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.