The new Australian militarism

by Tom O'Lincoln • Published 14 April 2020

Australia can assert its rightful leadership of the region only if we have the national will to do so and an adequate defence capability.

– Major General John D. Stevenson, letter to The Age, 3 April, 1991.

Amidst the orgy of Western militarism in the early 1990s, we have paid relatively little attention to Australia’s own military posture. In the following pages I will argue that this is a major error, that the new decade is likely to see dangerous new attempts by Canberra to project its power throughout the Asian region and beyond, and that the new Australian militarism arises logically out of the capitalist and imperialist nature of our society.

The historical context

The Australian military were never stay-at-homes. In the War Memorial in Canberra, at the push of a button, much of the world map lights up showing where they have interfered in other people’s affairs. Expeditionary forces journeyed to the Sudan in 1885, joined South Africa’s Boer War at the turn of the century, and visited many climes during two World Wars. Closer to home, Queensland tried to deny control of eastern New Guinea to the Germans in 1883 and Australian troops finished the job during World War I. Although these adventures were set within the framework of the British empire, we shall see that the local bourgeoisie’s self-interest was its central motivation.

World War II was a turning point, with the Curtin government recognising that Japan had shattered British power east of Suez, and turning dramatically to the USA as its new benefactor. This tilt to America meant that after the war the old pattern could continue within the new “pax Americana”. Australian troops fought in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam, supposedly to stem the menace of communism, but in reality to shore up Western power in the region.

The pattern came to be known under the slightly Orwellian term “forward defence”. The phrase sounded contradictory only to those who failed to grasp its real significance. If it had little to do with defending the lives and liberties of ordinary Australians, it had everything to do with defending the power and profits of Australian capital at home and abroad: both directly, by attacking national revolutions and imperialist rivals, and indirectly by keeping America firmly committed to Australia and to maintaining the regional status quo.

The left’s conventional analysis is that Australia’s modest role vis-à-vis British and American imperialism reflects the domination of this country by foreign powers. From this it seemingly follows that the domestic politicians who send the troops abroad are lackeys of a foreign imperialism. Thus when Australian troops got a combat role in Vietnam in 1965, the Communist paper Tribune insisted: “This can only mean that Menzies made the decision on [US President] Johnson’s demand, without reference to Australia”.[1] Similar accusations predictably emerged at the advent of the Gulf War, with demonstrators brandishing placards denouncing Bob Hawke as “the great Australian crawler”.

Such explanations naturally presume that there is an Australian “national interest” which Hawke betrays, and which the left must seek to defend; that if only our foreign policy were “independent”, we wouldn’t get drawn into so many foreign wars. But this view rests on a fundamental misunderstanding. The “national interest” under capitalism can only be the interest of the local capitalist class. Politicians representing these capitalists in the political sphere have no logical reason to betray them. The close ties and collaboration between Canberra and its powerful allies have always been motivated by self-interest on both sides.

White Australia began as a collection of settler states. Such formations have their own peculiar dynamic, arising from their position at the front line of imperialist penetration. The capitalists of such states are naturally quite committed to continuing this penetration, because they are utterly dependent on it. Whereas the “mother country” may decide for one reason or another to withdraw from a given region, the local settlers have no such option. They must ceaselessly strive to deepen their mother country’s involvement in the local area, and as a result they typically become more aggressively pro-imperialist than the great powers themselves. For example the French colons in Algeria fought tenaciously to retain direct colonial rule at a time when the de Gaulle government in Paris had decided to abandon it. White settlers in South Africa have attempted to maintain white supremacy over decades – and have been rather more determined about it than Britain or the USA.

Colonial Australia displayed a very similar pattern. Historian Humphrey McQueen has explained that Queensland’s nineteenth century foray into New Guinea was undertaken “on Britain’s behalf in the belief that once the flag had been hoisted it would never be hauled down”.[2] The British, however, proved less keen than the colonists. McQueen outlines the logic of Australian foreign policy before 1920 in these terms:

Just as Australians were anxious to prevent seizure of any part of the mainland by a foreign power, so they were concerned to keep the Pacific as a British, indeed an Australasian, preserve. In the process they developed their own Monroe Doctrine. Having secured the continent by 1829, they demanded the annexation of New Zealand. Similar pressures persisted right up till the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty in 1919…

Not only did these sub-imperialist enterprises react on the prosperity of the colonies, they were coupled with inevitable notions of racial superiority…[3]

Given this was the logic of the “national interest”, the nationalism of the time was essentially pro-imperialist. Even when the colonists clashed with Britain, it was on the grounds that the mother country was selling out the white race in the South Pacific. “Like the whites in Southern Rhodesia today, the Australians before 1920 were suspicious of Britain’s loyalty to the empire.”[4]

In the post-war world

Modern Australia is in a different situation than the colonial settlers were, both because it is an independent state and because it is an industrial society capable of its own, direct imperialist ventures in the region. However those ventures would be difficult to sustain, given the power of potential rivals such as Japan, were it not for the backing of the United States. Therefore a certain dependency remains, and with it many of the same foreign policy implications. Australia must continue to seek to deepen its powerful ally’s involvement in the region, and find ways to reinforce America’s commitment to backing Australia. Moreover, Australia is a more enthusiastic advocate of Western imperialism’s role in Asia than the European or North American states.

