Much discussion has been generated by the recently released Defence White. There were several penetrating essays in Pearls and Irritations. But looking at the text as a historian it seemed that some of the most interesting observations passed without notice. I was drawn to the statement that there was no more than a remote prospect of a military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future. It was a truism which, it seemed, scarcely needed examination.
After all it has ever been so. Australia has had no ancestral enemies, no neighbours with irredentist ambitions, an intimidating size and in most places wide oceanic moats. A curious visitor might well pose a few obvious question we rarely ask ourselves. With a sense of security few countries have been able to enjoy why has Australia gone to war on so many occasions and in so many distant places? Is Australia a distinctly belligerent nation? With no conflict likely on or near the borders why do we seek out war in distant places? Lacking the classic explanation for a just war—defence against an actual or likely attack on the homeland—how has Australia provided itself with moral and legal justification for carrying war into other countries? Are we so used to being at war that we have given up asking those difficult ethical questions? The armed forces do examine the way in which battles can be fought while observing the rules of war. They steer carefully away from the morality of war itself and the same is true of our politicians.
The authors of the White Paper added a postscript to their observation about the improbability of an attack on the Australian homeland with the comment that our strategic planning was not limited to defending our borders. Rather it recognized the regional and global nature of Australia’s strategic interests. The constant refrain of the Paper is that we must address challenges to the rules-based global order. It slips so easily off the tongue and has the enormous advantage of meaning almost anything you want it to. It clearly doesn’t involve us using our much-paraded influence in Washington to press the Americans to ratify or even sign a long list of international agreements which help underpin the rules-based order including the Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
But Australia’s constantly expressed concern for the rules-based global order raises other questions. Given that we have been at war in the Middle East since the beginning of the new century we must assume that we consider that we have a kind of international social license to send our armed forces to fight in what are largely civil wars in countries we know little about and with cultures and traditions that are utterly foreign to us. And for that matter, there are few places anywhere in the world that are as far away from the Middle East as Australia. Is this the way to uphold the global order? Is it an appropriate recipe for all countries seeking the same general outcome or does Australia self- select itself to act as a global enforcer? It is sobering to think what would happen if the other 150 or so small and middle-sized states followed the Australian example and repeatedly sent soldiers, planes and ships to trouble spots far from their borders.
How have we come by this hubris? It has clearly been with us for a long time. We have inherited it from the Colonial politicians who decided to eschew the chance to become a sovereign nation-state and opted instead to tie themselves into the faltering British Empire which had spent the whole C19th at war somewhere in the world. It was a decision which pre-determined that Australia would be involved in Britain’s wars regardless of where, when or why they were fought. We behaved less like an independent nation-state and more like an adjunct imperialist with an accompanying sense of entitlement. And so Australians fought and died overseas while the nations’ leaders had little say on the grand strategy or the rationale for particular battles or campaigns. But once the pattern of military engagement was established, and it dates back to the Boer War, it was hard to question a cause for which so much blood had been spilt. And sceptics could be struck down and silenced with accusations of disloyalty to King and country. The Anzac legend helped place the Imperial sacrifice beyond the reach of searching questions about whether, and in what ways, Australia benefitted from its wars. It is truly extraordinary that we have never seriously considered the great cost we paid for our long loyalty to Empire and monarchy. And there was a darker element to the country’s continuing commitment to war. Australians ventured out into the world with the conviction that they were representatives of a white racial aristocracy and this sense of easy superiority persisted well into the C20th. Are there residual elements of these atavistic attitudes in our extraordinary assumption that we are well placed to sort out the compacted, complex problems of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and that we can return home with an easy conscience, insouciant concerning the mayhem to which we have to contribute and the lives we have destroyed.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who is focused on frontier conflict between Indigenous people and European settlers.