During more than a century, our Anglo-allies fought several highly-publicised wars, but also many secret ones, directly or through proxies. If we don’t know the details, people in whose countries the wars were fought certainly do, and those who survived have not forgotten them. 

When a democratic government conceals a military operation in another country, it may well be illegal, and certainly the leaders don’t want it to be found out. Our Anglo-allies have considerable experience of such deployments, and loyal Australia is not immune either.

First, US wars.

The US contrived to take over Spanish territories in 1898, always denying imperial ambitions, but moving on to establish an empire of markets and military bases which today covers the world. American interventions in Latin American and Central American countries, overt and surreptitious, produced long-running military conflicts. The secret American wars in Cambodia and Laos derived from the same anti-communist agenda, even if they involved less big US business and more military and CIA. After 2001 public attention was distracted by the war against terror, but covert operations elsewhere did not decline. Particularly in the Middle East, oil interests had attracted US manipulation ever since 1945, and they continue today.

Between 1980 and 2001, American forces invaded, occupied or bombed 12 countries with majority Islamic populations – Iran, Libya, Lebanon, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kosovo, and Yemen – inciting hostility towards the United States which blew back on 11 September 2001. Since 1996, the Pentagon’s mission has been to maintain ‘full-spectrum dominance’ of land, sea, air, space, and information in every part of the world. In 2015 the US Department of Defense maintained 4855 ‘sites’ of which 587 were in 42 countries abroad. Special Operations forces were active in at least 150 countries. About 150 000 US troops in some 80 countries are located in 800 US military garrisons, which include 181 bases in Germany, 122 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea. Between World War II and 2002, the US engaged in 263 military operations, more than two-thirds of them carried out after 1991. And yet since World War II, the massively-armed US has won no wars apart from Grenada, Panama, the brief 1991 Gulf War, and the Balkan conflict. As a candidate, Donald Trump complained about this: but as President, he declared the US had achieved many victories, including Vietnam.

The US is good at making lists of Muslims and declaring who are the ‘bad guys’ of the moment. Between 1980 and September 2001, US forces invaded, occupied or bombed twelve Islamic countries: Iran, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kosovo, and Yemen (Andrew Bacevich, ‘Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we’ll still lost the bigger war,’ Washington Post, 3 October 2014). Invasion of Iraq was an agenda item for the very first cabinet meeting held by George W Bush in January 2001, according to the Wall Street Journal ‘s Ron Suskind (James O’Neill, ‘Lessons from the Iraq War: A Reappraisal,’ Pearls and Irritations, 7 January 2017). The covert destabilisation program continued in Libya with support from Hillary Clinton. By the end of 2016, President Obama had overseen the deployment of military force, some secret, some not, in seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Clinton’s hostility to Iran as Obama’s Secretary of State continues under President Trump. All are majority-Islamic.

Only one major state is left to pick off: Iran. John Howard predicted in April 2014 that Iran would be next, and a former Clinton advisor, Jake Sullivan, warned the Lowy Institute this month that it was likely (Age, 13 June 2017). Clearly, covert action against Iran by Israel and the US has been under way for three decades, and Sullivan has apparently failed to stop it.

Next, British wars.

In 2012 when British historian Ian Cobain wrote Cruel Britannia: a secret history of torture, he shocked readers who thought that among ‘civilised’ countries only the Americans still used torture, or who believed US presidents’ claims that they didn’t. Then in 2016 he published The History Thieves: secrets, lies, and the shaping of a modern nation, which revealed even more of Britain’s dark side.

Cobain interviewed British veterans who instead of being de-mobbed after World War II, went to Indochina to fight the Viet Minh, together with surrendered Japanese and Vichy French, RAF and Navy deployments. British troops protested against what they were ordered to do to civilians, in support of French colonialism and Britain’s US ally, alongside their erstwhile enemies.

Cobain fills in other gaps in the received version of British twentieth century history. Between 1918 and 1939, he writes, ‘British forces were fighting in Iraq, Sudan, Ireland, Palestine and Aden. In the years after WW II, British servicemen were fighting in Eritrea, Palestine, French Indochina, Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Egypt, China and Oman. Between 1949 and 1970, the British initiated 34 foreign military interventions. Later came the Falklands, Iraq – four times – Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Libya and, of course, Operation Banner, the British army’s 38-year deployment to Northern Ireland.’ British armed forces, he summarises, have been operating abroad continuously for more than a hundred years. ‘The same could not be said of the Americans, the Russians, the French or any other nation.’