Canberra’s foreign policies and its military expeditions since World War II have always been designed either to directly advance its own interests or those of Western imperialism, either within the region or within a wider framework. Thus Australian support for Britain during the Malayan emergency and for the US war effort in Korea was intended to preserve Western imperialism’s control of two key Asian countries in the context of a Cold War of global dimensions.

And at times Canberra was keener than the great powers themselves. For example the Menzies government sought to preserve direct Dutch rule in West Papua. Analyst Jim Hyde records that when US support for Indonesia led to a transfer of power, “the press, the government and the Opposition saw the transfer of West Irian as a defeat for Australia’s position”.[5] Labor leader Calwell even made a demagogic call for an Australian declaration of war on Indonesia.

The establishment of US communication bases in Australia during the 1960s was consistent with these foreign policy stances. Peace activists have commonly argued that it’s against Australia’s interests to tolerate these bases, on the grounds that Canberra cannot exercise effective control and that they could become nuclear targets in case of war with the Soviet Union. It seems they were somehow imposed on our rulers or accepted by them without regard to the wider “national interest”.

But once again: what is this national interest? It is not in the interests of Australian workers to have the bases, regardless of who controls them, but for the bourgeoisie the issue is posed quite differently. While they might ideally wish to themselves command communication bases of such importance, the fact of American control is not a problem for them. On the contrary, they see it as one of the main advantages, for it locks the United States into a permanent involvement in this region, and gives Washington the best of reasons to back this country militarily in any regional conflict. This far outweighs whatever fears they might harbour about being on the receiving end of Soviet ICBMs.

Thus it should be no surprise to learn, as we recently have, that the Menzies government lobbied for 12 years to get the United States to build the bases before plans for the first and largest were announced in 1962. The information was contained in hitherto top secret documents released on 1 January, 1991.[6]

The documents from a 1960 cabinet meeting show that Cabinet supported building the Northwest Cape naval communications station without knowing its function, size or strategic implications, or much about how it would be administered. They also show that there had been attempts to get the Americans to establish bases since 1950. In 1956 the Minister for External Affairs, Richard Casey, suggested Australia should provide facilities for the US Air Force in Northern Australia. The Australian Defence Committee reported that any interest shown by Washington in establishing any form of military base should be encouraged because of the long-term military advantages for Australia. The offers continued until the US was finally persuaded to make a formal request to establish the Northwest Cape facility in 1962. The base was officially opened in 1967. Other bases include Nurrungar in South Australia and Pine Gap near Alice Springs.

Australian involvement in Vietnam followed a strikingly similar pattern. Conventionally the left has argued that this country was dragged into the conflict by American pressure. In reality, as Michael Sexton has shown on the basis of official documents in his book, War for the Asking:

…the real initiative did not come from the Americans…the Australian government desired an increased American involvement in the Vietnam conflict at every level, and a significant Australian participation… These aims already formed the basis of the Australian government’s policy…at a time when the United States itself still had no comb at troops in Vietnam.[7]

Canberra was determined to drag America deeper into the war. Hence the cable in December 1964 from the ambassador in Washington to Paul Hasluck complaining that the “somewhat irresolute American attitude gives cause for increasing uneasiness”.[8] The Australian government was determined to put some backbone into the American stance:

In addition to pressing the Americans to bomb North Vietnam, Australia at this time was concerned to dissuade them from any idea of negotiating with Hanoi. This stand followed automatically from the Australian desire to see the war widened.[9]

In 1965 the US was still not totally committed to the Vietnam effort.

The plan was therefore that the Canberra hawks should combine with their Washington counterparts to overcome the doubters in the American administration.[10]

Dragging America deeper into the mire went hand in glove with arranging an Australian military presence in Vietnam too. Canberra pushed for this early and often, even though Washington was less than enthusiastic. Sexton writes of one Australian proposal for staff talks, which got the “brush-off”:

The problem was that the Americans and the Australians were not on the same wavelength. The Australians wanted the staff talks in order to propose ground forces. But the Americans were not yet thinking in terms of ground forces for themselves or anyone else.[11]

It took “four months of badgering” to get the State Department to formally request Australian military involvement. Dean Rusk finally and rather grudgingly agreed that it would be “helpful”. But one minor obstacle remained: the government of South Vietnam did not want Australian troops! It took a further fortnight of arm twisting before they agreed – after Menzies had already announced that the diggers had been “requested” by Saigon.

The Guam Doctrine and mainland defence

The Western defeat in Vietnam represented such a blow to American power that in 1969, long before the fall of Saigon, US President Nixon made it clear in a speech at Guam that America was lowering its sights in Asia. Except where American interests were directly threatened, he said, US allies would have to be militarily self-reliant.

