One of the few heartening things to come out of Russia’s war against Ukraine is the renewed emphasis on how it’s a crime for national leaders to start a war of aggression. Putin is not the only one who can reasonably be accused of committing war crimes. Most US president since World War II have done so. So have some Australian Prime Ministers.
None of the wars Australia has fought in since World War II were necessary for defence. Instead, they all involved dispatching military expeditions to intervene in countries that posed no threat to Australia. All were wars of aggression, or soon became so, after the initial goal had been quickly achieved.
One of the worst was the Korean War which began in June 1950, when the Communist dictator in the North Kim Il Sung sent troops across the border with the South at the 38th parallel. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin did not veto a UN Security Council resolution calling on the north to withdraw, followed almost immediately by a UN recommendation for the South to be given assistance to repel the attack. Importantly, it did not authorise a UN force to invade the North once its troops were pushed back to the 38th parallel.
The Menzies government was the first to follow the US in committing forces to the war. In his outstanding 2018 book, Korea, Michael Pembroke, makes a compelling case that the war should have stopped three months after it started. By then, he says, “The North Korean invasion had been repulsed and the mandate of the UN achieved. The war should’ve been over . . . The only response authorised by the UN, was to stop North Korean aggression, not to become an aggressor oneself”. A strong case exists that senior cabinet ministers committed war crimes by continuing to support what was now a war of aggression.
The head-strong leader of the UN forces, the American general, Douglas MacArthur, pushed deep into North Korea up to its border with China. Fearing it would be invaded, China ordered its forces into North Korea where they drove MacArthur’s forces back into South Korea.
The US air force general Curtis LeMay then unleashed a barbaric level of savagery on North Korea from the air. The savagery far surpassed what’s occurring in Ukraine. Almost every city, town, village and basic infrastructure, including dykes and dams, were destroyed by conventional bombs and huge quantities of napalm. Australian pilots also dropped this now banned weapon before an armistice was declared in July 1953.
Around 3 million civilians died. Many others were left shockingly maimed, disfigured and destitute. Military casualties were 1.9 million including 850,000 deaths.
After Britain granted independence to Malaya in 1957 it announced in 1962 it would establish a wider group called Malaysia. Indonesia adopted a largely ineffectual policy of confronting the new group which it saw as a British imperial policy of encirclement. Britain wanted Australia to commit troops to Sarawak, on Malaysian Borneo, to attack Indonesian troops in Indonesian Borneo.
In 1963, Menzies and his external affairs minister Garfield Barwick flew to Washington to ask President Kennedy to contribute troops under the ANZUS treaty to assist the Australians if they got into trouble in Borneo. Kennedy turned them down flat. The rebuff showed the treaty was not the insurance policy many Australians believed.
Despite Kennedy’s clear rejection, Barwick lied to Parliament in April 1964 when he said “There was no question of doubt” about the US obligation to intervene if Australian forces in Borneo were attacked”. Shortly after Kennedy’s refusal in 1963, Barwick wrote a wonderfully candid Top-Secret memo to his department in which he acknowledged, “In practice, each of the parties to the ANZUS Treaty is going to decide whether or not to take any action under the Treaty according to its own judgement of the situation . . . The Government is of the opinion that discussion of [the treaty’s] meaning is almost certain to narrow its meaning”.
Australian and New Zealand troops, under British command, crossed the border between Sarawak and Indonesian Borneo in 1965 to kill Indonesian troops in an undeclared war. This act of aggression fits the definition of a war crime. No one has been charged. Although the war ended in August 1966, Australia’s role remained secret until 1996. Even after a coalition government acknowledged in 2005 that Australian troops had been in Borneo, it still refused to say that they had crossed the border and killed Indonesian troops.
By 1963, another savage war was gathering strength, this time in France’s Indochina colonies – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Viet Minh, a group comprising communists and nationalists, drove out the French colonialists in May 1954. Later that year, an international conference adopted the Geneva Accords which divided Vietnam into north and south, with the crucial condition that an election to unify the country under the winner had to be held no later than 1956. President Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs the popular North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh would have won the election.
In an audacious act of foreign interference, Eisenhower ordered his officials to stop the election going ahead. They ordered their South Vietnamese puppet, President Ngo Dinh Diem, to refuse to participate in the election. Now Australia objects to China engaging in unproven acts of foreign interference that are trivial in comparison.
