Research excellence: Charting the unknown

Published: Tuesday 20th October 2015

Dr Noah Riseman's research focuses on the social history of marginalised groups in the Australian military. "I am recording and publishing histories that have not been shared before. Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and LGBTI histories of military service have been silent for decades, and it is only now that these stories are being shared and told."

A very quick background on you

I am a historian with an interest in Australian social history, particularly the history of marginalised social groups in the Australian military. I am actually American by birth and grew up in the suburbs of Boston, having a proud state school education. I often get asked how a white American winds up moving to Australia and researching and teaching Australian history (especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history). It all happened through an unexpected sequence of events. I attended Georgetown University in Washington DC, which has a program in Australian and New Zealand Studies – the only one in the US. In my second year at uni I took a class on Australian history on a whim because it looked interesting. I loved it. My lecturer, Associate Professor Patty O’Brien (now an ARC Future Fellow at ANU), was fantastic and I continued down that route. I was always especially interested in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, including both the oppression they confronted and their resilience. I did an exchange at the University of Melbourne, and while there I took a subject on comparative Australian and American history. For that class I wrote an essay comparing Native American and Australian Indigenous experiences in the Second World War, and that sparked a real interest in the subject. When I graduated from my undergraduate degree in 2003, I worked for a few months and then moved to Melbourne in 2004 to do my PhD at the University of Melbourne. I finished my PhD, looking at the Yolngu people in the Second World War, at the beginning of 2008, about two weeks after I started work at ACU. My PhD won the C.E.W. Bean Prize for best thesis in Army History in 2009. A revised version of my thesis was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2012 as Defending Whose Country? Indigenous Soldiers in the Pacific War. The book was shortlisted for the 2013 Chief Minister’s Northern Territory History Award.

What led you to choose this career path?

I originally thought I wanted to be a lawyer. What changed my mind – thankfully! – was when I had to do a legal history essay that required me to read the entire Mabo ruling. I thought, if that is what studying law entails, I am not interested (no disrespect to any law students or lawyers – my partner is a solicitor). What made pursue a PhD, though, was actually my interest in teaching. I have a great passion for debating and discussing history, and imparting knowledge. My mother and sister are both teachers, so it runs in the family and I have always had a deep respect for the profession. But I also do not like dealing with discipline, so I knew that I wanted to teach at the tertiary level. So that meant that the career path was to do a PhD. I consider myself one of the lucky ones – I know lots of other people whom I consider far more talented than me who finished their PhDs but were not able to secure continuing positions. While teaching continues to be a major passion, over the post-PhD period I have gradually grown into the research field as well and now enjoy it just as much.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have two projects at the moment. The first one is a history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military service in the post-Second World War era. This is my ‘postdoctoral’ research (I say it in quotes because I was never a postdoctoral fellow) and was supported by an Army History Research Grant and an ARC Discovery grant (2011-13). I have conducted over 30 interviews with Indigenous ex-servicemen and women as well as examined numerous archival material and personal records. I have published a series of articles in this area, and in 2016 I have two books forthcoming: Defending Australia, Defending Indigenous Rights: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service since 1945 (co-authored with Richard Trembath; University of Queensland Press) and In Defence of Country: Life Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Servicemen and Women (ANU Press). The first book is an overview history of Indigenous military service in the post-Second World War era, looking at topics such as Vietnam War service, the women’s services, racism in the ADF, the role of RSLs and the ways in which the ADF has contributed to Reconciliation. The second book contains the testimonies of eight of the ex-servicemen and women I have interviewed in their own words. It is the opportunity to share their life stories and explain how military service affected their careers, their families and their communities. I am also part of an ARC Linkage project titled ‘Serving Our Country’, headed by Professor Mick Dodson of ANU. This project will be producing the first comprehensive history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military service from the Boer War through the present, also looking at issues like social justice, veterans’ benefits and the links between service, activism and citizenship rights. The project team has been conducting ‘Yarn-ups’ across Australia, meeting ex-servicemen and women and their families and collecting oral history interviews and documents. We have collected countless photographs, records, ephemera and conducted almost 200 interviews. Our major outputs, two books and an interactive website, will hopefully be completed in 2017.

My new project which I began last year is a history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) military service in the post-Second World War era. I became interested in this topic for two reasons. First, I interviewed a gay Aboriginal ex-serviceman, who told me stories about being gay in the Air Force, but only off the record. Second, I read a tiny article in the LGBTI press in 2012 about the twentieth anniversary since lifting the ban on gay and lesbian service in Australia. The anniversary received little attention, partly because there has been little research conducted on LGBTI military history.

Similar to the Indigenous project, this research entails oral history interviews with the men and women who have served and are continuing to serve. It is early days, but I have already conducted over a dozen interviews with people who served from as far back as the Second World War, at the Maralinga nuclear tests, in Vietnam, the 1980s and members who are serving today. I already have a forthcoming article about the debates leading to the lifting of the ban on LGB service in 1992. I am currently doing some really interesting research into transgender service. I am working on this project with Dr Shirleene Robinson of Macquarie University and Dr Graham Willett, president of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

What I love most is the people I meet. Doing oral history interviews means the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, and everyone has her or his own unique life journey. Some of the amazing people I have met include:

  • A gay doctor who served in the Vietnam War; through the course of the war, where he treated a LOT of venereal disease, he developed an interest in sexual health. By the 1980s he was running Melbourne’s public sexual health clinic, just as the AIDS epidemic hit Australia. This man was on the frontline fighting HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s and has really had an emotional rollercoaster of a life.
  • An Aboriginal man who was stolen as a child, raised in the notorious Kinchela Boys Home then fostered out. He then joined the Army and did two tours of Vietnam. He adapted well to the Army because the regimentation reflected his upbringing. After Vietnam he suffered PTSD both from his Vietnam and childhood experiences, setting him down a difficult path of conflict with family and the police. He spent many years in gaol before finally reconnecting with his sisters and getting his life back on track.
  • Several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who served in the women’s services from the 1940s-70s. Their stories are always interesting about how most joined the armed forces on a whim or by chance, but loved it. Through military service they learned skills they would not otherwise have learned in civilian Australia of the assimilation era and were able to advance themselves and their families. Many became advocates for Indigenous rights later in life, either at the grassroots level or the national level. I always say do not mess with the sassy aunties!

How does your research make a difference in the community?

I am recording and publishing histories that have not been shared before. Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and LGBTI histories of military service have been silent for decades, and it is only now that these stories are being shared and told. I am privileged to be part of that process of sharing histories so that we can learn about the contributions these men and women have been making, and continue to make, to defend our country. I always emphasise that these stories are not just about the military, though; it is often said that the military is a reflection of our society, and as such these histories merely use the military as a lens to tell the changing social history of Australia’s relationship with marginalised social groups.