The Australian response to the new American stance also constituted a retreat. Canberra had shared in the Vietnam debacle, and the Australian populace had little stomach for further military adventures. The nation’s strategic planners turned to notions of “mainland” or “continental” defence. Even so, while at times the extreme form of this thinking under Whitlam did appear to be genuinely defensive, it was not long before the new approach took on a more pugnacious aspect. Strategic assessments provided to the incoming Fraser government by the Defence Department in early 1976 pointed out, in the words of Defence Secretary Sir Arthur Tange, that “the countries which now have or could acquire in the next five to 10 years a credible capacity combined with motivation to attack and occupy Australian territory are very few (and) all of them would be subject to restraints of one type or another”.[12] However Fraser essentially rejected these assessments, and began to beat the rhetorical drums about an alleged Russian threat. Defence Minister Killen announced that defence spending would rise by 5.5 percent annually in real terms, at a time when the rest of the public sector was being held to less than 1 percent under the savage austerity policies of the time (though ultimately some of these military spending programs also fell victim to financial constraints).

In 1976 Bob Hawke attacked Fraser for his policy, saying the Prime Minister was “anxious to try out for the role of deputy” in a Ronald Reagan Wild West show.[13] Yet his own government in the 1980s made a renewed push to give “mainland defence” as high-powered and aggressive a content as possible.

The 1986 Dibb Report repeated the by now well-established assessment that Australia faced no foreseeable major military threat, and argued for a strategy of “denial”. Nevertheless it contained a number of propositions which could provide the basis for a military build-up and a projection of Australian power abroad. After some agitation from die-hard “blimps” in the military establishment (many of whom persist in identifying the USSR, China and increasingly India as short-term threats) the 1987 Defence White Paper developed these propositions further, while switching the terminology to the more aggressive “defence in depth”. A key concept in both documents is that of “credible contingencies” which a critic, Gary Smith, has summarised as follows:

The only countries that might threaten Australia are those that actually have the capacity to do so.

No country, except perhaps the US and USSR, currently has the capacity to invade Australia… No regional power has this capability and preparations for invasion would take considerable time, would be visible, and Australia would thus have sufficient warning time to respond. This contingency is therefore…not credible…

Many countries in the region, however, have the capability to carry out a small-scale or “low-level” attack with little warning time, particularly against the north of Australia. Australia’s defence forces should therefore be constructed to meet the low-level contingency, and to defend the north in particular. This is the “credible contingency”.[14]

Though it sounds rather mild-mannered, this line of argument opens up two major dangers. Firstly, under the doctrine of “defence in depth” it is accompanied by Australia’s declaration of a 1000-mile zone of military interest within which Canberra claims the right to deal with “low-level” contingencies – a zone covering PNG and large areas of Indonesia. Secondly, the definition of “threats” on the basis of military capacity rather than any political assessment opens the door for numerous regional powers to be readily labelled a menace to Australia as their military capabilities increase. Japan, China and India are all increasing their maritime power. This could serve as a pretext for building up the Australian military without any political debate being required, even if these countries had no logical reason to attack. Kim Beazley, Defence Minister at the time, warned of a potential threat from these three countries in a 1988 speech to the New Zealand Press Club. The seeming absurdity of this approach is easily highlighted: if Britain applied a similar logic, France and Ireland would be “credible” threats to its security. But behind the absurd appearance is the real logic: a strategy not for defence but for projecting Australian military power in the region in pursuit of imperialist goals.

Australia’s economic interests in the region are well documented. They are greatest in Papua New Guinea, where Australian corporations account for a large proportion of investment and export earnings, but they are also significant in Fiji and other Pacific islands. However our Aussie imperialism should not be mechanically reduced to these direct economic factors. Canberra’s economic power in the region is complemented by political as well as military influence, and the three combine in subtle ways to provide a local patch underpinning Australian capital’s forays around the globe. These complexities cannot be discussed here.[15]

It is enough to note that Australia’s direct economic interests in nearby countries constitute an important starting point for the analysis, and an important reality confronting the peoples of the region, as indicated by former Papua New Guinea Defence Minister, James Pokasui. Pokasui stated after the delivery of four Australian helicopters in 1989 that “PNG people believed Canberra was trying to protect business interests on Bougainville”, adding diplomatically that “many people had misconstrued the decision as direct Australian intervention in the crisis”.[16] They had, of course, misconstrued nothing.

What it means in practice

The years since 1987 have shown us how the new militarism is applied in practice. The air force has extended its strike capacity, acquiring the ability to deliver “smart” bombs and missiles similar to those used by the allies in the Gulf – indeed there was brave talk in 1989 of “surgical” strikes to avoid “collateral damage”.[17] The submarine and warship fleets are being expanded, and some deployments of Australian troops abroad have occurred.

In response to the 1987 unrest in Fiji the military dispatched 120 troops from its Operational Deployment Force to the area. Their ostensible task was to evacuate Australians and other foreign nationals by helicopter, but “the company was loaded for bear – complete with heavy infantry support weapons, including anti-tank missiles”.[18] In 1988 the government sent warships to Vanuatu after an outbreak of rioting, and made contingency plans to fly in troops including an SAS anti-terrorist unit. The Chief of Naval Staff not only concluded from the Fiji and Vanuatu experiences that two helicopter carriers would be needed in future, but implied that naval bombardments would be required to back up any “evacuation” exercise.[19]

To put this sabre-rattling in perspective let us recall the actual evacuation of Australians from Beijing after the Tienanmen Square massacre – an exercise adequately performed by Qantas without any military involvement. Clearly the Australian government has more than evacuation in mind in case of future unrest within its sphere of influence. What’s more, the Fiji and Vanuatu events occurred against a wider backdrop: naval visits to islands in the South-West Pacific rose from 67 in 1987 to a planned 92 in 1988, while visits to South-East Asian ports were similarly planned to rise from 35 to 48, and the navy was meanwhile acquiring additional facilities in the Malacca Straits. Just how dangerous this could all become was indicated by Kim Beazley’s bragging at a 1986 dinner party “that Australia possessed the capability to cripple the Soviet forces at Cam Ranh Bay” in Vietnam.[20]

Most recently the Australian government provided four Iroquois helicopters to the Papua New Guinea government for use in Bougainville. They weren’t supposed to be used as gunships but there were reports that the helicopters, crewed by Australian and New Zealand mercenaries, were used to fire at people on the ground and also to dump bodies at sea.

