Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 16:08 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 16:08 | SYDNEY

My books of the year


Hugh White

4 January 2010 10:57

Ed. note: This is one of two end-of-year posts we didn't get time for in December.

The highlights of my professional reading in 2009 have been two excellent books on the history of Australian strategic policy, a bit of classic strategy and some contemporary history.

My book of the year is Neville Meaney's Australia and World Crisis 1914-1923, which explains in detail the strategic rationale for Australia's involvement in our greatest and deadliest war. It offers a powerful antidote to the common assumption that Australia's strategic history is nothing but a series of naïve and craven commitments to other people's wars, by explaining how policymakers of the day saw Australia's interests. It's a great book. 

My second find was David Bird's J.A.Lyons, the tame Tasmanian: Appeasement and Rearmament in Australia 1932-39. I've always been interested in the 1930s because it is such a caution: Australian strategic policy has never been worse than it was then – at least so far – and it's important to see what went wrong. Bird's book explores Lyons' approach to the great strategic questions of his time and convincingly argues the case for Lyons to be seen as a serious policymaker with a good grip on the issues of his day. Much of it resonates today.

Thirdly, embarrassingly, I must admit that in 2009 for the first time I have explored the classical literature of naval strategy beyond Mahan. I've spent a few very rewarding hours with Corbett and some of his contemporaries, in pursuit of answers to big questions about the operational dimensions of Australia's maritime strategic situation. Corbett's Principles of Maritime Strategy is a wonderfully fresh and incisive book full of gems. The introduction on the use of strategic theory in guiding practical policy is worth the price of the book alone.

Lastly I must mention Paul Kelly's The March of Patriots, which I think is marvellous. Some people I admire, like Robert Manne, are less impressed, suggesting Kelly goes easy on our leaders to cultivate access. I know what he means, but I think this criticism misses the mainspring of the book, and indeed of Kelly's life work. 

Paul is a romantic; about Australia, about Government and about political leaders. He believes there is a great story to be told about this country, about how government shapes it, and especially about how leaders shape it. He wants to look beyond the petty day-to-day squabbles to the drama and grandeur beyond. He wants to believe that our leaders are worthy of their country, and he strives to portray them as such. He thinks this is what politics and government are really all about. Otherwise, he would ask, why bother with it?

This approach has shortcomings. It sometimes inclines him to give our leaders the benefit of the doubt when they may not deserve it. For example, in Patriots he believes Downer and Howard when they say now that in 1999 they hoped and intended that East Timor would become independent. Others (including myself) have quite different recollections. 

But I find this a very forgivable fault. Unless we have this kind of account to look beyond the passions of the day and counterbalance the mordant cynicism of the Allan Ramsays of the Gallery, we cannot understand what it all means and where it all goes. And Kelly does get more information than anyone else from current and recent leaders about that they really think. 

In the end, if we don't take our leaders seriously the way Kelly does, we are not taking ourselves seriously either. That is why Kelly's work is so important.