Henry Reynolds’ unpicks Australia’s obsession with glorifying unnecessary wars

November 7, 2016
Australian soldiers during the Boer war.
Australian soldiers during the Boer war.

Unnecessary Wars Henry Reynolds Newsouth, 2016 266 pages

Australia’s first war — the Boer War in South Africa, 1899-1902 — notes historian Henry Reynolds in Unnecessary Wars, was closely bound up with the uniting of the six Australian colonies into a single nation within the British empire.

This conjunction of militarism, nationalism and imperialism was ominous. Australia has never broken the habit of being at the military beck and call of its imperial managers.

War, says Reynolds, has become “the central and defining national experience” of Australian society. For 58 of the last 76 years, Australia has been involved in war. At the same time, the national obsession with all things military — especially the endless, government-sponsored commemoration of past wars — “normalises war” and makes it easier to get involved in each new one.

There was plenty of war on the Australian continent against the original Aboriginal inhabitants, but Australia’s pre-Boer-War overseas military expeditions followed Britain into the Sudan and China. But as these did not involve all six colonies and resulted in no real combat experience, they were thus found wanting as occasions for a national-military “coming-of-age”.

Both outings did, however, set a precedent of unquestioning Australian involvement in imperial wars. The Boer War strengthened this tradition.

The war was Britain’s fight against two small Dutch republics (the Transvaal and the Orange Free State) with the aim of annexing them (especially their gold mines) for the British Empire. It was “an imperial war of conquest” with all the brutal baggage that concept entails.

Conveniently far away and vigorously censored, “the horrors of battle and the brutalisation of the Afrikaner civilian population” were hidden from Australians at home. So was the role of the Australian troops in Britain’s scorched earth strategy.

Forty towns were razed and 30,000 farms destroyed. Boer women, children and the elderly were detained in concentration camps — overcrowded and starved tent cities where 28,000 civilian Boers perished (22,000 of them children) along with 14,000 of their African servants and labourers. One in five of the total Boer population was wiped out.

Australian soldiers took part in the general pillage and destruction, dragging the Boers onto wagon trains for transportation to the camps. They also authored their own war crimes and atrocities.

Britain’s need to project military power meant that war was a constant companion to empire — “Britain was fighting somewhere in the world almost every year during the second half of the 19th century”. War would automatically involve its colonial assets as suppliers of soldiers to defend Britain’s global reach.

In turn, war would politically and culturally bind the dominions to empire in blood sacrifice. The Boer War was Australia’s loyalist blood oath — Arthur Conan Doyle (the British Sherlock Holmes author) enthusiastically wrote that “on the plains of South Africa … the blood brotherhood of the Empire was sealed”.

The Boer War served as “martial grooming” of Britain’s colonies, which was to fully mature a decade later in the human abattoir of 1914-18. The murderous scale of the First World War relegated its South African predecessor — with its paltry “sacrifice” of 600 Australian soldiers — to the shadows.

However, the Boer War has recently been fully readmitted into the approved Australian militarist narrative. Australia’s Boer War soldiers have been given the required propaganda treatment — morally cleansing their direct involvement in incarcerating and terrorising Boer civilians.

Australia’s Boer War soldiers have been officially elevated to the rank of “Fathers of the Anzacs” and formally enrolled in the religiously venerated “cult of the digger”.

Subsequent Australian wars have been likewise sanitised and depoliticised. Elite and popular attention is focused on how the Australian soldiers fight (allegedly heroically, yet compassionately, “punching above their weight”) and not why they fight (stealing land, markets and resources).

Not up for polite discussion is Australia’s auxiliary role in fighting the unnecessary wars of “our powerful friends” against countries that pose no territorial threat to Australia, and against people we don’t know in places we can’t find on a map.

Australia’s fortunate continental remoteness and size have been recast as “liabilities not strategic advantages”. Neutrality or focussing on “homeland defence” have never been considered as official options to war.

War is seen as so “natural and inescapable” that contemporary Australian governments find it easy to go to war despite its cost, legality and morality. There is, however, an honourable tradition of anti-militarist dissent that has accompanied every war, from the Boer War on.

Reynolds’ book is a worthy part of the resistance to the khaki tide.

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