Birmingham, John: A time for war

John Birmingham

A time for war: Australia as a military power‘, Quarterly Essay 20, December 2005

Traces a revival of Australian militarism in the 1990s and early 2000s, partly associated with the increase in ‘breathless idolatry’ and ‘nostalgic urgency’ accorded Anzac but partly also, the author believes, with a growing Australian confidence about its place in world affairs. He refers extensively to Cheeseman and Kettle and White.

Birmingham notes the effect of Vietnam in radicalising a generation but inducing nervousness in governments for a time about commitments overseas, followed by the careful return to commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. He presents an extended case study of military activity in Afghanistan. He contrasts the conscription battles of 1916-17 and the Vietnam years before moving on to the widespread support for the Australian peace-keeping role in East Timor in 1999.

Finally, under the heading ‘The ghosts of battles past’, Birmingham writes:

As powerful as the elegaic feelings of loss and historical abandonment at the passing of the first Anzacs might be, on their own they do not explain the renewed esteem of the military in our core culture, the return of the strong, to steal a phrase from Robert Harvey. If there is an unbreakable link between national culture and strategic culture, the explanation for the renaissance of the ADF as an institution probably lies outside the armed forces and their increasing tempo of operations. (p. 53)

Birmingham puts the change down not to belligerence but to a growth in national confidence, accompanied by a strong economy and a reduced insularity.

It has taken more than two hundred years, but in finally confronting a world full of both threat and opportunity, it may be that Australians have come to a point at last where they feel confident not just of their place in the world but, more importantly, of their ability to act decisively in it. Whether that confidence is soundly based, however, is another matter. (p. 60)

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