On this day, respect for our war dead, and for survivors, eclipses all. The rows of headstones afflict the mind. But real respect demands we reflect on the truly big questions: Why? How? To what end?
Those who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1914 swore an oath, that they would ‘truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King’ and ‘resist His Majesty’s enemies’. In addition, they signed an acknowledgement of their willingness to serve ‘beyond the limits of the Commonwealth.’
Every person who enlists in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) today takes a similar oath or affirmation. They declare that they ‘will well and truly serve Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law’, and that they ‘will resist her enemies and faithfully discharge my duty according to law.’ Volunteering to be deployed beyond Australia is no longer required.
Should we be more honest with those enlisting? Perhaps the oath or affirmation should be amended to acknowledge the grim reality: that a mere handful of government ministers may decide upon war. They may choose war without considering primarily whether ‘Her Majesty’s enemies’ need resisting – to defend Australia – but rather because they are determined to strengthen our alliances?
First, let us remind ourselves who risks all in the ADF? Last December’s enquiry into the Department of Veterans’ Affairs found that members of the ADF serve ‘an average of eight or nine years, and often leave in their mid-to-late twenties.’ (SMH, 14 Dec. 2018).
Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that Australia’s wars are decided upon by the passing generation but fought by the rising generation. They are fought by those who have the least – youthful men and women, with little or no property, tiny superannuation balances, and very young children, if any. Those who have the least risk even the little they do have.
True respect for them should mean the most rigorous inquiry into how wars begin. Those in our uniform deserve no less than certainty that our government has strained every nerve to avoid war, has sought to limit or end wars swiftly, and has fixed upon war aims that are incontrovertibly linked to the defence of Australia itself.
Was this so with the Iraq War in 2003? We have had nothing comparable to a Hutton or Chilcot inquiry here in Australia. Instead, we are left with two studies produced from within the defence establishment probing our role in that catastrophe. Those two studies are the full-length The Australian Army and the War in Iraq, 2002-2010 (2011), released in 2017, and a smaller study entitled Deploy, Sustain, Return: Australian Logistics and the War in Iraq (2008), released in 2018. Dr Albert Palazzo, a military historian, produced both studies. Freedom of Information requests secured their release – with substantial redactions.
Both studies had a limited focus: Australia’s military performance. In The Australian Army and the War in Iraq, 2002-2010, the author states that his original purpose was ‘to record the Army’s accomplishments’, in an unclassified history ‘aimed at a junior officer audience.’ But once immersed, he realised he could no longer aim for ‘a brief quick cut of the war for the enjoyment of the junior officer and the general public.’ Darker things had emerged, about logistics, basing, supplies, vaccinations, and such like. He had to analyse these shortcomings.
But still deeper questions loom. Was the war avoidable? Was it legal? Did Australia apply a restraining hand upon our alliance partners? What were the objectives of those choosing war? Did powerful economic, political, and media interests play a role in hurrying on the war? Were the decision-makers honest with our servicemen and women, and the Australian people, about the causes and purposes of the war?
In these two studies the justice of war is assumed to be self-evident. A ‘case for war’ is outlined; the ‘strategic decision for war’ is described. The usual justifications are set down. The decision-makers had an honest belief that the enemy held ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The war was about the coalition ‘safeguarding its own values’. Australia and the USA have ‘similar philosophical and cultural values.’ The enemy was ‘the antithesis of democratic values.’ (But, notably, the word ‘torture’ appears nowhere.) Thus, war was chosen.
To what end did Australia fight? These studies note Prime Minister Howard’s identification of ‘one more compelling reason’ for the war: the need to strengthen our ‘long-standing alliance relationships with the United States and the United Kingdom.’ ‘In this the Prime Minister was correct,’ says the author. He also cites Robert Hill, the Minister of Defence, justifying expeditionary warfare in time-honoured fashion, in a speech from June 2002 asserting that ‘the defence of Australia and its interests does not stop at the edge of the air-sea gap.’ And so, planning for war began in mid-2002. Australia learned of the American determination to launch war, from ‘early September 2002.’ Australia’s ‘pre-deployments’ then took place. These were sold to the public as simply ‘prudent planning’, not compromising our ultimate decision for war.
Therefore, as these studies conclude, Australia’s war was chosen as a war for alliance solidarity, ahead of all other considerations. Australia’s government wished ‘to demonstrate support for Australia’s alliance with the United States.’ ‘Australia joined the Coalition against Iraq in order to improve its relations with the United States, the banner nation of the West and the world’s sole hegemon, and – most importantly – the current guarantor of this country’s ultimate security.’ All the rest was just ‘mandatory rhetoric.’
Our government looked first to ‘opinion’ in Washington, and ‘favourably influencing this opinion was Australia’s principle policy goal.’ Thus, these studies find that Australia’s war was a success for our decision-makers. The American alliance was strengthened. ‘By and large, they got it right.’ And ‘the Government achieved this happy state of affairs at virtually no cost in lives.’
Should those enlisting be told this truth? You may be maimed in body and mind, and your life may be lost – in a conflict decided upon by an inner circle of government ministers as necessary for alliance solidarity. If this is the case, and the two studies outlined above suggest it was so in 2003, the ‘war powers’ are crying out for reform.
Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including, most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London: Verso, 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book on one ANZAC soldier’s defiance of war during the First World War.