Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 18:14 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 18:14 | SYDNEY

The Australian way of war


Graeme Dobell

2 November 2010 12:12

The hung Parliament offers a rare moment for Australia to reconsider the way it goes to war. Iraq and Afghanistan show that, ideally, Australia's Parliament should argue the merits of war before the event, not after the shooting starts.

Consider the thought that even if Parliament had fully debated Iraq or Afghanistan, the military commitment would have been exactly the same. Both sides of Australian politics supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and any prior debate would have been an expression of that unanimity. Iraq divided the Parliament just as it split Australia. But although the political framing of the wars would be different – perhaps markedly so – the military experience would be little different from what Australia has experienced over the decade.

Yet Parliament's Afghanistan debate over the past few weeks has been an important show of the polity reclaiming leadership in explaining the war to Australia and its military. By proclaiming that Australia will be in Afghanistan for another decade, Julia Gillard has taken ownership of the Afghanistan war. Parliament can sometimes scare such frankness out of its leaders.

Looking at the political supremacy in 2003 of John Howard and Tony Blair, both leaders were able to carry their Parliaments. One of the unexpected joys of reading Howard's autobiography has been to compare it with that of Tony Blair. Here are two leaders from different parties, totally mismatched in character, philosophy and even writing styles. Yet Howard and Blair came to almost exactly the same point in their approach to the Iraq war and George W Bush. And looking back, they are still in the same place.

Put John Howard's final words about Iraq alongside those of Tony Blair, and while the tone is different, the conclusion looks the same. Here are John Howard's concluding words on Iraq:

...I found it inconceivable, given our shared history and values that we should not stand beside the Americans. To baulk at that decision, purely on the basis that the Security Council had not passed another resolution – especially when it had not been deemed necessary in 1998 when similar action was contemplated – seemed to me to be cloaking unwillingness to confront the substance of the issue with a thin and legalistic veneer. My attitude has not changed.

Here are Blair's penultimate words:

All I know is that I did what I thought was right. I stood by America when it needed standing by. Together we rid the world of a tyrant. Together we fought to uphold the Iraqis’ right to a democratic government.

Howard's attitude has not changed and Blair did what he thought was right. Howard's mind is set, but Blair ends with a nagging question. After the above words, Blair's concluding paragraph is about a letter he keeps from an Iraqi woman who came to see him before the war, telling him of the appalling torture and death her family experienced under Saddam: 'She begged me to act. After the fall of Saddam she returned to Iraq. She was murdered by sectarians a few months later. What would she say to me now''

It is just the sort of question that needs to be answered by Australia's Parliament, preferably before, not after, the shooting begins. And the hung Parliament has the slimmest of chances to rewrite the rules so they are not weighted so heavily in favour of the Executive. More on that in a follow-up post.

Photo by Flickr user justinknol, used under a Creative Commons license.