‘We have seen these things, though we have seen them only in the cold, silent, colorless print of books and newspapers.’
Joseph Conrad, from his essay Autocracy and War
The title quote, from an essay written in 1905, refers to the fighting in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War. A war for the control of Russia’s eastern ports, it was a short, brutal disaster, in which the methods of modern combat came to a head, and preceded the carnage of the First World War with brutal clairvoyance. Conrad’s searing essay, written almost a decade before the outbreak of conflict in Europe, was part of a growing stream of literature that predated the European catastrophe. In suggesting that the true horror of war was quite invisible to those who had not experienced it, Conrad was inadvertently predicting the conceptual ineffability which led the great powers to disaster in the years 1914-18. What happened in Manchuria was only the tip of the iceberg.
It was said that, during the Russo-Japanese War, the Empire sailed around the world only to be defeated. But for a Western power squaring off against an Eastern one, defeat had not yet occurred to them as a realistic prospect. The great concern of the Russian Empire in 1904-5 was that its influence in the Pacific be cemented by physical outposts in Manchuria. The Trans-Siberian Railway could supply the far east territory with ease, and a Pacific squadron could handily secure their influence in East Asia. Their position seemed all but assured. They had no reason to think otherwise.
But, in a time of war, the distance was too great – and the war was lost on paper as soon as the Russian Navy suffered its first defeat in 1904. Conceding their territory meant conceding their ports, and, after the war ended, Russia was left with only a single port that could operate in all weather conditions – Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula. A cursory knowledge of geography might have already alerted you to the problem with this arrangement. The narrow strait connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, with whom Russia was not particularly friendly. Add to this the existential crisis of the Orthodox Church (the fact that their seat in Constantinople had been occupied by a Muslim empire for five hundred years) and it is not difficult to understand why Russia and Turkey went to war four times in the 19th century.
1914, The Great War begins. The European powers draw up battle lines based on the agreed-upon allegiances of the past few decades. By the end of the year, the Ottoman Empire had attacked Russia, and officially declared war against it as a Central Power. Geographically, Russia is completely withdrawn from her allies in Western Europe, and can contribute essentially nothing to her own economy. The Baltic ports are blockaded, the overland routes are in enemy territory. Her isolation is speculated upon as a catastrophe. But her ability to divert manpower from three Central Powers is seen as essential to the Allied war effort, which is clustered on the Western Front. And by the end of 1914, this cluster is a total stalemate; Germany unable to capture Paris, the BEF wiped out in France. Without economic support, the consequences for the Russian nation seem fairly obvious to all involved. So, at the behest of the Admiralty, a plan to quickly capture Istanbul via naval operation in the Dardanelles is put into force in 1915.
Shore bombardment began in the February of that year, and the assault commenced in March. But the ships could not hold; even with a well armed fleet, and the British had a well armed fleet, the Dardanelles straight was virtually impenetrable. At only 1.6 kilometres wide, it was also thick with sea mines, and lined with fortified artillery positions. Ironically, the same tactics that the Japanese used against Russian ships in 1904-5 were being employed again by the Turkish – shore battery fire and channel mining – which scuppered a French ship and all but ended the operation before it began. The failure of the naval operation made clear the need for a troop landing, and plans were re-drawn to account for this new strategy. Guided by ignorance and bravura, Allied commanders thought that troop concentrations were sparse on the peninsula, and thought that, owing to poor military performance in the years immediately prior, that the Ottomans would be all too easy to defeat.
This is the part of the story where the Australian myth usually begins to take over. It goes something like this. Australian soldiers, training in Egypt to be sent to France, were diverted to participate in the landing. Chaotic orders and comically incorrect reconnaissance reports led to intense opposition at Anzac Cove, with heavy casualties incurred and incomplete positions drawn up in the early stages of the battle, rendering a hopeless stalemate. Continued incompetence by the British high command meant needless casualties, meaningless assaults, and a mounting death toll. After ten months battle, eight thousand plus Australian dead, the order was given to retreat, and the greatest trick of all – led by Australian ingenuity, of course – is that the withdrawal did not cost a single life.
This is the simple version of the myth of Gallipoli. It is really our only founding myth, or at least the one event in our history which is best understood in simple, nationalistic terms by just about everyone. The First Fleet remains far too murky for general consumption, and Federation was not really a day of great independence. But Gallipoli is different. Everyone knows the terrain, the death, the heroes and the villains. And everyone has probably observed the minute’s silence on that most ubiquitous day, ANZAC, one of the most apolitical events on the public calendar.