The pretext for an aggressive strike to the north need not be very substantial. The 1987 White Paper allows for the use of long range strike forces to respond to alleged attacks of a “covert, and therefore ostensibly disavowable” type.[21] Translated into plain English, this appears to mean that if (for example) a terrorist incident occurred in Sydney, Australia might bomb countries it alleged to be harbouring terrorists, even if that country denied the allegation.

Moreover, the logic of these policies is open-ended. If unrest in Papua New Guinea is a security threat, we must look hard at Indonesia, which in turn raises the question of the stability of the ASEAN alliance. From there it is not far to China and India…

Thus for all the paranoia in this country about a supposed threat from the north, often seen as coming from Indonesia, there is much more justice in the concerns of retired Indonesian Lieutenant-General A. Hasnan Habib, who told a 1989 conference in Canberra that the Australian arms build-up was worrying its Asian neighbours:

General Habib said that set against a back-drop of a relatively stable South-East Asia, such a hawkish military force was obviously out of place and might cause misgivings as to the real motivations and intentions of Australia. While it was pointed out in Canberra and Jakarta at the time that General Habib was expressing a personal view, it was acknowledged privately that many middle and junior ranking officers in the Indonesian Army shared his view.[22]

Habib appeared to be reacting at least partly to “Kangaroo ’89”, the Australian military’s largest peacetime exercise since World War II, involving more than 23,000 troops. The make-believe enemy was the nation of “Kamaria”, comprising five islands “located” north-east of Sulawesi in Indonesia.

Complementing the increasingly aggressive strategic thinking is a growing Australian arms trade. Part of “self-reliance” is a capacity for this country to produce its own arms. However to achieve sufficient economies of scale to ensure profitability, the local arms industry must produce more than the domestic military requires. Therefore it must find export markets for the rest. After a consultant reported in 1986 that defence equipment sales could be quickly doubled, controls on exports were relaxed. In 1989-90 Australia’s merchants of death could claim among its customers the US, New Zealand, Britain, Somalia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, Canada, Germany and France. The AIDEX exhibition held in 1989 and set to be repeated in November 1991 represented a major attempt to promote arms exports.

It appears that sales thus far have been disappointing, amounting to only about $115 million a year.[23] The industry has done no better than the rest of Australian manufacturing in trying to conquer world markets. Its difficulties will probably lead to increasing pressure to further relax controls on where arms can be exported, once the immediate post-Gulf War backlash against such sales abates.

Where potential customers are reluctant, they may be leaned on. The Australian government together with business leaders and Victorian union leader John Halfpenny put great pressure on New Zealand to buy four ANZAC frigates in 1989.

Halfpenny’s main concern is to build domestic industry, and there is no doubt that the military build-up is an important factor stimulating Australian capitalism. In 1988 the Defence Science and Technology Organisation began establishing closer ties with industry. DSTO is about half as big as the CSIRO. Estimates of products and technology available to industry from DSTO surpassed $1 billion a year in 1988.

Much of the growing arms industry is based in South Australia, where a quarter of all companies located at Adelaide’s Technology Park are involved in developing military technology. Adelaide got a major boost in 1989 with the Navy’s decision to award a $3.9 billion contract to the Australian Submarine Corporation to design and manufacture six new diesel-electric submarines, with Osborne near Port Adelaide chosen as the site for final assembly. A joint venture between Pacific Dunlop and the German company Varta Batterie planned to invest about $6.5 billion in a new plant at the site. Pacific Dunlop’s general manager David Hills said the project would have “many more financial spin-offs for the State in the future”.[24]

These indirect economic benefits, as well as the philosophy of self-reliance, help explain why this project as well as the construction of ANZAC frigates are proceeding even though it might be cheaper to import the ships and submarines. The government expects further economic benefits through the transfer of technology and skills. This use of government-sponsored projects to “kick-start” domestic industry is somewhat out of character with the free market approach that generally characterised the Hawke-Keating regime in the 1980s, suggesting that militarism is more decisive in their thinking than economics. However beyond a certain point it is impossible to disentangle the two. We are seeing the growth of a “military-industrial complex” which will have its own baleful impact on Australian politics.

