Graeme Cheeseman

John Birmingham’s A Time for War is revealing as well as interesting. His treatment of Australia’s latest military adventure overseas – by elements of our Special Air Services (SAS) Regiment – evokes, consciously or otherwise, key elements of our military mythology. His SAS troopers are infused with the values and the spirit of the legendary Australian digger: iconoclasm, independence and gritty determination in the face of adversity. The story of the battle of Shahikot is nothing less than Gallipoli in Afghanistan. All that is missing are the (Australian) casualties and the consequent matting of Australian and American blood on a “Turkish” hillside. Australian citizens and military planners, it seems, are not the only ones having trouble escaping these particular “ghosts of battles past” – an underlying theme of Birmingham’s essay.

He appears as well to be unduly trusting of, or receptive to, official pronouncements on Australian defence (or at least their military elements). The Defence Department’s The Australian Approach to Warfare may accurately describe how our military forces have performed at the tactical level in conflicts past and present. Like all official policy prescriptions – and a good deal of Australia’s military history – however, it (conveniently) ignores or downplays the overarching political and strategic contexts within which our armed forces practised and perfected manoeuvre warfare (to use its current moniker). 

The most important contextual omission is the fact that, since Federation, Australia’s military forces have been prepared for, and used primarily in, an imperial expeditionary role: as spear-carriers and shock troops for the various (anti-) colonising, homogenising and globalising projects of our imperial masters and benefactors. Michael Evans and others are right to suggest there is no place for strategy within such a schema. The basic role of our forces is the essentially symbolic one of flag-carrier. Evans et al. are wrong in at least one regard, though. Strategy and strategic doctrine remain important tools in providing a covering rationale for the forces and capabilities that are being developed to fulfil Australia’s roles as loyal vassal and/or “deputy sheriff”.

The need for strategic as well as political “spin” provides ample employment opportunities for our graduates in strategic and war studies (provided these days they also have a party-political pedigree). But it has a number of unintended consequences. One of these is the continuing (and ultimately irrelevant) discordance noted by Birmingham among what he calls Australia’s strategic “policy wonks”. Another is a degree of confusion on the part of planners at Russell Hill who, in line with the Defence Department’s rationalist rhetoric, think Australia’s military structures and capabilities should be derived logically from considered appraisals of our circumstances and interests. Still another, potentially more serious consequence is the inadequate preparation of our forces for their real rather than their publicly articulated roles. As Birmingham notes, this was revealed by Australia’s East Timor experience. It was more evident still in Vietnam (for more on this see Greg Lockhart’s forthcoming book The Minefield). 

What is occurring today in Australian defence, then, is not altogether unusual or surprising. It reflects a trend that has continued more or less unbroken since at least the lead-up to the First World War (Labor’s occasional genuflections to continental defence notwithstanding). It also need not have happened, but that is another story. As Birmingham argues, what is surprising in our latest bout of imperial militaristic fervour is the apparent lack of opposition and concern it is generating among Australians (unlike the situation in the United States). This, he continues, is unfortunate since public debate, criticism and dissent are crucial elements of a Western democratic tradition that serve to distinguish us from our totalitarian opponents. They also act as a key antidote to states and their leaders following “what Barbara Tuchman described as a march of folly – persistence in the face of reason”. To underline his concern he contrasts the quietude of today’s strategic commentary with the noisy radicalism of the 1980s and its prescient warnings about the emergence of a “new Australian militarism” – warnings he says that seem more apposite today than they did then. 

The remainder of his essay looks at why there is an absence of critical debate on defence in Australia, as well as why we now appear to be pursuing new forms of militarism and patriotism. A third and related question of interest is what has led to the dramatic reversal in the public standing since Vietnam of Australia’s armed forces. His answer to these important questions invokes three broad themes. The first is that mix of strategic-cultural forces – or primal fears and ambitions as Hugh White designates them – which serve to predispose Australians to particular ways of responding to the world around them. Long-schooled in the politics of fear and race (the latter not mentioned by either Birmingham or White), Australians have always tended to internalise (or “personalise”) external threats and, conversely, to externalise their inner fears by projecting them onto such demonised (and racialised) “others” as Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Hence Australians have generally taken to heart the (largely exaggerated) assessments of the threat of international terrorism. They have broadly accepted the government’s case for the country’s participation in the American-led War on Terror. And they seem not to be worried about our (increasingly militarised) responses to an essentially non-military threat. 

His second theme concerns the ongoing political, cultural and generational changes taking place within Australia itself. These see the transformation (or destruction) of the set of institutional arrangements and understandings – the “original Australian Settlement” to use Paul Kelly’s phrase – that were established at Federation and provided the template for the Australian experiment. The anxieties and opportunities of this transformation, together with the uncertainties precipitated by the end of the Cold War and the acceleration of globalisation, are said to be leading growing numbers of young Australians in particular to seek succour and salvation in the old-fashioned yet powerful religions of evangelism and “diggerism” (Birmingham could well have added sport to his list). In a modern-day version of a familiar story, Australians are seeking to compensate for their anxieties by asserting a more confident, even strident form of nationalism and are looking more to their dead digger forebears than to their live baby-boomer parents for guidance in this quest. As a result they are flocking in ever-growing numbers to Anzac Cove and to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. They are engaging in flag-waving and other patriotic displays that would have been unthinkable in the not-so-distant past. And, although critical of the war in Iraq, they have tended to support, or at least not criticise, our soldiers who are serving both there and in Afghanistan. 

