Part 5: Narrative Overview and Conclusion
The emphasis in our military history and remembrance on asking how we fought does not inherently preclude an interest in what we were fighting for. The two narratives could co-exist and interact. But not effectively in our culture – yet. We still lose sight of what our remembrance confirms: the interconnectedness of what we were and still are fighting for.
What inherently works for the How narrative and against, or if you like, precludes the What narrative by crowding it out and deflecting attention from it, is easily stated. This is, indeed, a cultural tendency to mute White Australia’s long history of dependence on British and, after 1942, US power to protect us from unreal threats: the ‘Yellow’ and post-1949 technicolour nightmare of the ‘Red and Yellow Perils’. We don’t really want to know that the defensive conservatism of white colonial culture was intensified by its position in Austral-Asia.
As a result, the How narrative has long been powerfully – politically, institutionally and financially – embedded.
There are, I think, four main reasons.
First, the How narrative avoids the embarrassment of having to explain why almost all the wars we get into – I think the Pacific war against Japan (1942-45) and Timor (1999-2000) are exceptions – have no clear independent national strategic context.
Second, the How narrative avoids the problem of explaining what drives our ‘imperial’ wars and, in that way, weakens the ‘national’ interest. The usual (often unspoken) assumption, is that we need to support our ‘big and powerful friends’ so that they will protect us against the threat from the north. A large difficulty with that strategic reflex, which the How narrative avoids is, then, what serious discussion of what we were fighting for would show: that the official construction of threat from the north on which the reflex is based has almost always been illusory. (No evidence has ever been presented that an Asian government has threated an invasion of Australia – even in 1942, although, for various reasons, I believe we had to fight the Japanese then.)
Third, the dominance of the How narrative shows that we don’t want to know that the threats we construct don’t exist. We don’t want to know what’s troubling us.
Fourth, the semantic confusion in our political culture (mentioned in Part 3) between ‘empire’ and ‘nation’ protects the How narrative’s evasions of the above three points. Or, in our defensive culture, the How narrative becomes politically empowered by the privileging of ‘empire’ over ‘nation’, despite what politicians might say and people think. Australian culture today is qualitatively different from what it was in 1914. But still, somewhat disguised by ‘national’ rhetoric, our ‘imperial’ wars fulfil and further boost the conservatism of the defensive culture, which tends further to override and inhibit manifestations of the independent nation.
Conversely, there are strong political, institutional and financial disincentives against delving too seriously into what we were fighting for. That What narrative would press on the absence of the putative Asian threat, a threat that our white Australian culture nonetheless imagined historically and still does as, to maintain itself, it thinks of itself as needing a defensive imperial framework. Today, the what narrative would also draw attention to the historically unresolved tension between ‘empire’ and ‘nation’ that, in like measure, covers what it creates: the uncertain sense of our independence and sovereign identity in the world.
Today, Australian national independence would not mean abandoning the US Alliance. As a balance to China and Russia, the US is a force for stability, both in our region and globally. But we should maximise our national interests in our relations with America by first being clear about what those interests are and acting on them.
If we first asked what we were fighting for we would find that the answer is, with few qualifications, much the same all the way along the line from the Somme through the falls of Singapore and Saigon and now, through Iraq and Afghanistan, to Syria: some form of ‘imperial’ dependence to assuage our culture’s discomfort with its place in Austral-Asia.
Final part of 5 part series.
Greg Lockhart had military and academic careers. He is a Vietnam Veteran, has written on the Vietnam War and has, since childhood, had an interest in the Great War.