Fortress Australia – or what?
Ruby Princess, with love from Wollongong

On War


Yesterday, on Anzac Day, like many of my neighbours, my wife and I stood at the end of our driveway at 6.00 am to remember those who fell in order to preserve the way of life we enjoy today.

As if on cue, the Last Post rang out across the neighbourhood, followed by a minute’s silence and then Reveille. I assume that the bugler was playing at our local War Memorial, which is about 500 metres away.

In any event, the sound of the bugle rang clear and true in the still morning air. The local magpies raised their voices too, perhaps in response the bugle’s call or maybe because the dawn sun had lit the overcast sky in red. That seemed appropriate as well.

The previous evening, my wife and I made a list of all those members of our family who had served in the military. To our astonishment, we discovered that 19 had served.

Of these, one was killed, three were wounded and three were taken prisoner - two of whom survived more than three years in Changi (Singapore).

Even those who survived unharmed had experiences that most of us would regard as terrifying.

My grandfather survived 18 months in the trenches during World War I. My wife’s grandfather survived too, but suffered permanent disabilities after being gassed.

My father, although not physically harmed, had to survive three crash landings in the highly unreliable Beaufort bombers which were used by the RAAF in New Guinea in World War II.

My wife’s father survived fierce and bloody battles with the Japanese in the Burmese jungle, although tropical diseases posed a much bigger risk than Japanese bullets.

More recently, both my daughter and son-in-law have completed operational tours in the Middle East and Afghanistan and are suitably laden with shiny medals and other military paraphernalia (bilas) as a consequence.

I mention this because I think our family is not especially unusual in Australia.

War has seriously impacted upon every generation of my family since 1914. The only wars we appear to have missed having a family member involved in are the Korean War (1950-53) and the two Gulf Wars.

As an historian, I am necessarily a student of war. Warfare has played a significant role in shaping history across the world. It seems that our species is so innately aggressive that we will fight over just about anything.

Wars have been started simply because someone didn’t like someone else’s religious beliefs or to fulfil a self proclaimed right to occupy a given piece of territory.

The War of Jenkins’s Ear (1739-48) was initiated by the alleged severing of Captain Robert Jenkins’ ear in the course of an argument with the Spanish navy over trading rights. The ensuing conflict between Britain and Spain lasted 9 years, with huge casualties on both sides.

World War I was triggered following the assassination of a member of the decaying and decrepit Austrian aristocracy by a 19-year old fool, who had been put up to it by people who ought to have known better.

An even bigger fool, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, used the assassination as an excuse to provoke a war that he confidently expected to be won by his splendid army in six weeks.

He was, of course, entirely wrong: the war lasted an agonising four years; 1,773,000 German soldiers died; 4,216,058 were wounded and Germany lost the war. Kaiser Wilhelm was deposed and died in exile.

In a Papua New Guinean context, we kiaps used to say that tribal fighting was invariably triggered by disputes over land, pigs or women, in that order of priority.

This was slightly cynical I suppose but proved to be correct surprisingly often.

The suppression of tribal warfare in PNG occupied a lot of the early kiaps’ time and was an absolute prerequisite for the country to have any chance of making material progress.

Happily, it did not take a lot of exposure to rifles, pistols and shotguns for Papua New Guinean warriors to realise that the white interlopers were best accommodated or at least avoided.

This was the case despite the odd success on their part. In fact, such successes as they had were almost invariably pyrrhic victories because punitive action usually followed.

I like to think that Papua New Guinea’s big men of the past were far too smart and pragmatic to engage in very one sided fighting with the heavily armed kiaps and police, especially once they realised that the government’s aim was to impose the rule of law, not steal their land, pigs or women.

Sadly, it seems that the kiaps’ efforts may have been in vain, as I understand that trial fighting has resumed, this time with military weapons. As usual, it is the women and children who suffer the most, which compounds the tragedy.

If history tells us anything it is that warfare is not only highly risky but, very often, leads to outcomes that none of the combatants foresaw or wanted. It is possible to have what has been called a catastrophic victory, where it turns out that winning the war was the easy part of the exercise.

The US and its allies’ military victory over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was as complete as it is possible to imagine, but attempting to win the subsequent peace was vastly more complex, difficult and costly.

Those who enthuse about war as some sort of sporting activity or see it as a viable means of achieving their political ambitions are seriously deluded.

During the American Civil War the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, speaking after his famous March to the Sea through the southern states in 1864, said that “War is all hell”.

That was certainly what he had deliberately and calculatingly inflicted upon the southern states and his actions are remembered to this day.

Even a very hard bitten soldier like the Duke of Wellington, speaking after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, expressed the opinion that “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won”. He was, at the time, gazing upon a battlefield where around 50,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded.

The lessons of history are clear enough and yet we continue to ignore them. That is why so many families like mine can compile a disturbingly long list of relatives who have served in the military.

It would nice to think that future generations might have very much shorter lists or, preferably, no list at all.


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Bernard Corden

"Sport is war without the shooting" - George Orwell

Chris Overland

To take up Lindsay's point about the character of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered the first world war. Ferdinand has been described as impatient and suspicious, with an almost hysterical temperament.

Despite this, his declared intention upon ascending the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was to grant extensive autonomy to the different nations subsumed within the empire, including Serbia. He reasoned that this would reduce the nationalist tensions that bedevilled the empire.

This was a cause of conflict between him and his ultra conservative and rather unintelligent father, the Emperor Franz Joseph, who doggedly insisted on maintaining the status quo to which ultra-nationalist Serbians took so much exception.

