In the shadow of Remembrance Day, the calamity of war should haunt us. But sadly, contemporary debates regarding our defence policy rhyme uncomfortably with those heard during the slide to disaster before the First World War.
In the last two decades before the Great War of 1914-1918 …
– Newly federated Australia was scarcely an independent nation – because, as H.B. Higgins warned the parliament in 1901, Australia lacked real control over its foreign and defence policy, and so ‘we shall not be consulted as to peace or war’.
– Valuing loyalty to Britain above all, Australia’s politicians contributed military forces to a disastrous war, for dubious objects, the Boer War, 1899-1902 – provoking furious debate.
– Believing Australia to be a vulnerable ‘white’ outpost of the British Empire on the edge of Asia, most politicians soon set aside the lessons of the Boer War, and repeatedly pledged unwavering loyalty to Britain – because ‘if England went down we should be helpless.’
– Fearful of being smeared as soft on the enemy, of being ‘accused of disloyalty’, Labor protested that it was as devoted to the British Empire as the conservatives.
– Politicians repeatedly promised to put Australia’s interests first, and never to compromise our freedom of action – but they agreed to prepare an expeditionary force, and promised to transfer the brand-new ‘Royal Australian Navy’ to the British Admiralty upon the outbreak of any war, because, as Minister of Defence George Pearce put it, anything less was ‘inconceivable’.
– Placing absolute faith in deterrence and fidelity to Britain, and taking British advice, both sides of politics rapidly boosted military spending – introducing compulsory military training, and purchasing an Australian fleet unit on lines recommended by London, including ‘one battleship cruiser, three second class cruisers, six destroyers and three submarines.’
– Joining the ram-raid on the public purse, the great weapons manufacturers of the era, who cultivated the press, lobbies, and politicians in both Britain and Australia, were frequently mired in corruption scandals across the globe – for example, the revelations of the systematic bribery of Japanese naval officers by Vickers, uncovered in 1914.
– Preaching British military doctrine, Australia’s military lobbies and advisers urged that it would be ‘horribly ignoble’ to focus our defence forces on the Australian continent, but rather we should stand ready to secure Australia’s ‘interests’ regionally and globally, and join with our great imperial ally in ‘forward defence’ – because, as Colonel James Whiteside McCay put it in 1911, ‘it is better to carry the war into the enemy’s country that to wait for the war to come to you.’
– Faithfully reflecting London’s imperial world-view, Australian opinion makers played down the wars and abuses perpetrated by Britain itself, and those of its ‘entente partners’ (Russia in Persia, France in Morocco, Japan in Korea) and prospective ‘allies’ (Italy in Libya), and instead created ‘an extraordinary state of alarm and panic’ on the German menace – and the danger of Asian invasion if Britain lost command of the sea to Germany.
– And when the crisis came in 1914, Australian politicians, in the middle of a federal election campaign, immediately offered an expeditionary force to Britain, under British command, for any objective, and the transfer of the new Australian navy to Britain’s Admiralty – even before London requested this.
Lots of old men were dying to see the Germans defeated – but they didn’t die.
In the last two decades before the next great war …
– Australia was supposedly an independent nation – but our sovereignty was dissolving, so that, as former Prime Minister Keating warned, our foreign and defence policy was in danger of ‘being owned by the United States’.
– Valuing loyalty to the USA above all, Australia’s politicians contributed military forces to a disastrous war, for dubious objects, in Iraq 2003 – a decision defended a decade later by John Howard who explained that ‘the circumstances we recall tonight necessitated a 100 per cent ally, not a 70 or 80 per cent one.’
– Believing Australia to be a vulnerable outpost of the West on the edge of Asia, most politicians soon set aside the lessons of the Iraq War, and repeatedly pledged unwavering loyalty to the USA, arguing that we depended absolutely on the USA’s military might – as Julia Gillard told Congress in 2011, Australia was ‘an ally for all the years to come’, or as Malcolm Turnbull promised President Trump in 2017, ‘You can count on me. I will be there again and again.’
– Fearful of being smeared as soft on the enemy, of being accused of running as ‘the Manchurian candidate’, Labor protested that it was as devoted to the Australian-American alliance as the conservatives.
– Politicians repeatedly promised to put Australia’s interests first, and never to compromise ‘our own agency’ – while also preparing new levels of cooperation, lifting ‘interoperability’, and hosting more US bases and forces, so that, as Minister of Defence Peter Dutton put it, it was ‘inconceivable’ that Australia would not support the US in ‘an action’ over Taiwan.
– Placing absolute faith in deterrence and fidelity to the USA, both sides of politics rapidly boosted military spending – promising the acquisition of long-range nuclear-powered submarines, because, as Richard Marles explained, these were crucial ‘in shaping [our] strategic circumstances, in building strategic space.’
– Joining the ram raid on the public purse, the great weapons manufacturers of the era, who cultivated the press, lobbies and politicians in the USA, Britain, and Australia, were frequently mired in corruption across the globe – such as the revelations of the scores of retired US military staff on foreign payrolls touting for US arms sales, and the systematic bribery of naval officers over a decade by Leonard Francis (‘Fat Leonard’) to price gouge the US Navy to the tune of USD$35m.
– Preaching American military doctrine, Australia’s military lobbies and advisers urged that our defence forces must not focus merely on the defence of the Australian continent, but rather we should stand ready to join with our great powerful friend in ‘forward deterrence’, securing Australia’s ‘interests’ regionally and globally, moving our submarines up to ‘strategic show-points’ – and even claiming that ‘it’s been useful to go off and do these foreign wars, Iraq and Afghanistan.’
– Faithfully reflecting Washington’s world-view, Australian opinion makers played down the wars and abuses perpetrated by the USA itself, and those of its partners, such as Saudi Arabia, and instead focussed fixedly upon the perils facing Australia from a ‘strange new monster’, Russia and China.
And when the crisis came … shall we be sure to go, everywhere – like Mary’s lamb?