Australia’s Vietnam War has passed through several phases in the last six decades. In the mid-1960s the commitment of combat forces by the Menzies and Holt governments was strongly supported. The war and the associated conscription scheme became the focus of enormous controversy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, contributing to Labor’s electoral success in 1972. Gough Whitlam did not pull out the troops – that had already been done by his predecessor, William McMahon – but he did recognise the communist government in the north, even before the war was over.
It is not surprising that a book on the politicisation of intelligence in Australia should begin and end by referring to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. For many Australians, that episode will long remain the classic example of the misuse of intelligence for partisan political purposes, in sharp contrast to the ideal that intelligence analysts should speak truth to power, giving policymakers their unvarnished assessments, rather than telling them what they want to hear.
In late April, the commemorations of the centenary of the Gallipoli landing will inevitably overshadow another significant anniversary in Australia’s military, political, and social history. On 29 April 1965, fifty years to the week after the landing at Anzac Cove, the Menzies government announced the commitment of an Australian infantry battalion to the growing conflict in Vietnam. That announcement led to Australia’s longest and third-largest military commitment of the twentieth century, surpassed only by the two world wars. While its political and social impacts on Australia did not match those of World War I, they should not be overlooked. The controversies surrounding Vietnam, and all that it was taken to symbolise, have given rise to numerous myths, many still current and influencing the way Australia looks at our past, present, and potential future military commitments.
In 1966 as a young first-year cadet at the Royal Military College, I purchased Anzac to Amiens by C.E.W. Bean, which had been published twenty years earlier. Bean had been Australia’s Official Historian for World War I, and Anzac to Amiens was his masterly condensation of the twelve-volume official history of which he had been the general editor and principal author. It was to be many years before I purchased the twelve volumes or could find time and commitment to read them. In the meantime, Anzac to Amiens was my guide to the history of Australia’s involvement in the war. I still refer to it.
Writing a book on a large, multifaceted, and complex historical subject on which there is a vast amount of source material is a little like sculpting a substantial yet elegant statue from marble. In this case, the sculpting process is far from complete. A potentially valuable book remains submerged within this long and inadequately edited volume. A clue to the problem lies in the subtitle, which asserts that the book is ‘the complete story of the Australian war’. There is, of course, no such thing as a complete history: even the longest multi-volume histories must decide what to exclude.
When the United States recently announced its commitment to enforce a ‘no-fly zone’ in Libya, the State Department spokesman was asked whether the United States was now at war. He could only manage a floundering non-answer. The unfortunate spokesman’s difficulty with this apparently simple question is a reminder of the vast changes in the nature of military conflict in recent decades. Major conflicts are seldom a matter of one state formally declaring war on another, with a largely agreed set of rules on the conduct of operations (sometimes flouted in horrific ways) and with some generally accepted markers of victory and defeat.
One of the most disconcerting aspects of the 2010 election campaign was the intrusion of former prime ministers and aspirants to that post. Liberals had tired of Malcolm Fraser’s interventions long before he decided not to renew his membership of the party. Labor supporters did not welcome another round of bickering between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. The interventions of Mark Latham were hardly edifying.
Notwithstanding the old adage, you can tell a certain amount about a book by its cover, especially if it has two covers, each displaying a different subtitle. The British edition of Forgotten Wars, on sale in Australian bookshops, has the subtitle ‘The End of Britain’s Asian Empire’. The cover photograph shows Lord Louis Mountbatten, in spotless white naval uniform, inspecting a guard of honour of Burmese soldiers in 1948. The soldiers appear smart and loyal, while the Burmese civilian accompanying Mountbatten is deferential. The American edition of the book, published under the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, has the less precise but more evocative subtitle ‘Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia’, and a cover with a blurred photograph of a truckload of Asians celebrating ‘Independence Day’. The caption identifies neither the country nor the date, but a likely candidate would be India in 1947.
If journalism is the first draft of history, this book is a rough-hewn draft of some important historical chunks. Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of The Australian, may not match some of his colleagues there in gravitas, intellectual depth, or analytical precision, but he compensates with an abundance of enthusiasm and enviable access to those in high office. In the early and mid-1990s, when The Australian was prominent among those boosting Asia and Australian–Asian relations, Sheridan was cheerleader for the boosters. His columns and books were often based on long interviews with presidents and foreign ministers, recounted in a tone more often found in celebrity journalism than in diplomatic reports. Sheridan’s obvious delight at being granted personal interviews with the powerful aroused some envious comments, but his technique served a purpose.
Important political issues sometimes cut across traditional party lines, making it harder for us to confront and debate them. The ‘children overboard’ affair, for example, raised important questions about the relationship between public servants and their ministers. Some of these questions were blurred in the subsequent debate, however, for a simple reason. Since the 1970s, governments from both sides of politics have had, in effect, a common policy of restricting the independence of the public service, especially of heads of departments, in the name of accountability and responsiveness. Ministers now have departmental secretaries who can be dismissed for no stronger reason than that they have lost the minister’s confidence. The powerful mandarins who, it used to be said, ruled Australia from the lunch tables of the Commonwealth Club in Canberra are a distant memory. Political influence now affects appointments down to middle managers in ways that those mandarins would have thought totally improper.