Former Prime Minister John Howard loved cricket as much as he loved war-making. Problem was he was terrible at the former and successful at the latter.
What a different world it would have been if Howard had possessed the cricket skills of Glen McGrath and the war-making talent of Sir Douglas Haig.
At a Bradman Gala dinner Howard said the worst decision of his life was to accept an invitation in 2005 by the Pakistani Army to bowl in a local charity match. We all remember what came next. We scurried with embarrassment behind the TV sofas as Howard bowled the ball to his own feet.
But “the worst decision of his life”? Surely, he was playing with his backslapping audience. He was indeed. He made far worse decisions as a wartime prime minister. One of his first wars was with people from Asia. Too many were coming, he said. He did not get far with that war, although that did not stop him dog whistling the issues for years after. He got a little bit further with his war on Aborigines, which culminated in him being the only living prime minister to boycott Kevin Rudd’s apology in February 2008.
Howard was coming into his moment with his war on refugees. We all know that story. On 24 August 2001, 19 days before the twin towers were hit in New York, a decrepit Indonesian fishing boat overloaded with 433 mainly Hazara asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, became stranded in international waters about 140 kilometres north of Christmas Island. They were picked up the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa. Shortly before midday on 29 August 2001, the Tampa crossed the Australian maritime boundary on a humanitarian mission and Howard responded by ordering the Chief of the Defence Force, the hapless Chris Barrie, to dispatch 45 Special Air Service troops to board and take control of the vessel.
Like a scene from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a war-focussed Howard cross-haired the enemy and quickly eliminated the threat. And what a threat it was! Huddled on the open winter deck of the Tampa were the Hazaras; cold, traumatised, unarmed, sick, and hungry. What did this reincarnation of Sir Douglas Haig do? He unleashed the frightening firepower of Australia’s most elite battle warriors. The threat was quickly eliminated. Another imperilment of a white conservative Christian lifestyle neutralised. Boy! That was close. With a SAS overkill, Howard militarised a political situation and thereby poisoned the refugee debate long after his humiliating ouster 6 years later.
Peter Tinley was second-in-command of the SAS squadron that boarded the Tampa. “Once we got there, I slowly realised that this was a political situation, as opposed to a strict military tactical situation”. He compared the images of his soldiers, armed to the teeth, climbing aboard the Tampa with what they found. “[There] was 400-plus ordinary refugees, very hungry, some who needed some medical attention, very scared and uncertain about what was happening, a particularly concerned sea captain who just wanted to offload his human cargo and discharge his duty according to international law.” That situation, in Mr Tinley’s mind, was a complete overreaction by the Howard Government, a reaction mainly targeted at neither Norway nor the asylum seekers. The prime target, he says he came to realise, was the Australian voter.
Howard blocked the berthing of the Tampa ship with his sidekick, Peter (‘has anyone seen the truth’?) Reith. He tried to convince many of us that the Hazara were all closet terrorists who loved giving their children free swimming lessons. It was an appalling time in our history.
Howard did not have to wait too long for the war which would mark him in history. The so-called war on terror. By now his ideological passage from non-descript commercial lawyer in Sydney to deputy sheriff to the Dr. Strangelove in the White House was complete.
Like cardinals regularly returning to the Vatican for re-set and new instructions, Howard pilgrimaged to Washington more times than any other Australian prime minister. Two weeks after ordering the SAS aboard the Tampa he was back in America. Never one to submit his decisions to deep moral reckoning, Howard was upbeat and cheerful as he circulated among guests at an Aussie style BBQ at White Oaks. Now the luxury Washington residence of Michael Thawley, the Australian ambassador, it was once owned by another great war-maker, General George Patton.
This was 9 September. The clock was ticking. The guest list read like a war crimes indictment from the Hague. There was Dick Cheney, wiping tomato sauce from his mouth. Near the pool, Colin Powell was boring people with anecdotes from his first 8 months as Secretary of State. Donald Rumsfield, Secretary of Defence, and his wife Joyce, reported that it was one of the best parties they had been to. President Bush sent his apologies. He was at home making sure there were no tricky words in the children’s book he was to read the next day to kids from the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. It was during that reading session he was told of the second hit on the Twin Towers.
Tony Blair was not there either. If Bush and Blair had of turned up, then gathered there on the lawn in one place together were all the men who would let so much blood flow in the coming weeks, months and years in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The so-called war on terror was a great war for Howard. It allowed him to win the 2001 and 2004 federal elections. Two years after his ignominious defeat in 2007, in which he was only the second prime minister to lose his own seat, John (“man of steel”) Howard was summoned back to imperial Washington to receive the US Medal of Honor. You could tell by his Lunar Park smile that John loved the moment. He loved the attention and the knowledge that he was in illustrious company. Medal of Honour recipients like Walt Disney and John Wayne. What interesting attitudes on race did those two men have. Then there was Bill Cosby. “America’s Dad”, currently enjoying rent free accommodation in Pennsylvania somewhere. Also wearing the US Medal of Honor is Aung San Suu Kyi. Was the medal for her humanitarian work with the Rohingya people? Milton Friedman, who wrote the theological texts on predatory capitalism was a recipient. So too was his keenest devotee, Margaret Thatcher.
All the criminal architects of the war on terror received the Medal of Honor; Colin Powell (twice), Donald Rumsfield, Dick Cheney and Tony Blair. Now Howard.
Like Julia Gillard, Howard soon became no stranger to staring at coffins containing dead Australian soldiers. He said to the documentary film maker Victoria Pitt that he “deeply questioned” the request to join the coalition America was cobbling together. I saw that documentary and Howard definitely does not send off any signals that here was a man in deep moral turmoil. His biography, in which he treats history like a child moulds plasticine, makes no mention of moral turmoil, just straight out talking up the righteousness of the military intervention and of course, his righteous role in it.
Once the decision to commit troops was made in forums outside Howard’s control and influence, the only relic of leadership left was the decision to stay the course, until told to militarily disengage. That is an appalling failure of moral leadership. To me Howard remains an impenitent maker of war. Along with Bush and Blair, he should have faced the International Criminal Court for the consequences of his decisions to release so much military firepower into Afghanistan (up to half 86,000 civilian deaths) and Iraq (up to half million civilian deaths).
Despite all this, Howard has secured a revered place in Australia’s history… for the moment.
William De Maria’s next book, Australia’s War of Shame. Afghanistan 2001-2013, is due out in 2021, the 20th anniversary of the occupation of Afghanistan year.