Australia is addicted to fighting other people’s wars

Nov 6, 2022
Five Eyes concept. United Kingdom – United States of America Agreement. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. 3D rendering.

How do we explain that half the Australian community thinks we should go to war with China? After twenty years of conflict in the Middle East, will our addiction to war and our insouciance about its consequences finally catch up with us in an American war over Taiwan?

‘Paddy the Irishman’ was one of the stock characters who appeared in the cartoons in the Sydney Bulletin in the early C20th. In one of the cartoons Paddy addressed the readers but behind him was a sketch of what appeared to be a brawl. He asked:’ Is this a private fight or can anyone join in’? I was reminded of the cartoon after reading two news items published last week.

The first was a report of the results of a YouGov survey into public opinion about attitudes to a possible future war over the fate of Taiwan. I found the results both surprising and troubling. As the Guardian reported, almost half of Australians (46%) believe the country should send troops to help defend Taiwan against China if required. More surprising was that it was a much higher percentage than in the U.S with(33%) or Japan with (35%).

Two days later the government announced that it was setting aside $475 million for assistance to Ukraine and dispatching 70 ADF personnel to Britain to help train their soldiers. No matter how sympathetic we might be about the beleaguered nation, Australian involvement is quite strange. Ukraine has the strong support of the thirty members of NATO, many with much larger armies and defence budgets than Australia. Are we just making a declaration that we wish to now tag along as NATO’s camp followers? And if our Department of Defence has a lazy half billion dollars it would have been more appropriate to spend it as a gesture of reparation for the destruction and devastated families we left behind after twenty years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We might then be able to convince observers all over the world that our empathy is not colour coded.

How do we explain that half the community thinks we should go to war with China? We might well have thought that twenty years of conflict in the Middle East with little to show for it had mollified our addiction to warfare. What is outstanding here is the combination of belligerence and insouciance. Little thought seems to have been given to the possibility of landing troops on Taiwan and of ever getting them back again. The legal status of the island as a province of China is clearly little understood; or that military involvement, as far as international law is concerned, would be an illegal invasion of China and would be seen in that way in many parts of the world.

But the government’s slapdash preparation for war is far more consequential. There are innumerable military exercises on land, sea and in the air. Weapons and tactics are methodically tested. We have an ongoing enquiry into strategic objectives. But is anyone calculating the cost of war with China? Is there any serious assessment of the impact on the national economy which might well be devastated? Do we have any precedents for a country that decided to go to war with its major trading partner? Has anyone considered what would happen to large segments of the mining industry? And what would happen to shipping to and from Australia? Access to Japan and South Korea would be seriously inhibited. And regardless of outcomes we would have to assume that we would have hostile relations with China for a generation and more. Then there is the question of our large Chinese community. Do our war mongers give them any consideration? Would they just be treated with restless suspicion or would a government under pressure consider the detention which was imposed on Germans and Italians during the Second World War? All this and more for Taiwan which many Australians could not mark on a map? How much suffering does our defence establishment estimate they will subject us to? Have they any idea? Do they actually want to know?

All of these questions remind us of outstanding features of Australia’s distinctive history of engagement in wars in far- away places against enemies who presented no threat to the homeland. The British inducted us into a tradition of engagement in Imperial adventurism. They were incessantly at war somewhere in the world for most of the C19th. As the great liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone observed: ‘The English piously believe themselves to be a peaceful people. Nobody else is of the same belief.’ At the time of federation the Australian colonies followed the British into conflict in both South Africa and China. It was the start of a long tradition.

The Empire made it easy for the Australians to go to war. Enemies were chosen for them. The decisions about where, when and how to fight were presented ready- made. Debate about strategy, legality or morality was left to Britain. Loyalty to Crown and Empire was sufficient motivation for the majority and was used as a gag to smother dissent. So going to war could proceed without serious debate about Australia’s obligations or responsibilities as a nascent nation state or the wider ramifications of its geographical location. Return from wars was also easy. If things did not turn out as expected there was no need for introspection because Australia had been there merely to lend a hand. The Australians showed themselves to be proficient and resourceful warriors. And that was enough. There was no need to give serious thought to warfare itself. Ultimate responsibility, reassessment and soul searching could be left to the British. This was graphically illustrated in the case of the South African War of 1899-1902. There was far more dissent in Britain than in Australia and there was almost nothing like the profound reassessment which resulted in the war being seen as disgraceful descent into ‘methods of barbarism’.

How the patterns are replicated! Our behaviour in our ‘American wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan is similar to that of earlier ’British’ ones. Going to war was easy. Using our legal inheritance from the common law which determined that war and treaty making are the preserve of the Crown or more correctly the Prime Minister. As many people now understand it can all be done without reference to the parliament. Our enemies were chosen for us. The fact that we knew comparatively little about the location didn’t matter. The legality and morality of the conflict was defined in Washington. Even the rhetoric was borrowed including repeated reference to the non- existent ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Return from war was just as easy. There was no public scrutiny about whether the wars were a good idea, whether the cost in lives and billions of dollars was worth it. War seems to be the only aspect of government which escapes any serious cost/benefit analysis. There was little of the soul searching which followed the Iraq war in Britain and America.

This brings us back to the question of war with China over the future of Taiwan. So many decisions and commitments have already been made in secret that going to war will be easy. The only question left to us now is can involvement in a likely catastrophe be avoided? Or will our addiction to war and our insouciance about its consequences finally catch up with us?

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