Cobain pays particular attention to Oman on the Persian Gulf, nominally independent but for decades controlled and financed by Britain. Uprisings in Dhofar in the north of the country in the 1950s were put down by British SAS and RAF, which dropped a greater weight of bombs than the Luftwaffe used on Coventry in November 1940. British-led forces poisoned wells, torched villages, destroyed crops and shot livestock. They interrogated and tortured rebels, and civilian-populated areas became free-fire zones. ‘Little wonder,’ says Cobain, ‘that Britain wanted to fight this war in total secrecy.’ No UK journalists or people in government asked questions, and Harold Wilson’s published account of the Labour government of 1964-70 didn’t mention it once. While the Wilson government had every reason to be sensitive about the military support it was providing to the slave-owning despot of Oman, the developing world and the United Nations had rejected colonialism, and Arab nationalism had been growing in strength. In 1970, a coup organised by MI6 in favour of his son saw the Emir of Oman and his 500 wives gone.

After September 2001, British forces were secretly deployed in Somalia, Yemen, and Libya, and overtly in Afghanistan and Iraq. By July 2007, the wars the public knew about were deeply unpopular, and after displacing Tony Blair, Gordon Brown promised to give members of parliament the final say on declarations of war. They used it in August 2013, voting against David Cameron’s plan to send troops to Syria. But he got around this the following year by secretly embedding RAF pilots in the US and Canadian air force raids. The RAF also, Cobain reports, flew combat missions with the French over Mali. In both cases, Britons were under foreign command, which Cameron claimed made them legal, as Australia currently does in Iraq and Syria. (Canada stopped bombing Syria as soon as Justin Trudeau was elected). Then in December 2015, British MPs voted that overt military action against Islamic State forces should finally proceed. ‘The government,’ says Cobain, ‘was given parliamentary approval for military operations that had already been covertly under way for two years.’

With modern communications, most wars cannot remain secret for long. One way around this is warfare using drones, giving military planners opportunities to mount deadly operations that remain unknown to all but those who send and those who receive them, of which President Obama took full advantage (David Cole, ‘The Drone Presidency’, NYRB 18 August 2016: 19).

In a lot of this secret warfare, Australia is complicit: in Vietnam (remember Brigadier Ted Serong?), Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and in facilitating drones from Pine Gap. And lest we forget,ASIS played its loyal part in the 1973 US-backed coup against  Chilean Socialist  President Allende by General Pinochet,Margaret Thatcher’s friend who then ruled with an iron fist for 17 years. ‘Operational’ matters are simply not discussed in Parliament or with the public. In his national security statement on 13 June, Malcolm Turnbull said his ‘unrelenting focus’ was to do ‘everything possible to keep Australians safe and maintain our way of life, our values and our freedom,’ as well as being ‘faster, smarter and more agile than those who seek to do us harm.’ In many countries, they know more than we and our allies do what ‘doing everything possible’ means.

Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform and Vice-President of Honest History.


Dr Alison Broinowski AM is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform. She joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1963, lived in Japan for a total of six years, and for shorter periods in Burma, Iran, the Philippines, Jordan, South Korea, the United States of America and Mexico, working alternately as an author and Australian diplomat.

Since leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she has received a PhD in Asian Studies from ANU, and has continued to lecture, write, and broadcast in Australia and abroad on Asian affairs and cultural and political issues.

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3 Responses to ALISON BROINOWSKI. Shameful wars.

