Did the East Timor intervention kill off 'Vietnam syndrome'?

January 31, 2001



Questions have been raised by some on the Australian left and, more recently, by ruling class commentators in the wake of the December release of the Howard government's defence white paper: Did the Australian government's 1999 military intervention in East Timor increase support among the Australian people for greater military spending? Has it made easier for Australian military forces to be deployed against the workers and peasants of the South-east Asian/South Pacific region?

According to David Lague and Michelle Grattan, in an article in the December 6 Melbourne Age, "Mr Howard believes interest in defence has surged with a new generation free from the traumas of the Vietnam War and intensely interested in the ANZAC tradition".

The Australian's Cameron Stewart on December 6 claimed the "strong performance of the ADF [Australian Defence Force] in helping restore order to the devastated territory ... marked a sea change in the public interest in and support for the military ... At last, the government saw a political opportunity to increase defence spending without risking votes."

Is this the case? Has the "Vietnam syndrome" - the reluctance of the big majority of the Australian people to support Australian participation in wars abroad if there is the risk of significant Australian casualties - been finally put to rest?

While it is true that the Australian-led military intervention that put an end to the Indonesian military-backed militia killings in East Timor was very popular - and the Australian ruling class and its mass media have attempted to milk it for whatever gains they can - it is drawing a long bow to say that this has translated into generalised support for a policy of Australian military intervention in the region.

The fact that the motive cited for future military interventions must be clothed in the garb of "humanitarian" operations and "peacekeeping" indicates that most Australians are nowhere near as gung-ho as the Australian ruling class would like.

East Timor and West Papua

The East Timor intervention was popular because ordinary people believed it was a good thing to help an oppressed people win their freedom. However, the sort of military interventions that the Australian government foresees will be the opposite. They will be about maintaining oppressive regimes and blocking struggles for freedom.

A great fear among sections of the Australian ruling class is that the precedent of the Australian people forcing the use of Australian troops to help a people liberate itself from foreign rule may be repeated in West Papua.

This fear was articulated in an editorial in the December 19 Sydney Morning Herald, which noted that "Canberra remains steadfast in its support for Jakarta's opposition to independence for the Papuans. Yet, the means by which Jakarta is maintaining its national integrity are becoming problematic and therefore challenging for Canberra. In recent weeks a brutal military crackdown and a round up of even moderate Papuan leaders suggests the Indonesian military is again using West Papua to reassert its power, undermining President Wahid's earlier efforts to seek a negotiated peace by offering Papuans autonomy in their own land."

The editorial asked: "At what point do human rights considerations become so overwhelming that Canberra is forced to reconsider its strategic interest in smooth relations with Jakarta because of domestic pressure at home?"

However, the SMH rushed to add that "a switch in allegiance to the West Papua independence movement is not a solution ... More useful would be real efforts to support those moderates within Indonesia, including President Wahid, who believe in a devolution of Jakarta's powers, a demilitarisation of the province and a guarantee of safety for the long-suffering West Papuan people.

"Already, the Papuan independence movement is becoming radicalised by the recent violence. Increasingly, Papuans are rejecting negotiated autonomy in favour of a violent independence struggle. Repression in West Papua is a disastrous blind alley for Jakarta in the shaky, post-Suharto era. Blind allegiance to Jakarta on the issue of 'national unity' could yet prove just as disastrous for Australia."

The Age's foreign editor, Tim Hyland, also wrote in a December 28 article entitled "Why West Papua terrifies Australia's politicians": "Australia's foreign affairs officials are transfixed by two fears at they watch the disaster unfolding in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian province now widely known as West Papua. One is that the Indonesian military will deal with the Papuan independence movement the only way it knows how - with brute force and atrocity. The other fear is that this eruption of violence will prompt public pressure on Canberra to do something about it ...

"The second fear - that Australia will be pressed to respond - will be realized if the crackdown leads to widespread killings that can't be hidden from the outside world, or if the conflict spills over into Papua New Guinea."

The wing of the Australian capitalist class represented by the SMH and the Age believe that the Australian government is repeating its "errors" on East Timor when it continued to back the Indonesian military's long brutal repression there. That fuelled the East Timorese national independence struggle and generated wide-spread solidarity within the Australian population.

The explosion of solidarity with the East Timorese from ordinary Australians in September 1999 forced the Australian ruling class to abandon its long-held policy and accept East Timor's independence, albeit in a process over which it has a substantial say.

Lack of popularity

What evidence there is indicates that there is little real public support for renewed militarism following the East Timor intervention. It should be remembered that soon after the East Timor deployment, government suggestions that conscription may have to be reintroduced went down like a lead balloon. And Prime Minister John Howard's public admission that Australia was Washington's "deputy sheriff" in the region - a statement that was not repudiated in the defence white paper but merely carefully rephrased - caused his government discomfort.

The white paper itself admits that there is long way to go before the Vietnam syndrome can be said to have been reversed. Market research carried out by the defence department in 1998 found that only 4% of those aged between 18 and 35 would "definitely consider" a career in the defence force, while another 7% said they would "consider" such a career.

This lack of popularity is reflected in the military's recruitment figures. Despite an intensive and extensive advertising campaign on TV, much of the print media and in schools and universities, in the last financial year, the number of people who decided that joining the ADF would give them "the edge" fell short of the government's target figure by 25%, or more than 1300 people. Despite East Timor, reports the white paper, "Figures for the current financial year do not indicate a marked turn around."

According to the white paper, annual separation rates from the three wings of the military are presently running at between 11% and 13%, up from 9% in the 1990s. If the recruitment and separation rates of the last two years continue over the next decade, the military's total strength will be 12,000 short of the target of 54,000 set in the white paper.

One of the motives behind the government's proposal to expand the school cadet scheme is to try to turn around the unpopularity of military service among young people. A 1999 census showed that 22% of full-time ADF personnel and 25% of reservists were former cadets. Former cadets also remained enlisted for comparatively longer periods.

Compared to the rosy forecasts of increased support for military spending by the likes of Lague, Grattan and Stewart, the Age's Louise Dodson on December 7 presented a more sober - and accurate - picture when she wrote: "According to political strategists, voters support defence spending, but do not give it priority over spending on more hip-pocket concerns such as health and education. For instance, the government dropped plans to introduce a special East Timor tax on high-income earners in the May budget, after it became obvious that Australians do not favour paying more taxes for the peacekeeping force."

It appears that the government and the drafters of the white paper recognise the existence of limits to public support for

increased military spending. While the announced increases in military spending are very substantial, they fall well below the 3.5% of GDP advocated by the most hawkish elements of Australia's ruling class and sections of the US ruling class.

According to the white paper's projections, spending will hold steady at 1.9% of GDP. Clearly, the Howard government felt that such a huge increase - and the necessary austerity that would have to come with it - could not be sold to the Australian people, East Timor or no East Timor.

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