Western imperialism’s triumph in the Gulf will inevitably give the whole process a further kick along. In fact at the very time that the allied troops were storming into Kuwait, the shadowy right wing Phoenix Foundation was holding its inaugural meeting in Melbourne. Among those attending were representatives of CSIRO and the aerospace industry. The group has set up five “cells”, and has approached the HR Nicholls Society. Its founder, Ian Shedden, has a history of involvement in the arms trade, and is currently involved in a project to supply patrol boats to the Philippines. Although Shedden disclaims any link, an American organisation of the same name has been involved in establishing its own paramilitary forces and meddling in the political affairs of small Caribbean and Pacific island nations.[25]

Another sign of the times was the “First International Conference on Defence and the Media” hosted by the Queensland University of Technology on 15 March 1991. As a letter from 51 QUT academic staff pointed out the conference included a “regimental dinner”, registration commenced at “0730 hours”, and more seriously, the event was dominated by partisans of the military perspective. US action in Grenada was described as an “intervention” rather than an invasion, and “limited conflict” was defined as conflict which didn’t affect the well-being and security of the “home nation” – the suffering of Vietnamese or Iraqis was not an issue. The aim of the conference was to help “maintain the closest co-operation between military and media around the world”.[26]

The US bases

While Australia’s expeditionary force in the Gulf was very small, that is not the full measure of Canberra’s involvement. By far its most important role in any war involves the US communication bases. This country’s geographical position is such that facilities located here, combined with similar bases in the continental United States, can conduct surveillance all over the globe. There are more than twenty such facilities in Australia.

The bases not only can be used, but have been used for war. During the October 1973 war in the Middle East the facilities at North-West Cape, Pine Gap and Nurrungar were placed on full alert. North-West Cape was used to communicate the general US alert to its forces.

Most recently the role these listening posts played in the Gulf War was spelt out in The Sunday Age. Brian Toohey wrote that while the government would not comment officially, “one Cabinet Minister said privately that if Australia sent its entire army, navy and air force it would not amount to anything like the contribution made by the satellite bases”. Bob Hawke himself grudgingly conceded they were “not irrelevant”.[27] The Americans’ ability to locate Scud missile launchers and immediately attack them was due to the Nurrungar facility, which is the ground link for satellites containing large infra-red telescopes capable of detecting the heat given off by a missile launch. It provided Patriot anti-missile crews with early warning of Scud launches and assisted allied fighter planes to hit the launch vehicles.

Pine Gap also played a pivotal role, as the ground station for a series of satellites carrying out global surveillance. Toohey explains:

The satellites deploy large antenna dishes that allow the US to eavesdrop on a vast array of electronic signals generated by Iraq, including radar emissions, radio messages from tanks, artillery positions, airfield control towers, command headquarters and telephone conversations.

Before the air attacks on Iraq, Pine Gap helped “map” the position and signatures of the defending radars, allowing them to be jammed and destroyed by air attack.[28]

There are virtually no restrictions imposed by the Australian government on how the bases can be and are used, including a range of CIA “dirty tricks”. The one major exception is Strategic Defence Initiative (“Star Wars”) research, which is currently banned, but if the US decided to definitely go ahead with SDI it seems likely that under the “new world order” Canberra would reconsider its position.

The lack of restrictions is usually seized on by nationalists on the left who see it as craven capitulation to “the Yanks”. At first glance this impression is reinforced by Canberra’s remarkable lack of interest in knowing what is being done with the bases. This applies to both ALP and Coalition governments. Brian Toohey wrote in 1973:

Pentagon officials claim…that, soon after the Labor Government came to power, the US offered to send a team to Australia to talk about the bases, but the Australian Defence Department refused the offer… They also claim that, under the previous Government, offers to provide greater access to the bases by Parliamentarians were turned down at the Australian end.[29]

How craven can you get? However a moment’s consideration suggests that the real cause is not a lackey mentality in Canberra, but something else entirely. Even lackeys would be curious to know what’s going on. Although the Australian government cares less about what America is doing around the globe than it does about ensuring the US remains committed to Australia, the reason they forswear knowledge about the bases is almost certainly that it gives them “deniability”: if the bases are used for some atrocity which outrages Australian public opinion, they can always assert that they were unaware. Strong evidence for this interpretation is provided by the case of Jim Cairns, surely no pawn of Washington, who was deputy prime minister for a time, and therefore had the right to detailed knowledge about military and security issues. Aware that Cairns was still Chairman of the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament, the US ambassador sounded out Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Whitlam said Cairns was entitled to be informed, “But if I were you, I’d relax. My assessment is that he will never ask”. Whitlam was proved right when Cairns told an inquisitive reporter: “I am not going to rush up to North-West Cape or elsewhere to see what is going on there”.[30]

During the early and middle 1980s, when most disarmament activists called for the bases to be closed, there were some in the peace movement advancing supposedly more realistic proposals that they be placed under Australian or United Nations control. The Gulf War has surely shown how unrealistic such thinking was. They would have played the exact same role regardless of who controlled them, because they are by their nature weapons of imperialist war. That is why their closure must be our unconditional demand.