  1. Thank you for this series of timely reminders of the West’s addiction to war as a furtherance of ‘policy by other means’. You are probably familiar with the work of William Blum who has chronicled the post WW2 history of American invasions, bombings and occupation. The number currently stands in excess of 70 countries, and the death toll conservatively estimated at more than 30 million. Australia of course has been an enthusiastic participant in America’s wars. Their homicidal instincts are not restricted to majority Muslim nations, although post 2001 those countries have certainly borne the brunt of America’s military activities. We will just have to disagree about how and why ‘9/11’ happened, but there is no doubting the use to which that incident has been put, including a sustained attack on individual rights and liberties in this country. It is difficult to oppose this trend when the two major parties essentially sing from the same song sheet on matters of “national security.” The absence of a Bill of Rights (almost uniquely among so-called western democracies) is also a major hindrance to holding politicians accountable.
    I would offer one small correction to your argument. The official justification for Australia’s intervention in Syria was offered by Julie Bishop the day after New Matilda published an article of mine saying our involvement in that war was illegal under international law (a view I should even more strongly now).
    Ms Bishop said that we were operating in Syria “at the request of the Iraqi government pursuant to the collective self-defence provisions of Article 51 of the UN Charter.” Two problems with that claim. First, it was specifically refuted by the government of Iraq who said they had made no such request of the Australian government. Secondly, Article 51 does not apply, as both its wording and several decisions of the International Court of Justice in The Hague have made clear.
    It is part of the enduring disgrace of our mainstream media that they completely ignore this fact, as indeed does the official “Opposition”.

  2. Avatar Grumpy Old Sod says:

    In 1883 a group of missionaries and planters were disaffected by the reigning monarch’s stance and started to advocate against him in their homeland, a distance of some 2000 plus miles away. By 1894, their homeland, having decided that this area would be the best place for forward defence and had a brilliant natural harbour, sent over their elite fighting forces and, in what became known as the ‘Bayonet Revolution’ (because that was how it was mainly obtained through the deaths of over 4000 natives), overthrew the ruling monarchy and set themselves up as the dictators in all but name in that country. In the mid 1990s, the ruler of the usurping country gave a qualified and to some, an insincere apology without any financial or moral payback. That country was Hawaii and the usurping country was of course the USA. And they have the gall to complain about Crimea? Jesus wept! At least for Russia Crimea is on their doorstep and represents another bulwark in the defence of their soft underbelly while for the Yanks, Hawaii gave forward defence to California, those thousands of miles away. Even after the bombing of Hawaii by the Japanese California remained safe though the same couldn’t be said for Russia and Crimea at that time.

    And just for interest another example. A well known country had a violent revolution in which their ruling monarchy was eventually slaughtered. Britain sent two battalions to fight for the soon to be ex rulers. Those battalions quickly disappeared into the remoteness of that vast country never to be heard of again. But were they? The country in question is of course Russia, the year 1919 and those British battalions fought for the White Russian cause. Interestingly the current head of Gazprom, the worlds largest public energy company is run by a bloke whose surname is Miller. Not exactly a Russian sounding name at all so I wonder in my gathering decrepitude, could he be a descendant of one of those troops of that ill fated and ridiculous attempt at pissing in the wind, even though his photograph shows pure Slav?

    And the establishment wonders why Corben and Sanders are popular? The only they ever learn is the hard way, it appears. And the sorrow is that many innocents suffer as the result as all revolutions have proven.

  3. Avatar Paul Frijters says:


    I have an entirely different take on these things, which is that these wars and incursions are done with our approval, our tax money, and with near universal support from most major parties around the Western world. It is true that many of us don’t like to be reminded of what our armies are up to, but after so many decades, you should that as a case of having our cake and eating it too. When populations hear about the activities of the military machinery they fund, they are indignant but do not truly oppose them (which opposition party has grown on such a platform? I cant think of a good recent example anywhere in the West. The Vietnam war was the only one that eventually became unpopular).

    So these wars are done in our name and with our approval, though most of us prefer to be hypocrites about it rather than openly discuss it. We are more than complicit, despite our silence: we owns these policies and are 100% responsible for them, warts and all.

    What we should change is the hypocrisy, probably not the basic policy. We should thus openly talk about the wars we should have, the next enemies we should kill, the risks we are willing to run, etc. Strategic and operational matters should be openly discussed. And you don’t need permission to do this: you can make a start yourself anytime you want. Give us your list of states to invade and groups we need to kill! I can certainly think of quite a few.

    Like I for instance tried to do in 2012 when I was openly talking about how the West should handle Failing States:

    You may of course react with indignation and shame-calling, which simply serves to strengthen the hypocrisy around this topic and will not do much to change the practice at all, because the practice is popular.

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