Australia is engaged in a long cavalcade of military commemoration. It has been advancing since the 1990’s. Government largesse has speeded it on its way. War is now widely seen as the defining collective experience. The national spirit, the argument runs, emerged in battle far from our shores. A generation of school children have been assured that war was the making of Australia. Given this strident assertion that the history of war is of central importance it might be thought that the whole campaign would deepen our understanding of why Australia has been so often at war and provide answers to those large and important questions—why did we so readily go to war? What was achieved? Was engagement in the long term national interest? Were our wars worth the treasure expended and the lives lost? An even more significant and rarely considered question is would we have been better off if we had avoided war and if so would we have been a different and more fortunate country? We must conclude that our kind of commemoration is crafted to avoid serious consideration of such questions. We concentrate on how our men fought not why they fought. We examine tactics rather than strategy. And when sacrifice and heroism are invoked, scepticism and doubt are eschewed. It can never be suggested that the sacrifice of life served no useful purpose.
And yet our own history embodies a strong but little known counter-tradition. Colonial Australians debated the big question about war and peace with a cogency and vigour which puts us to shame. The Sudan Campaign of 1885, and more particularly the Boer War of 1899-1902, stimulated debate both inside and beyond the colonial parliaments. In 1899 the six colonies committed troops to the war in South Africa. In each parliament long and earnest debates were held. Members were alert to the gravity of the situation. Opposition to the war picked up on an intellectual thread which had been woven through colonial society since the middle of the 19th Century. It is one that is more relevant to Australia today than the Imperial loyalists who talked of race and blood , loyalty and an enduring Empire.
To begin with the anti-war party argued that Australia was uniquely placed. She had no natural or ancestral enemies. The colonies traded with the world. Their ports were open to every maritime power. They had an implicit policy of neutrality which was too valuable to subvert by military adventurism. Geography, far from being a source of insecurity, as the war party argued, was actually an immense strategic asset. The vast size of the continent and the surrounding seas were immovable deterrents. They bestowed on the colonies a sense of invulnerability. Who could attack and why would they want to? Where would they start? How would an invader transport an army to the continent? Raids might be made on the port cities but they were easy to defend.
For many of the colonial critics the Empire itself was the most likely source of danger. Proximity to a great power did not bring security but peril. The 19th Century Australians were aware of Britain’s propensity for war. The Empire was at war somewhere in the world for most of the century. The greatest perceived danger was that the colonies would be dragged behind the Empire into a major European war. The fears were prescient. The war took longer coming than they imagined bit it was far more destructive than they could have envisaged. And when it came the Australians couldn’t wait to become involved. The Empire had triumphed. And when it was over few wished or dared to revisit old debates about the necessity of neutrality. Vast sacrifice had sanctified both Empire and monarch. Serious debate about war and peace, nation and Empire was scouted and damned as disloyalty.
The critics of the Boer War had further arguments in their armoury. Why, they asked should Australians go to war half a world away against people who could never present any threat to the continent? Why go to war in societies they knew nothing about? Such mindless belligerence, they believed, was profoundly immoral. The men who debated these questions in 1899 feared that a precedent was being created that once the country had become a willing adjunct of Imperial power there would be no turning back.
The contemporary relevance of these old debates will immediately be apparent. And yet they were largely forgotten even by people who would have understood their cogency. The leaders of the movement for armed neutrality which emerged in the 1980’s seemingly knew nothing about them. Nor did the late Malcolm Fraser whose arguments echoed those of his predecessors. He trod in footprints he didn’t know were there. In both cases modern debate was robbed of historical precedents which would have strengthened the case for neutrality providing it with much needed depth and resonance.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who is focused on frontier conflict between Indigenous people and European settlers. This article first appeared in ‘Inside Story’ of 25 September 2014. His latest book ‘Unnecessary Wars’ was published by New South Publishing.