In the brave new world

The Gulf War’s impact on strategic thinking has been considerable. There were some initial hints in Bob Hawke’s speech at the start of the bombing raids, which placed great emphasis on the United Nations and the breadth of the allied coalition. Partly, of course, this was intended as moral justification, but one or two passages indicated more was involved. Hawke referred to UN “peacekeeping” operations around the world. These have served in the past as a means of legitimising participation of Australian troops in foreign theatres, including the Sinai peacekeeping operation which gave Israel the security on its southern flank to launch an invasion of Lebanon. More important for Australia, however, is the prospect of a similar involvement in Cambodia, which Hawke specifically mentioned. He touched on the wider implications when he said:

If we fail in this…first test of the new international order after the Cold War, the consequences for our medium and long-term security…are deeply disturbing.[31]

We have seen what Australia’s “security” involves. Hawke sees the “new world order” and its United Nations fig-leaf as the new framework within which Western imperialism will assert its power. Australia can do likewise in its own region, if it seizes this opportunity to get in on the ground floor. Indeed, Hawke suggested as early as August 1990 that “similar conditions may arise in the Asian Pacific region in the coming years”.[32]

Hawke’s response to the Gulf crisis was cautious: send a few ships to the Gulf and hope it was enough to keep Australia’s hand in. Opposition leader John Hewson called for a policy review and reaffirmed that Australia had “global” defence interests; still, he did not push the issue very hard.[33] But it was not long before other, increasingly strident voices began calling for a much bigger involvement in the invasion forces. They made arguments we will be hearing more often.

An analysis by David Lague in the Financial Review linked the Gulf involvement with plans for over 1000 Australian troops to serve in Cambodia, and reported that military leaders were working on a review of the armed forces, which was expected to call for at least one additional helicopter carrier to “allow the army to deploy up to 1000 troops and their equipment in the region”.[34] This was followed by an article on 18 January, in which Gregory Hywood argued that the Australian involvement in the Gulf was trivial:

Put it this way. If Australia were truly to provide a military commitment proportionate to the US (measured by relative GNP), it would need to put in 20,000 troops, two more naval vessels, 100 tanks and 65 aircraft…

[This] raises the question of what the West would do if the US proves unprepared in the future to take on almost complete responsibility for keeping the peace. How could the new world order be enforced by nations whose armed forces are built around mainland defence and deploying a peace keeping force here and there?[35]

Now that the war-time excitement is over, the militarists must expect to face resistance from a public battered by recession and inclined to prefer butter to guns. As it is, the defence budget is currently running $1.7 billion a year below the levels recommended in the 1987 White Paper. So some aggressive political agitation will be needed. John Levins of the Financial Review struck the appropriate tone on 4 February:

It is a salient fact that Australia, just like the US, will probably never have to be defended from its own shores. This is a happy accident of geography. The other side of the coin is that such defences as we will have to make will have to be made far from those shores. Ergo Korea, Vietnam, and now Kuwait.

Levins added that “lines of defence in today’s world lie not on borders or even one’s own region”. On that logic, Australian interference anywhere in the world could be justified as “defence”. Levins seemed to delight in the many disgusting implications. Death or injury for the troops was just “an occupational hazard…in the same way that RSI is an occupational hazard for typists”, and the troops should be pleased, since “active duty…hones their skills to an extent that no training ever can.”

“I’ll bet some of our service personnel are chafing at the bit” because “the biggest professional event of their generation is going on, and they are being denied a look-in.” And although it’s distasteful to “start putting dollar values on men’s lives”, it’s great that the Saudis and Kuwaitis are paying the bill, along with Germany and Japan:

That’s a pretty good deal… When was the last time we had to engage in a “just war” and had the cash costs covered?[36]

Note the quotation marks around “just war”. The militarists didn’t believe in the justice of the Gulf conflict any more than we did. For Australian imperialism, it was merely a means to a end.


Most critics of the new militarism are looking for alternatives. What sort they prefer typically reflects their political assumptions. The option closest to hand is to advocate a return to mainland defence, this time genuine “defensive defence”. For example the “Statement of Aims” associated with the Secure Australia Project, and endorsed by such prominent persons as Mark Oliphant and Janine Haynes, argues:

Australia’s military forces should play one crucial role – the self-reliant defence of our continent and 320-kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone. Preparing for regional adventures diverts resources from the real task at hand.[37]

One difficulty that immediately arises is that this can never be guaranteed. Measures and techniques apparently designed to defend this country can be rapidly translated into strategies suited to other theatres of war. Brigadier PJ Greville pointed out with a certain prescience in a review of “Kangaroo ’89” that its “operations on a wide front, in a sparsely populated country with slight infrastructures” are suited not only to northern Australia but also to the Middle East. However in other ways, “Kangaroo ’89 is more akin to the problem facing the PNG government in Bougainville” or the war in Vietnam, according to the Brigadier.[38] The argument for “defensive defence” is often couched in terms of non-alignment and armed neutrality. Certainly, getting out of ANZUS would be a step forward, but such proposals beg a crucial question: why should a non-aligned or neutral Australia be peaceful? Sweden and Switzerland have stayed out of wars because to do so was in the economic interests of their rulers. But this country’s entire history suggests that the Australian bourgeoisie, with its imperialist interests in Asia, would continue to intervene there whether it belonged to any alliance or not. And without American back-up this would require a stronger military. Thus it is not accidental that the most comprehensive proposal for armed neutrality, by David Martin, would require an increase in the defence budget. Martin wants to eliminate the “undermanning” of the airforce, supports the acquisition of more submarines – to be built here – and believes that Australia “ought to aim at having the most mobile army of its type in the world, with a high ratio of long-range power”.[39]

As this country is ruled by a class of people motivated by power and profit, with some of the sources of that profit located in Asia and the Pacific, a military posture of whatever type will contain the seeds of aggression. It follows that revolutionary socialists oppose all “defence” strategies for a capitalist Australia.

