Cover of book: Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War

James Brown
Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War

The last time Australia declared war was 1942, against Bulgaria and Thailand, to tidy up our official state of belligerence. Which is not to say we haven’t been in any wars since. Far from it: we just need to be asked. And often, we ask to be asked. The actual case for war is made in the distant capital of our superpower ally, and then we’re in it for the greater alliance purpose.

Which is how a younger Captain James Brown found himself leading armoured vehicles out of Kuwait into insurgency-torn Iraq in 2005, his mind running through the terrifying range of things that could go wrong. The mission was to replace Dutch troops protecting Japanese engineers building civic facilities. It went off without casualties, and with points earned in Washington and Tokyo. 

Brown won’t ascribe “too much strategic acuity” to the choice of a quiet locale. Nor does he bring out the shabby decision process in 2002-03 to support the Bush–Blair invasion. He notes Canberra’s “template” contribution to United States-led operations to get away with the minimum for as long as possible: special forces. Swathed in secrecy, devoted to high-risk and few in numbers, they keep the cost of war low and out of sight. For Australia now, “the dirty business of war is a stranger. That is the blessed legacy of a place where soldiers are rarely seen, and then only on parade. Where war means Anzac Day, and Anzac Days are all the same.” 

Yet will it always be like this? Now a scholar at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, a Canberra-funded outfit not exactly filled with ANZUS sceptics, Brown is well placed to track the drift of things. 

With a bigger army, huge troop-carrying ships, anti-missile destroyers, a doubled fleet of submarines and an air force of stealth fighters, all networked into space and cyber, Australia is gearing up for a major war. “Interoperability” and US force “rotation” weld us into the American war machine. 

But maybe one day we might have to fight our own war. What are the things we would fight for? War-making power is concentrated on the prime minister. Tony Abbott tried to get troops into Nigeria, Ukraine and Daesh-occupied Mosul, as Brown relates in new detail. “We risk having a large defence force, but not the wisdom to use it properly.”  JF

Quarterly Essay, 112pp, $22.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2016 as "James Brown, Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War".

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