Unnecessary Wars

HENRY REYNOLDS Unnecessary Wars. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress at newtownreviewofbooks.com.au 6 July 2016


Unnecessary Wars provides a powerful antidote to the pervasive militarising of Australian history over the past 20 years.

Not how, but why, is the most compelling question posed by Henry Reynolds in this book, which examines Australian debates about war and peace, nation and empire, dependence and independence, with a particular focus on the Boer War (1899-1902) as a starting point.

It is curious that after 114 years the echoes of the words of 19th-century poet Alfred Tennyson are stronger than those of popular late 20th-century musician John Lennon:

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the Valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Give peace a chance? No chance.

Tennyson’s poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was based on a cavalry charge led by Lord Cardigan during the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War, one of many British wars fought for imperial purposes. Around one in six of the cavalrymen died in that charge. Approximately 16 000 Australians fought in the Boer War and 606 died. There was little reasoning why.

Australian colonial governments avoided any temptation to support the Crimean War or any other British conflicts until 1885, when acting New South Wales Premier WB Dalley sent 700 troops to assist a campaign in the Sudan, and a dangerous precedent was sent. At a stroke, any advantages of maintaining neutrality alongside logical moves towards maturity as a republican nation were turned on their head as loyalty to the British Empire and monarchy took precedence.

Fourteen years later all six Australian colonies were involved in the war in South Africa and, as Reynolds points out, the new Federal Government inherited such a role in 1901 ‘without any doubt or regret’. Indeed, Edmund Barton, both as a New South Wales backbench politician and first Australian prime minister, was certainly willing to endorse the motto ‘The Empire, right or wrong’, as did former South Australian premier and federal Minister for Trade and Customs, Charles Kingston, after the conclusion of the conflict.

The Empire, right or wrong, was not good enough. Not asking questions about supporting the British alliance in the Sudan, the Boer War, the First World War and aspects of World War II, or the United States in Korea, Vietnam, the two Gulf Wars and Afghanistan, is not good enough. Blithely assuming that our great and powerful friends with whom we have a ‘special relationship’ will necessarily come to our aid in time of strife is also questionable.

One of the chief merits of Unnecessary Wars is to note how past errors compound to impact on the present.

From somewhere in my reading I’m reminded of the advice Gough Whitlam once gave to Bill Hayden when passing over the position of Leader of the Opposition. His words approximated to, ‘Remember, Bill, Australians love a good war.’

Reynolds writes movingly of how Federation was trumped in Sydney on the day of its birth (1 January 1901) by a move of ‘calculated brilliance’ which saw the imperial government send a large contingent of British and Indian troops consisting of ‘more than 1000 representatives of six cavalry regiments, four artillery detachments and almost 500 members of nineteen of the most famous infantry regiments’ to join the main parade. Two days later 10 000 troops paraded before the Governor General, the Earl of Hopetoun, and an enthusiastic crowd of around 150 000 at Centennial Park; but what followed was even worse. While the premiers were in Sydney they met and agreed to dispatch 2500 men and horses to the South African war:

Looking back now on the celebrations marking the foundation of the Commonwealth, it is clear that the great political and social achievements of the Australian colonies were upstaged by the glamour and excitement of a war that was far enough away to obscure the horrors of battle and the brutalisation of the Afrikaner civilian population.

The Boer War netted Australia nothing for being on the winning side except perhaps some imagined good will from Britain, and that quickly evaporated when the Conservative-Unionist government lost power to the Liberal Party. Britain faced hostile reactions from Europe and the United States for her role as a global bully and especially for the prosecution of a war that demanded total capitulation of the enemy and the incarceration of civilians in concentration camps. Australia was ‘complicit in the infamy’ and within two years its end the war was being described in the Australian Senate as unjust and ‘one of the biggest blots in the history of the Empire’. It is not surprising that for most of the 20th century it became a forgotten war.

One of Reynolds’s most powerful chapters, ‘The nation’s selective memory’, comes near the end of his book and begins with discussion of a centenary history of the Boer War published by the Australian War Memorial in 2002, in which the author Craig Wilcox declares ‘it was a good war for Australia’. As part of Australia’s obsession with war (which has grown exponentially with government budgetary support) the conflict now has its own commemoration day: a National Boer War Memorial Association has been formed, rallies are held for descendants, the Royal Mint has issued a 50-cent memorial coin, and a lot of egregious nonsense has been spouted about the original soldiers being ‘Fathers of the ANZACS’ and establishing proud military traditions, especially by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott: ‘We don’t fight to conquer; we fight to help, to build and to serve.’ If ever there was an attempt to airbrush history this is it. Reynolds’s response is forthright:

Do the Australians who gather on Boer War Day believe it was a good war? Do they think the soldiers did us proud? How many families who now claim kin with long-forgotten veterans of the conflict know anything about the horror of the war? Do they concern themselves with the terrible impact on Boer civilians, mainly women and children?

The imperial loyalists won their arguments, leading to enormous loss of Australian lives before the British Empire itself was lost. One of the impressive aspects of Unnecessary Wars, however, is the attention given to dissident voices: those of John Dunmore Lang, Sir Henry Parkes, George Reid, Louisa and Henry Lawson, Andrew Inglis Clark, Henry Bournes Higgins and others, leading down to former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who recanted his earlier position (as Minister for the Army and Minister for Defence during the Vietnam War) towards the end of his life. Fraser’s later view of the United States as a ‘dangerous ally’ reveals moral courage, and Reynolds’s only regret is that Fraser was unaware of the powerful anti-imperial tradition that began in the 1850s:

We are able to observe how closely he trod in footprints he didn’t know were there. His central argument is a close recapitulation of that of the anti-imperialists. Great powers are dangerous neighbours and perilous patrons, their talk of family loyalty and mateship notwithstanding. The colonial critics were certain that eventually Britain would drag Australia into a European war, which they realised would be a major conflagration. How prescient they were! We can only hope that Malcolm Fraser is not so successful in the business of foretelling the future – that Australia’s 21st century will not see a replay of the one just past, with its parade of unnecessary wars.

In writing this book, Reynolds reveals his own moral courage. Attacked by right-wing intellectuals as one of the prime exponents of the Black Armband view of Australian history in the History Wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, Reynolds has hit back at those who argue that Gallipoli is central to our foundation myth and against the narrowing of Australian history that results from overemphasising the role of war within it.

Unnecessary Wars should be read by every thinking Australian and a lot of unthinking ones as well.

Bernard Whimpress usually writes on sport and most recently edited a cricket anthology,Baggy Green: A selection 1998-2010 (2016). However, he did publish an essay, ‘Creeping Anzacism’, in 2006.

Henry Reynolds Unnecessary Wars New South Books 2016 PB 304pp $29.99

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