slides further into the Iraq quagmire
The tragic inevitability of a forlorn hope
By GAVIN GATENBY
24 February 2005
John Howards decision to double Australias
ground troop commitment in Iraq was inevitable. The prime minister put
off the inevitable for as long as he could, but Australias slavish
adherence to the American alliance left him no option but to dispatch
more troops to George Bush's mad neo-colonial adventure. His justification
of the decision as necessary to stop the Coalition crumbling put a desperate
spin on the situation thats at odds with Washingtons upbeat
line on post-election Iraq.
also signaled that the 450 extra Australian troops will not be the last.
A host of other nations that originally committed a few troops to curry
favour with the US have already pulled out or will shortly do so, making
increases in the Australian contingent, beyond those just announced, inevitable
(and indeed Howard pointedly did not rule out further increases).
The Sydney Morning Herald headlined the decision as a Surprise
doubling of forces in Iraq (23 February 05). It is nothing of the
sort. After the Coalitions failure to quickly subdue Iraqi opposition
to the occupation, it was a sure thing. Since late 2003, the only question
has been how long Howard could fob George Bush off. No doubt he argued
that it would be politically dangerous, if not fatal, to announce an increased
commitment before last years federal election, but once hed
won with a safe majority, the American pressure on him would have redoubled.
Tragically, history is repeating itself. Cabinet documents recently released
under the 50-year rule show that, in 1954, Liberal (conservative) Prime
Minister, Robert Menzies, and key figures in his Cabinet were extremely
gloomy about the prospects for success in an American war against nationalists
in Indochina. The following handwritten notes, taken down by Cabinet Secretary
Allen Brown, give some of the flavour of the misgivings of the leaders
of a government that was, a decade later, to commit Australian ground
troops to Vietnam:
Larry Anthony, Postmaster-General: "It is only the support of
the US which will enable us to hold Australia ... We have to stick with
the US, even when it's wrong."
Casey, Minister for External Affairs: "You should have a defined
objective in war. The US has never done this."
Robert Menzies: "We are being asked to participate in a forlorn
hope ... The US are not incapable of unreality ... I do not believe that
the US has thought this out ... How can we justify a war which will fail,
merely to keep in with the US?"
I wondered, when I read these lines, whether Menzies was aware of the
origin of the expression forlorn hope. Its an English
corruption of the Dutch military term verloren hoop, literally
lost troop enthusiastic young soldiers dispatched to
storm the walls of an enemy fortification on the unlikely chance that
they would succeed, and render a long siege unnecessary.
The forlorn hope to which Menzies referred was an open-ended
US war against the forces of nationalism in Indochina, a project that
US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles secretly proposed Australia should
join. Dulles' approach took place even before the defeat of the French
forces at Dien Bien Phu.
In February 1954, with Menzies wanting an election in late May, Cabinet
was anxious not to reveal to the Australian people either that they were
considering Dulles' proposal, or their misgivings about American foreign
In the upshot, the US frustrated the holding of a planned referendum to
unify Vietnam, installed a puppet administration in Saigon and managed
to stabilize the situation for some years.
into the quagmire
In 1962, eight years after Cabinet pondered Dulles' request, 30 Australian
military advisors were committed to Vietnam. Over the next
two years this team was gradually increased to a hundred.
In November 1964 a conscription (National Service) bill was
voted through the Australian Parliament. It was justified on the basis
that a general increase in the size of the armed forces (then somewhat
depleted by a failure to attract volunteers during a period of full employment)
was required in order to defend Australia against Communist
The measure consisted of limited call-up by ballot of 20 year olds for
two years service at home or abroad. The first draft,
4,200 20-year-old men, took place in the latter half of 1965. From then
on there were annual call-ups in which 6,900 young men were drafted.
In mid 1965 Australia sent an infantry battalion to Vietnam. Air and naval
forces were added and, in 1966, the infantry component was increased to
two battalions. Finally, there was a Task Force of three battalions with
supporting armour, engineer, artillery and logistics units. The force
graduated from essentially defensive tasks to offensive operations. At
its height in 1968-69 the Australian commitment reached 8,000 men. Our
great and powerful ally lost the Vietnam War after devastating
the entire country and Cambodia to boot. Ultimately, just short of 500
Australians died and almost 2400 were wounded.
mention the war
Until now, The Howard Government and their media shills have been at pains
to play down the extent or importance of Australias commitment to
the Iraq war. Like the Menzies Cabinet, they know a lot more than they
are prepared to tell the Australian public.
In 1954, Robert Menzies was an ardent Anglophile with genuine fears about
the outcome of American foreign policy in Indochina. Nevertheless, over
the following years, as Britain withdrew from its empire and refused to
get involved in Vietnam, he overcame his hesitations and initiated our
long slide into the Vietnam quagmire a war in which Australia had
no compelling strategic interest merely to maintain the dubious
benefits of an alliance with the worlds biggest imperialist power.
Half a century after John Foster Dulles first approached the Menzies Government
with his disastrous proposal, John Howard and his cabinet remain nostalgic
Anglophiles and slavish supporters of the American alliance.
Unless the 50-year embargo on cabinet documents is significantly reduced,
few of us alive today will learn what Howard or his ministers said during
the key cabinet talks that determined our entry into another American
adventure. In an epoch when all responsible experts are warning that oil
availability must soon peak before going into a steady decline, I will
hazard an educated guess that high among the factors discussed was the
need to ensure our oil-profligate economy a continued supply of cheap
Middle East crude. We can only wonder whether any member of Cabinet advocated
a different, less risky, policy than gambling on a US victory, or whether
their minds were totally closed to an alternative, independent, approach.
In spite of their hesitations (inspired no doubt by the likely electoral
consequences of a more openly bellicose stance) the Howard Government
will, in the final analysis, go along with whatever the US demands, and
all the more so because Britain remains in Iraq.
Howard knows the Iraq "elections" solved nothing. The Sunni
resistance continues unabated an armed boycott that remains the
most powerful card in the Iraqi political pack. A pro-Iranian, Islamist-dominated
anti-secular administration is taking what little power the Americans
will allow them in Baghdad (or rather, its Green Zone). Inevitably, they
will become angry and disaffected, and all this while the neocons try
hard to provoke a war against Iran or its close ally, Syria, setting the
stage for a fresh outbreak of armed resistance in southern Iraq, where
Australias new troop commitment will be based.
No Australian should be fooled by the governments strategy of downplaying
our participation in this war. We can be sure that grim scenarios and
hard realities are being discussed in Canberra. Chief among these will
be the problem of boosting our tiny army to a level compatible with a
commitment of several thousand troops for some years in Iraq (or maybe
Iran or Syria). In a situation where very few young Australians will be
willing to volunteer for the war, we can be sure that some form of conscription
is being contemplated, and perhaps draft legislation prepared. It would
be irresponsible to believe the governments inevitable denials,
because the iron logic of their latest decision demands a big increase
in the size of the army. If Australia needed conscription in 1964 to maintain
just a couple of infantry battalions in Vietnam, theres no chance
we could double our new Iraq commitment without resorting to the draft.
With tragic inevitability, the spectre of conscription is marching towards
assignment: the invasion of Indonesia
the Lord and pass the ammunition
Dont imagine for a second that the election of a Democrat to the
US presidency would signal a less bellicose America advisers to
presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton say the difference
would just be a matter of style and theyre spinning
the need for more Australian engagement in American adventures