Robbed of an election victory, Ho Chi Minh stepped up a guerrilla war in the south. In March 1965 the US dispatched combat troops. Menzies swiftly announced Australia would send an initial battalion to Vietnam to help stop the downward “thrust of Communist China”. As well as being a war crime, this violated Article One of the ANZUS treaty which forbids the use of military force without the approval of the UN security council. (It would be better if a majority vote of the full UN was required.)
The Labor leader Arthur Calwell gave a parliamentary speech demolishing Menzies rationale that North Vietnam was a Chinese puppet. He explained that Vietnam had a “1000-year history of hostility towards China” and said Labor opposed a “cruel, costly and interminable” civil war that would “prolong and deepen the suffering” of the Vietnamese people.
In a particularly despicable war crime, the US dropped more bombs on tiny Laos than the combined total on Europe and Japan during World War II. The total for Laos was the equivalent of a bomb load dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Many were mines or unexploded cluster bombs that continue to kill. The US called this a “secret war”. It was no secret to the Laotians beneath the falling bombs.
The people of Indo-China were no threat to Australia or the US. But the invading forces subjected them to death and disfigurement from carpet bombing, deliberate crop destruction, torture, massacres, assassinations, napalm, and dioxin – the persistent poison that still condemns anguished mothers to give birth to terribly deformed children they spend years nursing.
About 60,000 Australian troops, including 19,000 conscripts, were sent to the war. A total of 521 died and over 3000 were wounded. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians killed vary from 1.2 million to over 3.8 million. Far higher than is likely for the war in Ukraine.
While John Howard was Australia’s prime minister in 2003 he made a demonstrably false statement in his March 2003 television address at the start of the illegal invasion of Iraq. He said Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons that, “Even in minute quantities are capable of causing destruction on a mammoth scale”. Iraq had not produced any new chemical and biological weapons since they were disarmed by UN weapons inspectors in 1991.
Howard also claimed that the supply of intelligence was a “priceless component” of the relationship with the US and the UK. Far from priceless, the intelligence on WMD was worse than useless: it provided the rationale for a disastrous invasion. With few exceptions, the Australian media peddled nonsense in support of invasion.
Unlike Bush and Blair, Howard has never admitted that he was wrong to help invade Iraq. In 2016, Sir John Chilcot’s devastating report on the British involvement on the war found that the “benefit of hindsight was not needed to understand the intelligence was flawed”. But Howard told journalists he wouldn’t “retreat” from his decision to invade. Howard’s grotesque mistakes reinforce the need for the full Parliament to authorise a decision to go to war.
Howard also announced the dispatch of Australian SAS and other troops to Afghanistan to combat the Al Qaeda terrorist group. This group escaped in the opening months of the war. With the terrorists gone, there was no rationale for the US or Australia to stay. Their continued participation in a war of aggression was a war crime. No Afghanis took part in the September 11 attacks or helped al-Qaeda plan these atrocities. Before September 11, the Taliban government in Kabul offered to hand bin Laden over to the US. The offer was ignored.
Yet another ruinous example of foreign interference occurred after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to help keep a Communist government in Kabul. This secular government allowed girls to go to school and university. The Soviets left in 1989, defeated by the Islamic extremists and American Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The US and Pakistan helped fund, train and arm these extremists called the Mujahedin. One group later morphed into the Taliban which ended up being in loose control of Afghanistan by 1996. Others like bin Laden had earlier worked with the CIA to deliver supplies to the insurgents and recruit extremists for Al Qaeda.
The last of the Australian military left in April 2021 after 41 had died and 260 were wounded or injured. How many they killed is unknown. The financial cost of the Australian contribution was $8.4 billion.
On August 30, 2021 the last of the US forces left Afghanistan behind with a rapidly growing humanitarian crisis in which starvation is rife.
President Biden has seized the $7 billion in the Afghan central bank’s reserves held in the US. He will allocate $3.5 billion to approved aid agencies in Afghanistan. He also announced he will give the other $3.5 billion to help the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist acts in which Afghanis played no part. This type of grand theft should also be war crime.
By the standards now rightly being applied to Vladimir Putin, the American and Australian leaders who brought devastation to Iraq and Afghanistan, George W Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard should arguably appear in the dock, subject to the presumption of innocence. Justice also demands a reasonable effort be made to bring them before a court. That hasn’t happened and won’t until the public demand justice.