That is not to say we are never for fighting wars. Firstly, we advocate socialist revolution in Australia, and we know this would immediately raise the prospect of military encirclement and invasion by the major capitalist powers. We would defend Australian territory under such circumstances. Secondly, we favour the defence of third world nations against imperialist attack. For example, we were for military victory to the Sandinistas against the US-backed Contras. For this reason it is worth examining an additional set of alternatives to conventional military defence advanced by peace researchers. This is “social defence”, which “utilises prepared civilian struggle to protect society’s freedom, sovereignty and constitutional system against internal usurpations and external invasions”.[40] The aim is to make society uncontrollable for any aspiring conqueror through such measures as civil disobedience and strikes. These methods have an understandable appeal to pacifists, who would have us believe we can resist oppression without any resort to physical violence. In some ways the concept of social defence comes close to our own approach. Marxists place tremendous emphasis on the power of mass action, particularly industrial action, to combat oppressors. A careful reading of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution reveals that the Bolshevik strategy for seizing power in Petrograd in 1917 was primarily “social” rather than “military”, and the revolutionary government’s approach to fighting the subsequent civil war was also anchored in mobilising workers as a class. To the extent that the Bolsheviks were unable to sustain this mobilisation through the difficulties of civil war, a degeneration of the revolution ensued which (barring outside assistance) ultimately doomed it just as surely as military defeat would have done.[41] Similarly, we would point to the several years’ success of the vast Palestinian social movement called the Intifada in confronting the Israeli military machine, which compares rather favourably with the collapse of the conventional Iraqi army in Kuwait. Whether in defending a socialist revolution, or in advancing an anti-imperialist struggle in the third world, political and social mobilisation is an indispensable bedrock of socialist military thinking.

We must immediately add, however, that non-violent resistance is not sufficient. While great mass movements rely more on the social power of their supporters than on guns, still the guns are ultimately necessary. The October 1917 insurrection in Petrograd may have been nearly bloodless, but this owed much to the fact that the well-armed workers and sympathetic soldiers were too powerful a force for the old regime to resist. The civil war which followed, resulting from right wing attempts to regain power, required a massive military effort.

In this regard, even the examples advanced by theorists of social defence can be turned against them. For example they are fond of mentioning mass resistance to the 1920 Kapp Putsch in Germany. This attempted military take-over was thwarted by a virtual insurrection of the German working class, which did indeed involve mass strikes and other forms of social resistance. However the peace theorists seem entirely unaware that the resistance also involved seizures of arms by groups of workers, armed clashes with police, and the creation of a 50,000-strong (though very decentralised) “Red Army” equipped with artillery.[42] However our most serious difference with all the current advocates of “social defence” remains their politics. They would like to create the impression that non-violent social mobilisations are progressive in and of themselves, but that is by no means the case. Protestant workers in Northern Ireland have struck in defence of the reactionary social order prevailing there, and Right-to-Lifers have used sit-ins to harass patients at abortion clinics. Similarly, the defence of Australia does not become progressive just because it is “social”. Yet the most prominent Australian peace researchers take for granted that the defence of Australia is desirable in itself. Among the more practically minded of them, the reactionary political implications rapidly become apparent.

Ralph Summy is an interesting example. Summy wants to combine conventional military methods in northern Australia with social defence in the cities of the south. This man of peace further believes that the military should be able to deny access to Australia and its “immediate vicinity”. He is not referring to any three-mile limit:

For historical, moral and strategic reasons…PNG, like New Zealand, is a country whose defence, at least for the foreseeable future, should be incorporate into to Australia’s security concerns.[43]

In such a framework, social defence can become a buttress on the “home front” for imperialist adventures abroad.

Similarly, Richard Bolt suggests the establishment of “community-based surveillance units supported by a network of coordinating centres and by more conventional armed forces”, which would “work closely with local representatives of the police force… Suspicious activity would be reported to the appropriate coordinating centre”.[44] Under both these scenarios, the existing forces of the state, including the police and regular army, would retain a monopoly of armed force. For that to make sense, we would have to assume that these forces are created to defend the liberties of ordinary citizens, and that the main threats to these liberties would come from invaders or from some sort of internal “suspicious activity”. Yet we know these assumptions do not hold. Aborigines have suffered rather more from domestic police forces – including the Queensland police, whose role in these defence scenarios appears to be considerable – than from any foreign army. One Johannes Bjelke-Petersen posed a greater threat to civil liberties in this country than the dictators and armies of all Asia combined. It was not the Soviet airforce but the RAAF which broke the 1989 pilots’ strike, and when both Liberal leader John Hewson and Labor’s John Kerin say troops could be used to enforce economic changes on the wharves, it is our very own “defence” forces they have in mind.[45] As for “suspicious activity”, this category is more likely to be applied to anti-war demonstrators than to Indonesian spies. Objections of this sort could be multiplied indefinitely, for while Australia has not been invaded since 1788, its working people have been oppressed and exploited by domestic capitalists and their armed thugs year in, year out, and have had to fight back. Here we have much in common with our fellow workers in Asia, for example those in the Philippines facing such brutal treatment from an army equipped party by Australian military aid. Our frequent expressions of solidarity with the peoples of Asia will ring rather hollow if we make any concessions, however subtle, to Australian militarism.

