Henry Reynolds

We should welcome the appearance of James Brown’s thoughtful assessment of recent developments in Australia’s defence and foreign policies. His dual roles as retired army officer and director of research at Sydney’s US Studies Centre add to both the interest and cogency of his analysis. Firing Line is also a reminder of the alarming deficiency in our communal discourse about war and peace, about national interest and international obligations.

It was symptomatic that defence was never discussed during the recent prolonged election campaign. Neither the major nor minor parties raised the situation of our current engagements overseas. Nor have they shown any desire to examine Australia’s past military involvements in the wake of the release of the United Kingdom’s Chilcot Inquiry report. The Labor Party stays in lock step with the government, fearing any deviation would lead to damaging accusations of being suspect on security. The American alliance is kept beyond the reach of doubt, or even debate.

We have, then, a strange paradox. We find ourselves in the middle of a seemingly endless cavalcade of commemoration. War is placed in the centre of communal consciousness. We are incessantly told it has been the defining national experience. Yet we are unable to assess whether all our overseas engagements have been worth the loss of life and treasure. The apotheosis of the warrior, the focus on sacrifice and heroism, lifts war above the normal scrutiny given to every other activity of government. Questions as to why Australia has engaged in so many conflicts are judged, at best, imprudent – even unpatriotic and un-Australian.

So James Brown has made a significant contribution to the faltering public debate about what are, by any measure, matters of great national importance. The central question of why and how Australia goes to war has to involve a consideration of the American alliance. Firing Line is in part a riposte to recent criticism of the alliance by, among others, Paul Keating and the late Malcolm Fraser. Brown offers a robust, albeit nuanced, defence of the alliance. He characterises it as “a distinctively close relationship – closer to a marriage” than America’s many other alliances. This seems a strange and troubling description. Whatever sort of marriage does Brown have in mind, I wonder? Given the vast difference in power between the partners, the metaphor must relate to marriage as it was understood in the middle of the nineteenth century, when wives were the property of their husbands. Another unsettling aspect of this characterisation is the confusion of personal relations with the behaviour of states. Julia Gillard’s talk of “mates” was another example of this conceptual slippage. It might be seen as mild sentimental hyperbole. But it’s a habit with a disturbing history. For a century, Australians thought of the Empire as family and Britain as a benign and caring mother. It was a delusion that led directly to the disasters of 1942.

One of the troubles is that Australians who engage professionally with American defence and diplomatic personnel overestimate their influence in Washington, just as their forebears did with the mandarins in Whitehall. But that is the whole point. Successful great powers perfect the means of flattering their dependents and leaving them with the impression that they matter much more than they actually do. Brown’s argument that the “marriage” with America gives us the capacity to influence decision-making in Washington is surely overdrawn. And there remains the inescapable reality that the alliance means war – and wars that Australia would otherwise have avoided. To suppose that this pattern will not be replicated endlessly is doubtless wishful thinking. Even if “a more sophisticated and pragmatic alliance is developing,” as Brown argues, there is little to suggest that Australia will ever be able to turn down an American request for military collaboration, regardless of the location or the nature of the conflict. The greatest danger we face is that we will be drawn into any future conflict with China. The Americans clearly expect our support and no doubt have war plans based on that premise. Such a war may have pressing and legitimate objectives. But the overriding cause may be America’s need to assert a slipping hegemony. The really big question is whether the country can ever accept a decline in relative power. The present election campaign is not encouraging, with one side demanding power to make America great again and the other insisting that they are still a nation without peers or rivals.

The danger is that Australia will repeat the great and portentous mistakes of the early twentieth century. The new federation bound itself to a great power in decline and did so with what contemporaries thought were the silken ties of kinship which only the disloyal would dare question. And so we plunged heedlessly into the great conflict which shaped the whole century. It is both instructive and sobering to resurrect the ideas of the colonial critics who had the foresight to see where Imperial loyalty would lead. Their central argument was that the Empire was by definition prone to war and would eventually be involved in a great European conflict. The most dangerous place to be was “married” to a great power which would drag Australia into wars against enemies who presented no threat to the continent. And they were likely to be wars fought faraway against people about whom Australians knew little. This was why the Boer War of 1899 to 1902 was so important. It established an overpowering precedent. If we go to war this time, the critics declared, how will we be able to avoid future wars? The expectation of our great and powerful friend will in itself predispose the country to become involved in whatever future conflicts arise.

It is not clear whether Brown appreciates that the arguments in favour of neutrality reach back deep into Australian history and are not a recent and ephemeral reaction to involvement in the disastrous war in Iraq. And his response to the present generation of imperial sceptics is unsatisfactory for other reasons as well. To understand those people he obviously sees as his intellectual opponents, he reaches unconvincingly for psychological theory about what he calls “the bystander effect.” The implication is that those who seek to avoid the path of incessant military engagement are driven by forces of which they themselves are not fully aware. All of the so-called “bystanders,” the argument runs, are making the “same unconscious decision: to turn away from the problems of the world, to make them someone else’s responsibility.” The argument, clearly implicit in much of this, is that the “bystanders” are not only driven by hidden subliminal forces which Brown alone is able to see, but are, as a result, morally deficient as well.

The question arises whether Brown the retired military officer is also a militarist. This is a fair question, which must arise from a reading of Firing Line. In particular, it relates to both his treatment of the “bystanders” and his assessment of the role of nation-states. I may not be fair in my reading, but it seems that he believes the many countries which are not constantly at war are turning away from the problems of the world. In response to his assumed intellectual opponents, he writes: “I don’t think Australia wants to be, can or should be a bystander to the complexities playing out around us. I don’t think we want to be a lonely island, removed from the world and indifferent to its course. We are not a people that can live in splendid isolation.” But this is parody rather than a respectful assessment of conflicting opinion. Who is actually arguing in favour of splendid isolation?

And surely there are many small- and medium-sized states which engage fully and fruitfully with the world without going to war, which are not bystanders, have not turned aside from the world and do not live in splendid isolation. Indeed, it could be argued that many of them add more to the wellbeing of humanity than our belligerent homeland.


Henry Reynolds’s groundbreaking histories include The Other Side of the Frontier, Dispossession, The Law of the Land and Why Weren’t We Told? His most recent books are Forgotten War and Unnecessary Wars. In 2000 he took up a professorial fellowship at the University of Tasmania.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 62, Firing Line. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 63, Enemy Within.


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