Inside Story

Making war

Australians have as little idea about why we are fighting in Afghanistan as they had about why we entered the first world war, writes Brian Toohey

Brian Toohey 9 June 2011 2358 words

Above: A group of civilians and officers, including the Australian defence minister George Pearce, visiting a former battlefield in France in 1919, stand in front of a German Morser Howitzer.
Photo: J. Borwick/ Australian War Memorial

AUSTRALIAN prime ministers are not usually slower than American presidents to pull troops out of distant wars. Julia Gillard is different. She’s in the unusual position of being a Labor prime minister who sounds far keener to keep troops in Afghanistan than a Democratic president, Barack Obama, who wants out as soon as possible and has no intention of going back. “There is no point going out, only to have to go back in,” the prime minister said following the death of another Australian soldier on 24 May. She also restated her war aims: “We are there to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists.” Taken at face value, achieving this goal could mean Australian troops are forever in Afghanistan (and potentially fifty other countries). After each of the three further deaths since 24 May Prime Minister Gillard has given much the same rationale for “staying the course.”

This hardline stance also sits uneasily with Obama’s persuasive argument that, after ten years of fighting, America’s strategic interests are best served by disentangling itself from Afghanistan. She continues to echo the views of the US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, who has been almost in open rebellion against his commander in chief. The journalist Bob Woodward has reported that Petraeus agrees the war is unwinnable but wants to keep fighting for generations. Petraeus angrily rejected Obama’s clearly stated position – “I am not doing [another] ten years,” says Obama, and “I’m not doing long term nation-building” – and said that the White House was “fucking with the wrong guy.” Nevertheless, Obama has kicked the jumped-up general sideways to head the CIA later this year.

Petraeus made a powerful impression on Gillard when the two met in Afghanistan in October last year. The prime minister came back and told parliament that Australia would be there for at least another decade. Using the language of an occupier, she said withdrawal would not begin until she was “absolutely confident” Afghan forces could take an “irreversible” security lead.

After the US-led coalition agreed last November to the Afghan government’s request for security responsibilities to be handed over fully by the end of 2014, Gillard formally adopted this timetable. But she struggled to adjust her rhetoric. Although there is no chance Australian ground troops will go back after they are withdrawn, she told Congress on 10 March, “We must not transition out only to transition back in.” The line wasn’t helpful for Obama, who is under fire from some Republicans for being too keen to exit. But Gillard repeated the same theme on 24 May.

Labor’s leaders during the Vietnam war, Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam, didn’t share Gillard’s attraction to war, let alone her eagerness to “stay the course.” Although Labor’s principled opposition to the Vietnam involvement initially cost it dearly, Gillard proudly stated in her speech to the US Congress that Australia and the United States had “stuck together” in supplying troops to that horrific conflict. Never mind that Labor didn’t support the war, at least not until her unilateral revision of history. Although coalition governments had withdrawn most of the Australian troops by the time of Whitlam’s election in December 1972, he promptly withdrew the remainder rather than stick with the United States until its humiliating departure in 1975.

Following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Labor prime minister Bob Hawke supplied frigates to enforce UN sanctions in 1990–91 but refused to contribute ground troops. After becoming PM, John Howard refused to participate in the US-led NATO intervention in the Balkans in 1999. Although his government participated in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Howard was shrewd enough to avoid combat fatalities by deploying the troops in the safest province. Labor, under Simon Crean’s leadership, opposed the invasion, which was in clear violation of the UN Charter as well as Article 1 of the ANZUS treaty, and Kevin Rudd withdrew all Australian troops without waiting for the United States to withdraw. But this didn’t stop Julia Gillard from seeking congressional applause on 10 March when she said Australia and the United States had “stuck together” in invading Iraq.

Several commentators have noted that recent governments seem keen to rekindle the pride in the Australian warrior culture built around the landing of the Australian Imperial Force at Gallipoli in April 1915. Because almost all Australians killed in the first world war were buried overseas, prime ministers could not attend their funerals. But Ashley Ekins, a historian at the Australian War Memorial, says he can find no record of any prime minister or minister attending the funerals of those brought home from the Vietnam war. That changed with Iraq.

In the absence of battle casualties, Howard and other ministers attended the full military funeral granted to Jake Kovco in May 2006 after he shot himself in the head in Iraq. Kovco had a reputation for horsing around with loaded pistols in his barracks – a practice that was banned for obvious safety reasons. In April 2008, a Coroner's court jury found that Kovco had accidentally killed himself in an “irresponsible” act in which he had deliberately pulled the trigger and “disregarded the possible consequences.” Prime ministers have attended almost every funeral for Australians killed in Afghanistan, and there is no reason to believe that any were other than brave soldiers, but it is not always unambiguously clear that the political and media presence adds to the dignity of the occasion.

JULIA GILLARD has spoken in favour of every Australian military expedition since 1885, and yet she seems unaware that the Defence Act was written during a period – the decade after federation – when a majority of the Australian parliament and public wanted no further participation in expeditionary wars. That sentiment survives in the carefully worded definition of “war” in section 4 of the Act, which limited the role of the armed forces to preventing an invasion of Australia.

Although the wording remains basically unchanged, Australian expeditionary forces took part in the invasion of Iraq and the protracted civil war in Afghanistan. George Williams, a constitutional lawyer at the University of New South Wales, explains that the High Court has obliged by interpreting the constitution’s external affairs power to allow expeditionary forces to go anywhere a governments sends them.

