Waterford, Jack: Our glorious tradition of being not very good at fighting wars

Jack Waterford

Our glorious tradition of being not very good at fighting wars‘, Canberra Times, 26 January 2024; pdf from our subscriptionalso in Pearls and Irritations (no paywall).

Update 29 January 2024: two articles taking a wide view of Australia Day:

Julianne Schultz in Guardian Australia: ‘Australia celebrates “lest we forget” while embracing the opposite to keep some things in the “best we forget” basket’, with 171 comments;

Tim Dunlop in Independent Australia: ‘How Howard weaponised Australia Day‘, with 35 comments.

Both detect, among other things, a breast-beating tone in how we (or lots of us), thongs-clad and barbecue flipping, deal with Australia Day. Oi, as we often say, Oi, Oi!


[Jack Waterford is renowned for his discursive, wide-ranging think pieces in the Saturday hard copy of the paper. He is the paper’s former editor. Here, he manages to link some close analysis of our war tradition with aspects of Australia Day, the state of our neighbourhood, Albanese, Trump, Wong and Dutton, and ends by saying you have to laugh. HH and now DC (Defending Country) also agrees that everything connects to everything else. For example, changing the nature of the Australian War Memorial by properly taking account of the Australian Frontier Wars cannot help but have impacts on how we commemorate generally and, thus, on how we see our country. DS]

One of the many things Australians should consider as they contemplate our nationhood on the day set aside for this purpose is our glorious tradition of being not very good at fighting wars. We boast of our military traditions, our baptisms of fire and of our long traditions of unquestioning obedience and eager anticipation of the needs of various great and powerful friends.

But our military accomplishments have not done us much good at home and abroad. Nor has our history, our past, or our massive investment in military hardware and software succeeded in making us feared by our potential enemies, or neighbours who could one day be enemies. Nor has our willingness to put it at the service of the causes of other countries led to our being much respected by our friends.

We were relatively minor players at Gallipoli and the Western Front and tended to be left out of crucial consultations. World War I left us a broken nation. World War II was marginally better.

Our biggest handicap is believing our own bullshit about our military glory.

[World War II] set a pattern for three continuing features of our independence, our sovereignty, and our capacity for believing our own bullshit, and believing that our own interests were best secured when our military served the interests of our allies rather than our own. Australians fought and died in Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq and Afghanistan, without ever having any significant say in what “our side” was doing. None of our battles, and most of our sacrifice, made any difference to grand-scale outcomes. Small-scale skirmishes may have caused temporary local differences, but nothing we did changed the strategic situation.

Despite our obsession with building up credits with the United States, that remains an uncertain alliance. We puzzle our neighbours by our obsession with the US; Asian countries believe we mistake our best interests, despite Penny Wong’s efforts.

The submarine purchase is only the most ridiculous part of this, since it commits Australia to acting on the side of the US if at some time more than a decade away China-US conflict escalates into open hostilities. We are likewise configuring our air forces, including missile systems, into acting as squadrons of US operations, and our soldiers into fitting into American formations.

Anthony Albanese’s belief, or pretence, that Australia could preserve its sovereignty and independence of action in such circumstances, or that Australians, as Australians, would be closely involved in military decision making is a delusion.

And finally:

Australia Day has become greatly Americanised. For many it is no longer a public holiday marking the end of the summer holidays. Instead some civic leaders have been demanding flags, hands on hearts, and belligerent expressions of nationalism, mostly typified by clear hostilities to fresh immigrants.

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