Our (So-Called) Battle for Australia

Just over a year ago, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs (Alan Griffin) announced that the Governor-General (then Major General Michael Jeffery) had signed a proclamation creating a new day of national celebration and remembrance: Battle for Australia Day.

Its purpose, broadly understood, was to promote wider recognition of the achievements of Australian forces against the Japanese in the Pacific War; equally, to enhance and entrench remembrance and respect for those who had died or suffered for their country in the perilous years 1941 to 1945.

Such intentions are surely acceptable to all decent Australians. Now is a good moment to assess the progress made over the year, and to consider whether our new national day is heading in the right direction.

Battle for Australia Day, we learned, would be the first Wednesday in each September. It was a date without any stirring resonance, though it was close to the anniversary of our celebrated victory at Milne Bay in 1942, and to that of our declaration of war on Germany in 1939. But it was probably chosen for the more prosaic reason that it would not clash with the school holidays. This was not a brilliant start.

During several earlier years the fortunes of the idea of a Battle for Australia Day had been the care of a voluntary council. They were men of some standing—mostly ex-service officers of senior rank; there was a branch in each Australian state. The effect of last year’s proclamation was to slot both “the Day”, and the council into the official apparatus of government. Mr Griffin stated that there would be no public holiday.

But the minister stressed that the proclamation and its consequences “delivered on a Labor Party election promise”. That is to say, it was a partisan move from one side of politics. (Not that the conservatives failed to scramble aboard the now-moving tram. No politician is a party-pooper if an ex-service vote might be put at risk.)

Keen observers spotted immediately the connection to the campaign begun by former prime minister Paul Keating, on his visit to Kokoda in 1992. Bending down to kiss the sacred earth where blood had spilled “In defence of the liberty of Australia”, Mr Keating provided generous photo-opportunities for the upraised prime ministerial buttocks. (I remember writing at the time how fortunate it was that I happened not to be standing idly by in the vicinity.)

The Left always covets a larger slice and a firmer grip of Australia’s military tradition; one senses their ideological unease with its imperial origins, and its later inescapable relationship to an overwhelmingly powerful ally. They would probably like to incorporate the Diggers into their radical national story like the shearers of the 1890s. They would greatly prefer the story of Australian arms to have a stronger flavour of “alone we did it”. This would flatter our self-importance. But would it be true?

The authentic military tradition of a nation, oddly, is both delicate and robust; it develops according to its own mysterious rules. It simply wilts if tweaked this way and that by the clumsy fingers of contending ideologies. It can behave surprisingly; a perverse concern for “military honour” was an important ingredient in the infamous case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, which so bitterly divided French society over many decades.

One night in 1941 I saw the subtle springs of soldierly tradition rise unexpectedly to the surface. As we yarned in the darkened tent after lights-out in a recruit camp near Melbourne, it emerged that every one of us young volunteers was the son of a father who had served abroad in the War of 1914–18—Gallipoli, France and elsewhere. Rather shyly (after all, we had only met two days ago) we spoke of their deeds. Silence fell. Then, from our lance-corporal: “I only hope, when the time comes, that none of us will let the old blokes down.”

That was military tradition at work—quiet and deep.

Though saluting its good intentions and its hard work, I do not believe that the Battle for Australia Council has put many runs on the board in the past year; nor do I think it ever can. Its foundations are cracked, and no sturdy structure is likely to rise on them.

Alas, the conception of a “Battle for Australia” rests on two false propositions: first, that in the Second World War the Japanese planned to invade and occupy Australia; second, that the Australians beat them in the consequent “battle”. There is no respectable historical support for either of these premises.

The Japanese archives suggest no credible intention to “invade”. After we cracked Japan’s “watertight” codes, no signal traffic ever hinted at invasion. After the Coral Sea and Midway Island naval battles (May and June 1942, and well before Kokoda), the Japanese lacked all practical resources to launch a continental invasion anywhere. But, anxious to support their “invasion” scenario at all costs, Australian “true believers” go on producing far-fetched and flimsy “evidence”. We have, for example, Japanese “invasion money”, a canard as absurd as the First World War story that Russian soldiers from the Eastern Front had been spotted in London “with snow on their boots”.

As a last resort, invasion theorists argue that because some Australians at the time might have believed that an invasion was imminent, then their theory is “as good as true”. But a belief (and a false one at that), falls far short of a fact.

The crucial phrase “Battle for Australia” was spoken loosely by a desperately distraught John Curtin amid the havoc of the fall of Singapore. One looks in vain for its well-considered contemporary use elsewhere. Applied in its present-day context, the term is an abuse of language, and seriously misleading. What we fought (and eventually won) was a “campaign”, something fundamentally different. (Dictionary: campaign—a series of military operations …)

Our campaign comprised numerous battles throughout the precisely defined South-West Pacific Area, a theatre of war drawn on the map by the American Chiefs of Staff, and confirmed by the world leaders Churchill and Roosevelt. The Allies (Australian, American, British and Dutch) in varying combinations from time to time fought their widespread battles by air, land, sea and submarine, but not one of them was fought to repel an invasion of our continent. The idea of a distinct Battle for Australia is a nonsense.

My veteran mates served long, hard and wide, from Kokoda to Borneo, but they scoff at the idea of a Battle for Australia. A typical comment: “Battle for Australia? You’ve got me there, mate. Maybe I slept through that one.”

We have to face—even the Left has to face this simple truth—that all Australian forces in the South-West Pacific Area fought under the supreme command of US General Douglas MacArthur, who held our prime minister, John Curtin, in the hollow of his hand. Our contribution to final victory was a heroic and a noble one. (In proportion to population, more Australians served in uniform than Russians.)

But we were never more than one member of the team.

The work of the Council of the Battle for Australia could have unhappy (if unintended) consequences. For example, will its exaggerated attention to the war on our doorstep come to overshadow and devalue the contributions of our airmen in Britain, our sailors in the Mediterranean, our soldiers at Tobruk and El Alamein?

On the Veterans’ Affairs website, one is not reassured by reading that the Australian History Teachers Association has been recruited to assist the Council. The Association is not a body famous for its qualities of detachment and impartiality. One asks, where were they when Australia’s greatest historian, Geoffrey Blainey, was being hounded from his Chair at the University of Melbourne?

Perhaps our present direction of Australian military history threatens to take us just a little too seriously, and to pump up unduly our already lively sense of our own importance. It would be embarrassing if the rest of the world came to see us as filling the role of that cocky urchin who pedals around furiously, shouting: “Look, Mum! No hands!”

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