- “Boredom is the Enemy”: The Intellectual and Imaginative Lives of Australian Soldiers in the Great War and Beyond by Amanda Laugesen
“Boredom is the Enemy”: The Intellectual and Imaginative Lives of Australian Soldiers in the Great War and Beyond shifts the focus from the battlefield to life behind the lines. Tracing the “life of the mind” in wartime, Amanda Laugesen examines the intellectual lives of Australian soldiers in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam. Her focus is primarily on the reading habits of troops, but she also pays close attention to the plays, films, and music that offered troops entertainment. She devotes nearly half the book to World War I, and a scant 26 pages to Vietnam, a balance that reflects both the primacy of World War I as the Australian military service archetype and the decreased importance of reading for soldiers fighting later 20th century wars.
In her analysis Laugesen carefully describes how military authorities and charitable organizations in World War I and II tried to structure the reading habits of soldiers by providing “good reading.” Besides alleviating boredom and distracting troops from less wholesome pursuits, the agencies charged with collecting and distributing reading materials hoped to use military service as a vehicle for improving the overall tenor of postwar Australian society. Laugesen astutely notes, however, that soldiers often read for their own reasons. Amassing a truly impressive amount of research, she mines soldiers’ letters and diaries for references to reading, allowing soldier readers to explain what they read, why they read, and how it shaped their social and cultural worlds. In examining these accounts she tackles the question of Australian national identity, positing that reading offered one way for soldiers to maintain connections to home that reinforced their self-identification as Australians. Her final emphasis centers on using the cultural lives of soldiers as a prism for understanding the evolution of twentieth-century Australian popular culture. Her account details [End Page 461] how British cultural influences gradually declined as American mass culture gained favor among troops. The diminishing emphasis placed on moral uplift along with competition from other forms of media meant that even as literacy rates rose, the popularity of reading among soldiers declined dramatically by Vietnam.
‘Boredom is the Enemy’ reveals the importance of situating reading within a larger social and historical context. In World War I, the mind-set of total mobilization encouraged home-front charities to compile, transport, and distribute reading materials overseas. Living in different circumstances, Australian troops in base camps, the frontlines, hospitals, and prisoner of war camps embraced reading for a variety of reasons. Officers read for information and to perfect the art of command. Combat soldiers read to escape the horrors of the battlefield. Others read for entertainment or to improve their postwar lives through education. The bibles that men read reflected their religious beliefs, but also served as talismans in battle. Reading aloud strengthened bonds among men, and soldiers often wrote home to discuss what they were reading—activities that made reading a communal, rather than solitary experience. Laugeson documents how plays (with soldier entertainers) and films (which often included active audience verbal responses) became interactive experiences which gave troops the ability to shape their cultural wartime lives. “Regimental bands often provided a musical soundtrack to wartime life,” she writes (92). For the “singing armies” of World War I, folk songs, religious hymns, and patriotic tunes served as ways to reinforce social bonds among men and dedication to the national cause.
The war environment also stimulated the creation of unique materials to read. Official propaganda and political broadsides (especially over the conscription referendums) reflected attempts to shape soldiers’ political views. Troop newspapers allowed to men to construct unit identities, vent minor grievances, and create souvenirs to send home of their wartime experiences. Documenting their wartime experiences by creating diaries to be read later also formed an essential part of the World War I reading milieu.
World War II continued many of these same...