Heart of Darkness: Our expeditionary imperial culture and alleged war crimes in Afghanistan – and elsewhere

Dec 16, 2020

We tend to forget that our military, political and other cultures were formed in the frontier wars of British imperial expansion in the 19th century. Because those wars were fought in the process of taking the land of Aboriginal and Maori peoples and of inflicting partial genocide en passant, they were always going to produce serious historical amnesia. Silence.

With the Brereton report we have a good idea of what has caused ‘possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history’. We see that major systemic weaknesses caused the shocking litany of political, military and moral failure that led to our alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. What is less clear is why this had to be?

What holds us hostage to the expeditionary military tradition that, in general terms, framed those war crimes and, before them, others in other wars, the tradition according to which we supported the British Empire to 1942 and have supported the American one since?

While economic arguments exist, the irrationalism of economic disruption and waste in wartime stands beside them. The immediate strategic argument is, in any case, the standard one: support for those empires is necessary to guarantee protection from the ‘yellow peril’ or, at least, potential terrorist and other threats from Asian countries to the north.

The obvious rejoinder is that, regardless of any threat, those friends will save us if it’s in their interests and capacities to do so, if it’s not they won’t. There is, in any case, no evidence that – even in 1942 – any Asian power has ever intended to invade Australia.

Still, Afghanistan adds a war crimes scandal to the long string of disasters that have come home to roost in the casualties and geo-political defeats that line our strategic history from Gallipoli, to the Somme to the fall of Singapore and of Saigon.

Joining America in a war with China, as at least some Canberra policymakers have assumed from at least 2016 we should, would certainly not be in our economic interests and could be a crowning disaster.

Today, it would be uncontroversial to sheet home our almost automatic strategic dependence on the US to the security state’s addictions to American intelligence, technology and virtually unquestioned commitment to US bases. American capital investment in Australia is also great. Yet that dependence sits more or less comfortably in the expeditionary strategic culture that greatly pre-dates it – and has always had a hair trigger.

Certain mindlessness is institutionalised in that reflex, such as historian Douglas Newton describes in his book Hell-Bent: Australia’s leap into the Great War (2014). It’s as though we don’t want to know what’s bothering us; something we feel is indeterminate and too big to grasp; something like, it is reasonable to say, the heart of darkness in our imperial past.

We tend to forget that our military, political and other cultures were formed in the frontier wars of British imperial expansion in the nineteenth century. Because those wars were fought in the process of taking the land of Aboriginal and Maori peoples and of inflicting partial genocide en passant, they were always going to produce serious historical amnesia. Silence.

Even at the time of the frontier wars, there is ample evidence that colonial society normalised the atrocious behaviour that went on in them. Since the First World War and, especially since the Second, we have forgotten more: that our expeditionary military tradition began with the sending of 24 British regiments, usually in the global rotation of them through India, China, New Zealand and, indeed, Australia, where they were involved with settlers in the wars against the Aboriginals from the 1790s to the 1930s.

Reading G.W. Rusden’s History of Australia (3 vols, first published in 1883) there can be no doubt about events that today the Australian War Memorial (AWM) officially denies: the ‘great violence’ of ‘race war’, ‘boundary war’, ‘war of extirpation’ and ‘war of extermination’ against the ‘perishing race’ in the colonial conquest of Australia.

These frontier wars are beyond dispute, as are the widespread ‘atrocities’ by what missionaries are known to have called ‘British butchers.’ Exceeding the apparent ‘throat-slitting’ episodes in Afghanistan, Rusden gleaned a shocking episode from a Formal Inquiry into events in Tasmania in 1830.

Although probably involving a convict or settler rather than a soldier, the Inquiry ‘established the fact’ that ‘a man, while capturing a native woman, killed her husband, slung the bleeding head upon her neck, and drove her thus before him to be retained by force.’

The economic as well as psychopathic foundations of settler conquest also come out in Rusden’s story. A year after the worst anti-Chinese riots by gold diggers on the Buckland River led to the dispersal of some 2000 Chinese and the killing of unknown numbers in 1857, he describes one of the worst race wars.

This was once the discovery of gold at Port Curtis caused the surrounding country to be cleared of its indigenous inhabitants.

Quoting from an eye-witness account in a Melbourne newspaper of 1858, Rusden wrote: ‘The ordinary relation between the black and white races is that of war to the knife. The atrocities on both sides are horrible and I do not believe the government makes any effort to stop the slaughter of the aborigines.’

‘It is not to be supposed that all colonists were accomplices in, or even knew of the atrocities; nor were all offenders of like character,’ Rusden continued. Indicating the ambiguity of the culture influenced by such wars to the knife – and rifle – he added: ‘Known of all, but judged by none, murders continued’ – in all the colonies.

Forgetting, denying and disremembering was not the only way colonial society had to cope with its foundation atrocity.

With the massacring of Aboriginals going on – see Lyndall Ryan’s massacre map https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php – the prosperity from gold and imperial trade preferences that accompanied and followed the continental land heist, helped to stabilise the colonial culture’s all too doubtful sense of self-importance. Crucially, illusions of British moral and racial superiority provided the ideological justification.

Intensified by small numbers in a vast continent with a daunting demography of alien others to the north, anxiety related to colonial possession also pre-disposed settler society to projection.

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