But there remains a burning question. It is a difficult question to ask, as one could very easily be accused of forsaking the dead; certainly there are those who have lost their jobs for asking it. But the point stands nonetheless. Why on earth do we celebrate the ANZAC landings? The Gallipoli campaign was an unmitigated disaster; a useless front in a sideshow, which cost life for no gain whatsoever. Perhaps worst of all, it was the result of a strategic order from an allied power – or in this case, what was essentially a protector arrangement – which had no direct bearing on the security of Australian life, liberty or state.
With the exception of the New Guinea campaign during the Second World War, Australia has arguably never fought in battle to counter a direct threat against Australian life, liberty or state. Our military participation is usually a calculated effort to maintain an overseas alliance. In the first half of the 20th century, this meant South Africa (Boer War), Gallipoli, the Western Front, and the Middle east (First World War) and North Africa (Second World War) – all at the behest of the British Empire. In fact, it was during the North African campaign that Australian soldiers had to be rapidly withdrawn to fight in New Guinea – a situation which resulted in serious sovereign risk to the nation, at the only time in its history where it had actually been directly threatened by anyone.
This streak of gung-ho foreign policy has lasted well over a century. It is symptomatic of reticence and complacency, where the leaders of this country will, without any public debate, and with scarcely any parliamentary consultation, deploy Australian forces in overseas conflicts where the only benefit to the nation is the perceived maintenance of a Western Alliance. In the second half of the 20th century, and now at the behest of America, we fought in Korea and Vietnam, ostensibly against Communism, and later in the 21st century, joined in the Iraq War, which stands as perhaps the most egregious example to date.
The only aggressor with designs against Australian sovereignty in this entire 117 year period was the Empire of Japan. Yes, we fought them bitterly, and yes, we drew up battle plans to fight them within the four walls of the nation. But we obviously thought so little of them, and their existential threat to our nation, that we were happy to send most of our conventional forces to the other side of the world as they tore through East Asia. We treat our neighbors with such disdain in the suburbs, but we probably shouldn’t treat the Pacific sphere in quite the same way. Intelligent strategy tends to involve what is in front of you – not what you wish were in front of you.
One must not forsake the dead. But one can surely inject a little spirited discussion into the fray. An otherwise sacred time, like ANZAC day, is surely not so sacred that it becomes impossible to question anything whatever. After all, in a nation with an otherwise laissez faire notion of civility, it is odd that the public discourse transforms itself into a card carrying patriot for one day of the year. By lionizing an event which reflects so poorly on our foreign policy, and on our strength of independent governance, we are only really feeding a self determining cycle of strategic impotence. Every aspect of Australian defence, foreign relations and strategic policy is built around the assumption that we will have to deploy it at the behest of a Western superpower.
And what have we lost in the process? For close to a century, no Australian government has exercised a cogent diplomatic plan or expended public energy within the Asia-Pacific sphere. Whilst we were fighting ‘Communists’ in Vietnam, anywhere between four hundred thousand to three million ‘Communists’ were slaughtered in Indonesia because the West turned a blind eye. Whilst people were held in detention on Manus and Nauru, we were dropping bombs on Syria and Iraq. I’m sure they were delighted to hear it. And now that China is set to become the chief power in the Pacific, we are still trying to sidle alongside our friends in America and the UK; staring down the inevitable without an intelligent diplomatic response, just as we have always done.
It is rather awful to have to say it, but very few of Australia’s servicemen and women have ever ‘fought for our freedom’, or whatever that is supposed to mean. It has always struck me as something of an empty platitude – worthy of American regard, perhaps – but not one which should have any bearing on our society. It sucks the life out of discourse and wrestles thought from the mind like a tenth grade bully. One need not forsake the dead to be able to admit that. One can instead wish that no Australian soldier, sailor, or pilot need die in the future simply because they were fighting a war without a bearing, and in no direct relation to the safety of their home.
Australia suffered the highest per-capita loss of any nation that participated in the First World War. It was a war without purpose, without results, and which paved the way for the disasters of the 20th century. The chaotic belligerence of dueling powers dragged the world headlong into that mess, and the Australians who fought in it should never have had to die in the first place. If we are truly a nation of fine people, we’d be better off discouraging such warlike behaviour, and not charging headlong into it, following the leader like the world’s most self loathing sheep.
CAN YOU EVER REALLY KNOW A PLACE?
What does it mean to travel, what does it mean to know a place? Is it even possible?
WOMEN AND POWER – NEW WORLD ORDER
A book for the remaking of the world. The old boy’s club is torn to pieces.