Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:22 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:22 | SYDNEY

With Mahan, MacArthur and Murdoch


Graeme Dobell

18 May 2010 10:31

Part of the fun of reading US or British thinking on strategic issues is to spot the occasional mention of Australia. The interest in Oz sightings is half cultural cringe and half to see ourselves as others mis-see us.

Almost always, cultural baggage and the tyrannies of time and distance add to the strange flavour of the dish. With the British version of the sightings, there's usually a dash of history ranging from colony to cricket. The convict jokes still recur ('Australia, a nation peopled by the cream of the British judiciary') but it's rare to sight anything from Churchill's 'convict stain' school. 

Perhaps Rupert Murdoch, in his gentle way, has scorched much of the aristocratic condescension. The noise of his media empire drowns out the old habits of Empire: the triumphant Dirty Digger with the touch of  a 'genocidal tyrant' trumps the quaint colonial with a funny accent.

American strategic sightings of Oz usually manage to avoid too much discussion of the trope that Australia is just America with a 25-year time delay. That misunderstanding seldom lasts beyond a glimpse of the Union Jack on the Oz flag, or the twin discoveries of Australia's population and the size of the Australian Defence Force.

A quick re-run of Wilde on two-nations-divided-by-a-common-language and the US observer starts to grapple with the reality that it's more than just Oz fauna and flora that reach past different towards unique.

What is interesting in the US sightings is how often two ghosts hover at the elbow of any strategist peering at a map that includes Australia. One is the spectre of Douglas MacArthur, the other is Alfred Thayer Mahan. The frames of reference are either those of island-hopping to Japan or grand maritime strategy. Neither ghost, alas, offers much in aid to a US strategist trying to fit Oz into a matrix stretching across the Pacific, Asia and Oceania.

Did Mahan ever sail into Sydney harbour? MacArthur came and left the great brown land as saviour. The great man's ego was something of a barrier to comprehending what animates Australia. Even so, MacArthur's de facto monument sits today at the centre of the Defence Department in Russell. 

The MacArthur effect explains one of the problems with US sightings of Oz. Even when the General was based in Australia, his eyes, inevitably, were looking at lands far beyond these borders. In similar fashion, the scale and scope of what present-day US strategists are trying to view usually makes the Oz sightings a minor moment in the story.

Thus, the Oz sightings formula needs some refinements. As well as confirmed sightings, you can also have implied sightings: Oz is part of a group or is a player in an issue, but just doesn't get a specific sighting. And, finally, there are over-sightings: Oz could have got a mention, but  just didn't rate.

This is a game well suited to a land far away or a small ally. Come back for the next column to see the sightings game in action.

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