HENRY REYNOLDS. Australia’s perpetual ‘war footing’. (Repost from 7/5/2018)

We should have paid more attention at the time. It was September 2013 and the Abbott government had just been sworn in. The new Defence Minister, Senator David Johnston, gave an interview to a Fairfax journalist which was reported on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. The content was truly extraordinary.

He declared that he wanted the forces to be ‘battle ready’ for future wars in the Middle East or South Asia, adding that he thought Pakistan was ‘highly problematic’.  He observed that after fourteen years of involvement in overseas conflict the defence forces had ‘a strong fighting momentum that should not be lost’.  And indeed he said that he planned to maintain and ‘augment our readiness’ for future fights. With what appeared to be the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan it was essential ‘to maintain some interest for the troops.  They’ve got to keep training, got to keep a level of readiness.’

Johnston’s sentiments were startling enough; the underlying assumptions were even more disturbing. He clearly took it for granted that there was a need for Australian military intervention on the far side of the world and that the country had the legal and moral right to do so whenever and wherever it pleased. Efficient and mobile forces needed wars to maintain morale. Anywhere, it seemed, would do. The army was ready for action and should be given its head while the Minister himself clearly wanted a war of his own.

As startling as the new Minister’s statement was, it was even more remarkable that it elicited no public response from anyone despite being the lead story in the Herald. Apparently neither Government nor Opposition felt there was anything exceptional in the comments. They were the new Minister’s first public comments. Presumably they were made in consultation with his department or at least with knowledge of the official briefing papers prepared for the incoming administration. As a long- time adviser to Prime Minister Abbott on defence policy and Shadow Minister for five years, he must have believed his first public briefing would sit comfortably with the outlook of the new government and of the wider defence establishment.

It raises that disturbing question: how could such a public display of war mongering, and that was clearly what it was, slip unremarked into public discourse? We have been at war since the beginning of this century. There is no end in sight. Government and Opposition are joined at the hip when matters of defence and security are concerned. And yet both major parties tell us over and over again that they believe in a rules-based international order. It must seem to outsiders a strange declaration from such a belligerent member of the community of nations, one where it is common to boast we punch above our weight and commemorate past wars with a fervour unmatched anywhere. What a chaotic world it would be if every other small and middle sized nation sent their armed forces across the world to fight as often as does Australia.

It is sobering to consider that Johnston’s lust for war was actually prophetic. Just think where we are at the moment. We are clearly looking to increase our troops in Afghanistan in line with Trump’s statement that American forces were about to return to kill terrorists. Turnbull chimed in with a declaration that we were ‘ very, very staunch allies’ of the United States in the global war to defeat terrorism. Opposition Leader Shorten stood by his side saying he would back the government’s decision, sight unseen, declaring:

Australians should know that my track record when it comes to national security and the deployment of the ADF has been to work with the government of the day because    our ADF expects nothing less from the government and their opposition.

The wording was odd. Labor Party policy was determined by the expectations of the ADF? It was their opposition? The tail now truly wags the dog? Opposition Shadow Minister Richard Marles was also supportive of the return to Afghanistan. But his wording was equally strange, declaring that ‘we cannot afford to see Afghanistan lost and it is important that we focus on that’. Was Afghanistan ever ours to lose? It is all very troubling. Will we be fighting to avoid ‘losing’ Afghanistan for another twenty years? Clearly a Labor government is unlikely to change course and bring the ADF home.

But Afghanistan is not the only place where we have existing or potential commitments. A few weeks ago Turnbull declared his government was at the ready to become involved in Syria again. We continue to have a garrison of 800 troops in Iraq with no timetable for their return. The difficulty of bringing commitments in the Middle East to an end is powerfully illustrated by the Navy’s involvement in the Persian Gulf and nearby waters. It began 25 years ago during the first Gulf War. It still continues. The official story is that it contributes to the stability of the region. Will it continue for another 25 years?  The Middle East may never stabilize in a manner acceptable to the Americans or the Israelis. And having our war ships in the region surely means that we would inevitably be drawn into any future war between America and Iran. How could we possibly opt out?

Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Persian Gulf: but that is only part of it. The Government committed itself to involvement in any future war with North Korea. It has recently sent troops and Federal police agents to Mindanao along with surveillance aircraft, and a few months ago there were joint manoeuvres with the Philippines Navy in the Sulu Sea. Will it become another place where Australia becomes involved in a highly complex situation where there are many contending parties and enduring, generation old tensions we know little about. How long and hard will we be willing to fight to prevent Mindanao from becoming ‘lost’?

And then there is the South China Sea. Recently there was a ‘robust’ exchange between our ships and the Chinese Navy, Prime Minister Turnbull declaring that we would send our ships wherever and whenever we wanted to in international waters. But now we fly our new Orion surveillance aircraft out of Butterworth base in Malaysia on patrols over the South China Sea. We are about to begin flights over the Sea of Japan ostensibly to watch for sanction-avoiding activities by North Korea but clearly doubling up with surveillance of nearby China.