In 1911 a Labor defence minister, heavily influenced by a powerful foreign military officer (sound familiar?), managed to circumvent the Act’s prohibition on sending expeditionary forces to distant conflicts. At the time, Australian sentiment was strongly opposed to participation in expeditionary wars; the conservative politician Alfred Deakin, who served three relatively brief terms as prime minister between 1903 and 1910, was a leading opponent.

A letter quoted by the historian Greg Lockhart in the latest issue of the Griffith Review gives a striking insight into the depth of this opposition. During a visit to Australia shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914, the imperial inspector-general of overseas forces, General Sir Ian Hamilton, wrote to the British Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith:

I had fully meant when I came out here to urge upon the Commonwealth the importance of having some small section of the army earmarked, in peace, for expeditionary Imperial service. But I see now that I would defeat my own object… were I to touch that string. The whole vital force of the country, i.e. the rank and file of its people, are standing firm together against any such proposition. Play the tune of an Australian army for Australia, and they dance to any extent. Not otherwise. Australia – not Empire – is then the string we must harp on. That is to say, we must encourage them to do what they will do willingly and lavishly, namely pay up for safeguarding a White Australia from the cursed Jap. Then, when the time comes, and when we are fighting for our lives in India or elsewhere, I for one am confident that the whole military force of Australia will be freely at our disposal.

Lockhart draws on the archival discovery by another military historian, John Mordike, that the Labor defence minister George Pearce had offered to establish an Australian expeditionary force during a meeting of the June 1911 Imperial Conference in the War Office in London. The offer was accepted but kept secret. Mordike wrote up the documents relating to this offer in a book, Army for a Nation, published in 1992 and in a 2002 publication, We Should Do This Thing Quietly. Although most traditional historians dismissed Mordike’s discovery of the secret records, Lockhart revisited the background to challenge what he calls one of the nation’s founding myths – that the Australian Imperial Force was created in six weeks after the outbreak of war in August 1914.

Lockhart says Pearce was in awe of the prominent British field marshal Lord Kitchener, who visited Australia in 1910. Kitchener initially proposed what the press described as an Imperial Field Force. After Deakin insisted that Australian forces had to be formed “strictly for the purposes of Commonwealth defence,” Kitchener called the final version of his report “Defence of Australia.” Nevertheless, when Pearce represented Australia at the Imperial Conference in London in 1911 he proposed that Australia develop an expeditionary force. The documents show that the meeting’s chairman, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Nicholson, checked that Pearce meant that this force could be used for “overseas action.”

Nicholson then said, “I think it’s much better if we do this thing quietly without any paper on the subject, because I’m sure in some of the Dominions it might be better not to say anything about preparations.” After a Canadian delegate said that publication would only encourage “mischievous people,” Pearce agreed. Consequently, the record of the meeting was not included in the minutes of the conference but held instead in the secret War Office file unearthed by Mordike.

Lockhart and Mordike say the necessary preparations then began in Australia without any publicity about their purpose. Each is a former army officer and both reject the official war historian C.E.W. Bean’s claim that the Australian government “had prepared no set scheme for common action with Great Britain” when the war fell out of a “clear blue sky” in August 1914. In particular, they reject Bean’s assertion that it was only the “high moral enthusiasm” of the Allies that compensated for their “unpreparedness” – and saw the 20,000‐man AIF raised and ready to be sent to war in six weeks.

According to Lockhart, who talked about his essay before a packed audience at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, “No one builds an army of that size and quality from nothing in that time. It overlooks the myriad requirements – planning, organisation, tactical doctrine, training, supply, equipment and transport – without which the raising of such a force would have been impossible.”

Some of the criticisms of Mordike’s work seem threadbare. Lockhart notes that a review by the militaryl historian Jeffrey Grey claimed that Mordike had failed completely to provide the “necessary international context” in which apprehension of the Prussian menace had been alive at the 1911 conference. “This was a startling critique," writes Lockhart. “It overlooked the authoritative appreciation of the German threat by the Committee for Imperial Defence in 1911: with no more than 2500 German troops sprinkled between German colonies in Africa and China, a German landing in Australia was ‘to the last degree improbable’.”

John Connor’s recent book, Anzac and Empire: George Foster Pearce and the Foundations of Australian Defence, was published after Lockhart’s essay in the Griffith Review. Connor attacked Mordike for claiming that Pearce joined a “conspiracy” during the 1911 meetings by giving an undertaking to provide an expeditionary force for Britain. “This assertion is incorrect in the strict sense,” writes Connor, “because Pearce took great pains at the Imperial Conference not to make an undertaking to commit naval or military forces. The senator [Pearce] always stressed that while planning could take place in peace time, any decision to commit forces in wartime would be made by the government of the day.”

When I asked Lockhart about this claim, he replied: “Mordike makes it crystal clear that Pearce reserved the final decision to send troops to the government of the day and that Nicholson agreed that was the situation. Connor is wrong to imply that any planning was fine. It wasn’t if it contradicted the clear intention of the Defence Act (1903) to deny the government the authority to order forces outside Australia. The reason for all the secrecy was that the expeditionary arrangements of 17 June 1911 violated the intention of the Act – and the Prime Minister Andrew Fisher believed his government would lose an election on it.” On the basis of the documents I’ve read, Lockhart would seem to have the better of this argument.

Lockhart concludes his essay by saying that dominant historical literature remains “clinched by the origin myth of the AIF,” while its “sentimentality protects the imperial ascendency of 1911–14 in the culture as well as the politics of the nation to this day.” He says, “That is the great deception: Australians still have as little idea of why they were fighting in World War I as of why they are now fighting in Afghanistan. The deception has nurtured the autocratic war‐making powers of a few ministers each time they decide to send off an expedition. The expeditionary strategy and related culture has saved us from nothing, caused great grief and could cause more.” •