The terrible effects and disastrous consequences of war. But we keep doing it.

Sep 3, 2021

The chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan coincides with a debate in the Senate on a bill which would curtail the unrestrained power of the executive to take the country to war.

Both point to the pressing need to examine Australia’s habit of fighting in faraway places.

Clearly there is something distinctive, even something odd, about the country’s history of aggression. Many of the world’s 190 or so nation states have been involved in conflict. But few small- or medium-sized powers would match Australia’s habit of fighting in countries half a world away about which they were ill informed and which could never pose any threat to the homeland. Indeed the whole world would be chaotic if it was made up of nations similarly addicted to intervening in what are, at least in part, civil wars. The big question is why we take it so much for granted? Why is it that we seem quite unable to recognize that we have a long and distinctive history of belligerence.

On the first day of the 20th century, federal Australia was born. But at much the same time Australians joined the international forces in China crushing what they chose to call the Boxer Rebellion and they had also been heavily involved in Britain’s war against the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The celebrated South African writer Olive Schreiner pointed to the Australian’s complete identification with Imperial aggression in a conversation with the visiting Australian journalist Banjo Patterson. ‘I cannot understand it at all,’ she said,’ why you come here light-heartedly to shoot down other colonists of which you know nothing—it is terrible.’ It was surely significant that the Australian army was officially established on 1st March 1902 in South Africa.

The celebration of Anzac Day and the attendant rhetoric about its profound significance in creating the nation also helps us diagnose Australia’s propensity for military adventurism. The Gallipoli campaign was after all an operation over which Australia had no say, fought for strategic objectives which they knew very little about, against an enemy unknown to them. It is surely still pertinent to remember that it marked the opening attack on the Ottoman Empire the dissolution of which by Britain and France after the war marked the start of the catastrophic century long intervention of the Western Powers the Middle East.

But there is more to learn from the significance accorded to Anzac Day as the “one day of the year”. The great majority of the world’s nation states commemorate the day of their independence from assorted Imperial powers, the moment when their own flag replaced the one of their erstwhile overlords. Australia has no such day nor does it have a national flag. The Flag Act of 1953 is clear on the matter: the Australian flag “is the British blue ensign”. What it makes obvious is that our experience is quite unlike that of most other countries. We were little more than edgy spectators of the serial decolonisation which was, as the Indian scholar Pankaj Mishra recently observed, the “central event of the twentieth century”.

The continuity with the Imperial past is obvious in much of what we do on the international stage. It is not just that we behave like adjunct imperialists when we go to war as we have done for the last twenty years in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. There is the accompanying and enabling conviction that we have the moral right to take such action even as in the case of Iraq our intervention was in clear defiance of international law. Australian leaders show no doubt about going to war in countries they know little about and almost no remorse, no regret when they end the engagement. They carefully count the loss of Australian life but they seem to be strikingly insouciant about the damage they have caused, the families they have shattered, the dead and damaged bodies they leave in their wake.

War was clearly part of our inheritance from the British Empire which was at war somewhere in the world for most of the 19th century. So too was race. Generations of Australians grew up with the idea that they were members of the superior white race and were indeed racial aristocrats. That explained the great expanse of the Empire and justified its existence. It was racial affinity, “the crimson thread of kinship”, which bound Australia to Britain at a time when it would have been more than able to make its own way in the world. For many people the Pacific war with Japan was fought both to restore the shattered British, Dutch and French Empires and also to reassert the prestige of the white man.

The current debate about the power of committing the country to war reminds us that there is little to restrain a prime minister wanting to go to war. It has been done many times before. Our cult of the fallen warrior smooths the way and our recent history shows that it is as easy to come out of a war as it is to get into one. This is true even with disastrous wars like Iraq and now Afghanistan. There is no accounting – financial, political, strategic – let alone moral. The nation commemorates the lives lost. But it doesn’t even begin to consider if their deaths were worthwhile.

The sacrifice alone sanctifies the whole venture. It makes sceptical assessment seem disrespectful. In a recent statement on the ABC Scott Morrison declared that: “No Australian who has ever fallen in our uniform has ever died in vain, ever.” For its part the ALP has shown no interest in properly assessing the outcome of our overseas wars. When the last troops returned from Iraq in 2009, then prime minister Kevin Rudd was asked if there would be an enquiry into Australia’s involvement. He said there would not be one even though it was John Howard’s war. He explained that it would be inappropriate to do so while the soldiers were settling back into civilian life. There was to be nothing in Australia to match the soul searching which took place in Britain and the Unites State, the sharply critical assessment of George Bush and Tony Blair.

The conclusion which is unavoidable is that while Australian governments find it easy to go to war they are intensely reluctant to accept moral responsibility for the immediate and long term consequences. It is in this context that I am reminded of the words of the 18th century jurist Emmerich de Vattel who declared: “Whoever knows what war really is, whoever will reflect upon its terrible effects and disastrous consequences, will readily agree that it should not be undertaken without the most urgent reasons for so doing.”

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