So clearly Australia punches above its weight. Whether we benefit from that behaviour is another matter altogether. The pitiful level of public debate about foreign and defence policy in the country allows us to avoid searching self-analysis. Government and Opposition advance in lock-step and the camp followers in Canberra’s think-tanks tag along behind.  Almost universally the practitioners engage in what might be called strategic solipsism. They judge Australia’s international behaviour by different standards they apply to others. So while Admiral Turnbull can send his men o’ war steaming north with a clear conscience, he would be profoundly disturbed if the Chinese chose to sail south on regular patrols to assert their right of navigation close to our off-shore islands, down the outer fringe of the Barrier Reef and back and forth through Torres Strait. We react with outrage at intimations that China may send naval units to dock in Vanuatu while we intervene in Mindanao with army, navy and air force. Can there be any wonder that others are astonished at our unregarded hypocrisy?

Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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10 Responses to HENRY REYNOLDS. Australia’s perpetual ‘war footing’. (Repost from 7/5/2018)

  1. Dr Bruce Campbell says:

    An incisive argument by Reynolds that shows him to be a peace-lover if not a pacifist. Personally, I have no problem with Australian defence forces operating in the world if the UN supports the engagement. Otherwise we should stick to our knitting.
    The belligerent discourse that Reynolds identifies also justifies the Turnbull government’s current moves towards the development in Australia of a military industrial complex, with defence spending now justified by economic factors (employment, investment, growth, etc.) rather than risk analysis. The militarisation of Australian society is progressing on many fronts.

  2. Rosemary Lynch says:

    So, indeed, the military tail is wagging the dog. What the US salesmen of war wage is profit. Apart from this both outrageous and offsider imperialist engagement, can we please direct our attention to the inappropriateness of the PM’s power to declare war without parliamentary discussion or debate? He just warred without declaring it in Syria: a war crime. Thanks, Prof. Reynolds.

  3. Dennis Argall says:

    Sandra Heys say not rock the boat.

    When are elections won other than by rocking boats? The great problem is that no one in this parliament knows enough to challenge the strategic thinking generated out of the services. No one has read Clausewitz and his advice that statesmen should beware that once they take up war as an instrument of policy, war drives out policy. As has happened. Boats need much rocking. To imagine that Labor knows better but is just lying low is a discredited notion famously begun so effectively by Beazley.

    This by Henry Reynolds is very important:
    “So while Admiral Turnbull can send his men o’ war steaming north with a clear conscience, he would be profoundly disturbed if the Chinese chose to sail south on regular patrols to assert their right of navigation close to our off-shore islands, down the outer fringe of the Barrier Reef and back and forth through Torres Strait.”

    Indeed. We should similarly be glad that Indonesia has maintained a tradition of use of armed forces to maintain itself as a nation, a nation of many islands and cultures. Patient with us. Despite Howard saying he would go after terrorists in Indonesia without asking. Despite the fact that the Australian fleet has sailed through the Indonesian archipelago so many times. Our notion that we must go far to fight is a serious mental disorder in our politics and the community at large. The fatal defect distorting strategic policy is the obsession with interoperability of forces with the US. At no time has the US allowed its forces to report to any foreign commander (except for an accidental moment under Monash in 1918) yet we crave such subordination and that shapes so-called policy.

  4. Tony Mitchell says:

    This morning, the ABC reported our Australian/American communication base will help identify Iranian “nuclear” targets, in collaboration with the peace treaty breaker Trump.

    Thus would we yet again perpetuate our insanely dangerous subservient role, so ardently supported by both major parties.

  5. Bruce Wearne says:

    Thankyou John for re-posting this and to Henry for penning it back in May. My immediate thought was to re-read this in line with 1. the non-sense paraded by POTUS and AusPM at the Coral Sea Battle commemoration and more recently 2. the joint US-Australia civil-religious endorsement of sentimental militarism at the oh-so-progressive Washington Cathedral piously sacralising “mateship”. There are unspoken aspects of the public performance of our political leaders that indeed suggest the envelopment of their political views by a darkening cloud of implicit “shirt fronting” militarism. And now today (27.7) we hear of Trump threats being levelled at Iran and the apologists for the Government dismissing questions about Pine Gap as if we are merely victims of media speculation. The source says: “Developing a picture is very different to actually participating in a strike.” Is it? Tell that to the soldier who had to tap out the order “Take no prisoners!” and then is left with his family to live out the consequence of that act for the rest of his days!

  6. Sandra Hey says:

    In my humble opinion, the Labor Party is between a rock and a hard place with regards to security, whether it is border or defence. The only way whilst Labor is in opposition is not to rock the boat by giving the Liberals another platform to crucify them with.
    Time to make judgement on Labor is to wait until they form Government.

  7. Simon Warriner says:

    You are talking about people whose foundation political act is to conflict their interest in representing the many and varied interests and perspectives of their constituents with the carved in stone dogma of the party and its benefactors.

    With that as a starting point it is little wonder these clowns wander, completely without reason or plat, across the political stage.

    The voters can fix it, if they can be brought to see it is the major problem. The fix is easy.

    Just stop voting for party politicians

  8. John O'Callaghan says:

    I recall reading those comments by Johnston at the time and could not believe the war mongering garbage spewing from his born to rule and kill gob!
    And there is Labor doing there usual loyal little yap yap puppy dog routine and salivating for crumbs off the Coalition table!

  9. roger scott says:

    Thanks very much for re-publishing this. How can anyone draw more attention to its content? Will someone ask a parliamentary question to focus on the indefensible consensus of thinking about the subject? Or has anzackery captured the public imagination to such an extent that nobody will risk challenging this component of populism?

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