if necessary, to surrender. By chance, Bavier’s son, John, was also assigned this work. He enlisted in the Australian Army and carted recordings of his father’s exhortations to cease hostilities to the front at Bougainville and played them to Japanese troops.

Hamish McDonald

Hamish McDonald

As a result of these efforts, about 4000 Japanese surrendered. Ranged against the Pacific War’s heavy casualties, it was a drop in the bucket. Yet it was an important demonstration of the Allies’ commitment to political and personal freedom.

This unique book has stayed with me, throwing up questions long after being read. Of particular interest is McDonald’s account of the rise of fascism in Japan. All too often, we get the usual, shop-worn versions of the rise of Nazi Germany. Accounts of Japan’s struggle to find its place in the World, with its archaic Samurai code leading it to disaster, are rare. The sheer impunity with which its Imperialist faction assassinated its way to power makes Hitler’s Brown Shirts look distinctly amateur.

More poignantly, McDonald gives us a portrait of a ‘man alone’. How does such a man, cast off between Asia and Europe, make his way in life ? How does he survive when his worlds come brutally into conflict ? How does he build and sustain relationships ? This is not simply the story of a man caught up in unusual circumstances. It is a lesson in survival which offers a fresh, intriguing view of part of our national history.

Grab a copy of A War of Words here


Justin Cahill is an historian and solicitor, his university thesis being on the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

His current projects include completing the first history of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people.

He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Heckler’ column.

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