Key events and personalities can never, of course, be entirely excluded from such considerations, and so it is with Birmingham’s analysis, which looks especially at John Howard, East Timor and Peter Cosgrove. The latter two are said to have been instrumental in the public renaissance of the Australian Defence Force (or the exorcism of the so-called “Vietnam syndrome” from the public consciousness). Howard plays a curiously muted role in Birmingham’s story, as much a follower or victim of events as an active player. This sits rather oddly with the rest of his analysis. Taken together with his intermittent attacks on the “Left”, we must wonder whether he has not succumbed to the growing tendency among public commentators not to be seen as a “Howard basher”. 

This last criticism aside, I think there is something in Birmingham’s overall analysis, even though it is not altogether easy to follow. There are as well, however, important omissions and qualifications that need to be noted before drawing any final conclusions. Any appraisal of the contemporary defence debate in Australia has, for example, to take cognisance of the changing nature of policy-making in this country. As David Sullivan lamented in a 1996 essay, the post-Cold War period has witnessed the continued intrusion into academe of former members of the defence and security establishments. There they engage in a largely unreflective and non-critical strategic discourse, second-guessing their former departments and patrolling the intellectual borders of the Australian security debate. In some cases they are even commenting on policy prescriptions they themselves helped formulate. This process of politicisation and control has increased dramatically under the Howard government’s tutelage and is a key reason for the paucity of critical strategic commentary in Australia today.

The experience of the 1980s tells us that this need not be so. The intellectual motivation for, and most of the energy behind, the publication of The New Australian Militarism came from the late Herb Feith, a tireless peace activist and internationally renowned scholar of Indonesian politics. Herb was determined that the Australian public should be made aware of the changes afoot under Labor’s then defence minister, Kim Beazley. He formed the “Secure Australia Project”, a group of academics, peace movement members, politicians and their political advisers. These discussed the issues, released public statements of concern on such matters as Australia’s nascent defence industry and regional arms trade, and wrote two books. The first, published in 1990, was The New Australian Militarism. Its sequel, Threats Without Enemies: Rethinking Australia’s Security, was published two years later. It was in many ways a more important (and prescient) work than its predecessor, arguing that Australia’s principal sources of insecurity are now largely non-military in nature and must be dealt with co-operatively and empathetically. One of the greatest impediments to dealing successfully with these various “threats without enemies”, it continued, was to allow the concept of security itself to remain overly militarised; exactly what has happened.

I have already criticised Birmingham for downplaying the Prime Minister’s manipulation for political gain of the threat of terrorism. He has an obligation too, I think, to provide his readers with some sense of the politics that underpin his other key themes. As Graham Seal reminds us in his book Inventing Anzac: The Digger and National Mythology, our military myths and legends are largely invented traditions, constructed and maintained to serve particular political ends and interests. These included, after the First World War, the diversion of public attention away from the private losses incurred and onto the more ennobling (and less politically charged) notions of public duty and sacrifice; the absolution of our political and spiritual leaders from their part in the killing and maiming of their children and grandchildren; and the mobilisation of public sentiment against forces and ferments said to be threatening the stability and established order of post-war Australia. This was not, as Birmingham suggests, a process of strengthening Australia’s foundations, but of using the power and the privileges available to the state to reinforce a particular social structure and its underlying value-preferences (a process that is being repeated, arguably, with the dismantling of the Australian settlement). I would suggest that the current debates fostered by John Howard and his foreign minister over Australian values and Australian history represent a continuation of this process, as does the Prime Minister’s exploitation of fear and the flag to keep us in line and his government in power. 

I am, however, at one with John Birmingham (and Barbara Tuchman among others) on the crucial role of public debate and (non-violent) dissent in the maturation and progress of societies (Western or otherwise). You might say that a baby boomer would believe that, even one who went through Duntroon with Peter Cosgrove and the rest of the Class of ’68. I have confidence, though, that this sentiment is shared by a great many young as well as older Australians. The problem confronting us all is that the ideas needed for such debate don’t exist in a vacuum. They are located in and need to be drawn from broadly based intellectual traditions as well as from a range of alternative narratives of, or perspectives on, our own history, culture, identity and changing place and role in the world. The predilection of this government in particular gradually to close down or restrict the opportunities and spaces for critical reflection raises genuine concerns about our capacity to grow beyond our present adolescent and largely derivative culture (to borrow Birmingham’s words but not his conclusion). This is especially so given our innate anti-intellectualism, the continuing place of fear and anxiety in our imagination, and our continuing preparedness to obscure, repudiate, deny and expunge from our historical consciousness the more uncomfortable and politically unpalatable episodes of our past. 

In military and strategic affairs especially we are, I believe, already engaged on a kind of “march of folly”; the legacy, I would suggest, of our First World War and earlier colonial experiences (that other story again). It has already led to the unnecessary death and suffering of thousands of innocent Australians. We have over time, it has to be said, got better at limiting the prospect of casualties. We continue, however, in the name of freedom, democracy and all the other epithets used by scoundrels, to place our young people and our future at risk. The stakes are high ones indeed, but well worth the cost and effort of continuing to speak out. Its limitations notwithstanding, John Birmingham’s thoughtful essay achieves this last goal admirably.


Graeme Cheeseman is co-editor of The New Australian Militarism (1990), Discourses of Danger and Dread Frontiers: Australian Defence and Security Thinking after the Cold War (1996) and Forces for Good? Cosmopolitan Militaries in the 21st Century (2004). He is a former army officer, university lecturer and member of the Secure Australia Project.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 20, A Time for War. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 21, What’s Left?.


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