So, in one of history's great ironies, his assassination by a Serbian ultra-nationalist snuffed out probably the last chance that the tottering empire had of ensuring its longer term survival and provoked exactly the violent internal revolt that Franz Joseph and others had long feared.

As to Diane Bohlen's question, it may be of slight comfort to her that no-one else understands why we insist on fighting in the face of experience and all common sense.

Paul Oates

Perhaps the essence of the question about violence can be better understood when the issue is viewed, not through lethal warfare but through the lens of a sport like football or rugby. This is merely an extension of a codified and mostly non lethal practise of human warfare.

Look at the inflammatory words that the media commentators use to drum up enthusiasm. Battle terminology is constantly used to drum up enthusiasm.

It has been opined that if real life gladiatorial contests were ever held, you couldn't keep many people from attending. Instead, the motion picture industry and the TV keep us entertained with mock battles that use fake blood to provide as much realism as possible.

The question about why this is so must be traced back to our ancestors who, in a relative blink of historical time, needed to be violent in order to survive. In order to survive, violence was therefore selectively enmeshed in our human DNA.

Only by violence being held in check and balanced can there be advancement of the other side of the eternal battle of the 'Yin and Yang'.

Lindsay F Bond

So, it was in the year 2016, as of the reign of Uzziah, not much of calamity beyond anticipated or unsurprising “Terrorism, war and political upheaval”…

In that year of, well, peace, it came to pass “Sales of arms and military services across the world totaled $374.8 billion”

For it was of lore that "weapons are amongst the most lucrative products known to man"

In years preceding ‘The Great War’, deals done were those known and then those more clandestine, the reading of which seems almost of what today is published as fiction.

Development of railway infrastructure did enable elevated expectations but that was overshadowed by armament such as in naval hardware, example of which is charted in “Battleship building from 1905” almost as an ‘olympic’ prelude to a war of unimagined if not unnatural excess.

What was the nature of human aggression that organised to that excess?

In 1895, the mysterious island of New Guinea was visited by none other than Archduke Francis Ferdinand as related by Rev’d Ian Stuart in 1970 (Port Moresby yesterday and today). The visitor was inclined to sport of hunting with shot, and “The party bagged several…birds-of-paradise”. While of places other than New Guinea, report tells “his diaries…kept track of an estimated 300,000 game kills” which quantity “was excessive even by the standards of European nobility of this time.”

In 1914, the assassin may not have known the Archduke was a man of such aggression. In 1895, however, store owner Walter Gors at Port Moresby came to “considered opinion that his royal customer was the meanest man he had ever met.” (see: Stuart, Ian, 1970)

Uzziah too left little to chance, with purpose designed ‘machines’ “to shoot arrows and hurl large stones.” Little doubt too machine designers and manufacturers prospered in his reign.

Diane Bohlen

I have never understood why man hasn't learnt from the past.

Paul Oates

When I say natural, there just doesn't ever seem to be a time when some form of aggression (call it warfare or by any another name), hasn't been a way of the ongoing human experience in controlling over population. Hence it is mentioned in the notorious 'Four Horsemen'.

Organised aggression is simply an extension of this seemingly basic human trait that seems to dog our species where ever we set up shop. I don't support aggression but I do support resisting it with what ever it takes to protect our ourselves.

Irrespective of the issue of aggression, the nature of the human species seems to conform to the basic 'S' bend pattern of animal life. That is to continue to expand in numbers until the available resources are exhausted. The experiment of the early 50's called a 'ratorium' seemed to confirm this inescapable conclusion.

The only four methods of controlling an ever expanding population have traditionally been those aforementioned. The Chinese experimented with a one child policy but that's been discarded due to a presumed fear they found they were shooting themselves in the foot.

PNG has been a classic case of a population explosion without any concerns about how it will be supported in the future. One only has to look at the modern misery in the Horn of Africa to see what eventually happens when the available resources can't support the increased population.

Can anyone offer a viable alternative to this terrible quandary for the human species that will work in perpetuity?

Philip Fitzpatrick

I've never thought of warfare being 'natural' Paul. Maybe human aggression is natural but organised warfare strikes me as unnatural.

Paul Oates

It seems to be an inconvenient fact that warfare, along with disease, famine and natural disasters are the obvious natural methods of controlling human populations that get out of control.

The current issue appears to be that we may have struck a disease that can't be controlled by a vaccine (as is the case of the common cold) or that some will die and some will live as has happened in the case of previous pandemics.

One issue is that no one yet knows who is apparently resistant to Covid19 and who isn't and apparently have some natural part of their DNA that allows them to survive after catching it. Plagues in the past only wiped out some and allowed others to live and breed up again.

Another issue that has so far been revealed is that the incubation period is at least 14 days but during that time, a person who has contracted the disease is themselves infectious.

The third issue is one of human nature. We want to return to where we were before this modern plague happened and many can't understand why modern science and medicine can't control and eradicate it as they have for many other diseases.

The last issue is only just starting build. That is the frustration and anger at those who caused this disease to become worldwide by their actions and/or inaction. The usual illogical methodology employed by some nations is just to then lash out at who they are incensed with and about without a care of what the possible or potential implications might be for everyone concerned. This latent reaction has yet to fully be played up to by a certain world leaders. External and internal threats have always received a good following when it comes to election time.

What we will inevitably see are many cases of both the ends or the human continuum (i.e. good and bad), and an undoubtedly fertile basis for films, books and videos after the human race gets over its fear of this latest threat to our species.

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