What then is the point of national defence in a capitalist Australia? Even the very best of the non-socialist critics of militarism seem to accept that there is some kind of “national interest” worth defending. For example, Gary Smith assumes we must ensure “the international economic viability of Australia”, and “the protection of fundamental and social values”.[46] When pressed on the nature of such values, the peace researchers typically mention democracy, culture, and the like. Yet we have seen that democracy needs defending from domestic, not foreign enemies. As for our culture, it has its good points no doubt, but it is also racist, sexist, militarist and anti-working class. Capitulating to the military needs of our rulers is the surest way to undermine the progressive strands in our culture and strengthen the reactionary ones. And as for “economic viability”, surely the 1980s have shown that even under a Labor government, this means continuing attacks on workers’ wages and conditions, and on the social wage. The ruling class’s ultimate recourse in enforcing such attacks is, once again, the armed forces of the state. We have a new struggle to wage in the nineties, against a resurgent Australian militarism. We should not complicate the task, by concocting futile “defence alternatives” which forget that the main enemy is at home.

Thanks to Andrew Nette for comments on this article.

[1] Thanks to Andrew Nette for comments on this article. Tribune, 16 June 1965.

[2] Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia, Penguin, Melbourne, 1978, p28.

[3] ibid., p61.

[4] ibid., pp21-2.

[5] Jim Hyde, Australia – The Asia Connection, Kibble Books, Melbourne, 1978, p37.

[6] The Age, 1 January 1991.

[7] Michael Sexton, War For the Asking. Australia’s Vietnam Secrets, Penguin, Melbourne 1981, p2.

[8] ibid., p69.

[9] ibid., p94.

[10] ibid., pp96-97.

[11] ibid., p104.

[12] Financial Review, 25 June 1975.

[13] The Age, 17 July 1976.

[14] Gary Smith, “Two Rhetorics of Region,” in Graeme Cheeseman and St John Kettle (eds), The New Australian Militarism. Undermining our Future Security, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1980, pp119-20.

[15] The best contemporary discussion is David Glanz, “Dinky-di Domination”, Socialist Review, 2, Winter 1990. David may have understated the importance of Australia’s own direct, regional imperialist interests, which arises partly from the fact that they are easier to defend. He writes that while Westpac “dominates the banking business in the region”, its “long-term interests will be better served by its toe-hold into the South Korean financial sector” (p50). True, but when faced with a strike at its Seoul branch last year, one suspects Westpac rather wished it had as much political clout in Korea as it has in, say, Kiribati.

[16] The Herald, 3 August 1989.

[17] The Bulletin, 24 January 1989.

[18] The Bulletin, 19 July 1988.

[19] Vice-Admiral Michael Hudson, “RAN Achieving its Ambitious Goals”, Asia Pacific Defence Reporter, November 1988.

[20] The Australian, 29 March 1986.

[21] The Defence of Australia, Department of Defence, AGPS, Canberra, 1987, p24.

[22] Herschel Hurst, “Indonesian Relations improving”, Asia Pacific Defence Reporter, September 89.

[23] The Weekend Australian, 9-10 March 1991.

[24] Financial Review, 29 March 1989.

[25] The Sunday Age, 3 March 1991.

[26] Brian Hoepper et al, letter to Peter Young (conference convenor), 22 February 1991.

[27] The Sunday Age, 3 March 1991.

[28] ibid.

[29] Financial Review, 3 April 1973.

[30] Paul Ormonde, A Foolish Passionate Man, Penguin, Melbourne, 1981, p174.

[31] The Age, 22 December 1991.

[32] The Age, 22 August 1990.

[33] Financial Review, 22 January 1991.

[34] Financial Review, 10 January 1991.

[35] Financial Review, 18 January 1991.

[36] Financial Review, 4 February 1991.

[37] “Statement of Aims”, in Cheeseman and Kettle, The New Australian militarism, p208.

[38] Brigadier PJ Greville, “Are We Tilting at Windmills?”, Asia Pacific Defence Reporter, September 1989.

[39] David Martin, Armed Neutrality for Australia, Dove Communications, Melbourne 1984, pp152-4.

[40] Peter D Jones and Jo Vallentine, “Transarmament: a Proposal to Widen the Defence Debate”, in Cheeseman and Kettle, p183.

[41] On these points see most of the concluding chapters of Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Pluto Press, London 1985; and Tony Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 3, Revolution Besieged, Bookmarks, London 1987, chapters 8 and 9.

[42] See Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution, Germany 1918 to 1928, Bookmarks, London 1982, p16ff.

[43] Ralph Summy, “An Australian Alternative Defence Strategy”, Social Alternatives, Vol. 6, No.2, pp26-32.

[44] Richard Bolt, “The New Australian Militarism”, in Cheeseman and Kettle, p62.

[45] Financial Review, 21 March 1991.

[46] Gary Smith, “Two Rhetorics of Region,” in Cheeseman and Kettle, p114.

Dinky-di domination: Australian imperialism and the South Pacific

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