The first meeting of ANZUS military representatives in 1952 at Pearl Harbour. (Image via

Alison Broinowski reviews James Brown's Quarterly Essay 'Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War' and asks if instead of increasing our defence force, would Australia not do better to invest in peaceful coexistence?

AUSTRALIA is at war in Iraq and Syria, which is a serious matter.

Yet neither party seeking government is asked by the media or by other candidates to explain to the electorate why our troops are there, at whose invitation, for what purpose, or what difference it would make if they pulled out — as the Canadians have from Syria.

Only the GreensRichard Di Natale (Lowy Institute) offers Australians an alternative foreign and defence policy and dares to utter the heresy that Australia is threatened by the U.S. alliance itself. The Greens support neither the war on Syria nor Australia’s enormously costly submarine purchase.

Since 1901, Australia is the only country to have joined in every major war the U.S. has fought and we share responsibility for the consequences. Bases in Australia make us a target of enemies of America’s choosing, Di Natale adds, and they support drone assassinations by the U.S., which kill and injure civilians as well as suspected terrorists.

It’s easy to be a heretic when you’re unlikely to have to deliver your foreign and defence policy in government. Or when your political life is over, as Malcolm Fraser’s was when in his last book (Dangerous Allies, 2014) he demanded "sovereign independence" for Australia, urged government to close the bases and sought to distance us from ANZUS.

It’s not so easy if, like James Brown, you have trained and served with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) – in Afghanistan and Iraq – and have then made a new career as a researcher at the Lowy Institute and the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. His training as an army officer and his personal experience in Iraq, lead Brown to be critical of civilian bureaucrats, anti-war academics and the politics that led to that disaster.

In his essay, ‘Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War (Quarterly Essay 62 2016. Melbourne: Black Inc), Brown loyally describes the Australian army, navy and air force as "sophisticated" and cites their recent reforms.

Brown wants them to be capable, well equipped and led, but he also wants better direction from governments which send troops to war, better understanding among the troops and the Australian public of why they fight and better strategic thinking throughout the system. He deplores the "set and forget" mentality that has been evident among politicians in recent deployments. What, he asks in evident desperation, are we willing to fight for?

Brown’s essay is timely. If the UK Chilcot Inquiry delivers its long-awaited report in early July, Australia will be the only country in the "coalition of the willing" not to have had such an investigation. Instead, we will wait at least a decade for an official war history of the period.

Other questions Brown would like answered are why Australian interests in the coalition of the willing were indistinguishable from U.S. interests, what we considered was success and what was the cost of achieving it. Lacking the answers, Brown says Australian thinking on how we go to war has barely evolved. The result is that the template set in 2003 remains in place now and the ADF has learnt little from the deployment of thousands of troops and more than 40 deaths. He wants to increase the size of the Australian Defence Force but warns we must cultivate the wisdom to use it properly.

Brown echoes the views of a growing number of Australians who seek reform of the way decisions are made to go to war. He notes that Australia's Governor-General, who is Commander-in-Chief, has in several cases been informed of a decision to dispatch forces only after it was made. Indeed, he speculates that the most significant vice-regal contribution in an international crisis could be ‘to decry military action’.

Brown sees parliamentary oversight of national security as ‘underdone and weak’, allowing a prime minister to order a military deployment, effectively, alone and on a whim. Brown cites three examples in 2014 alone, when Tony Abbott wanted to send troops to Nigeria, Ukraine and Iraq — an over-commitment which the ADF had to talk him out of.

Still, Abbott renewed the commitment in Iraq and followed that with RAF bombing in Syria. He claimed this reflected Australian values, global influence and the need to keep the U.S. engaged. But Abbott would be unable to respond satisfactorily to any of the ten challenges Brown recommends for our leaders before they make such commitments. They include pointed questions about why, at what cost and with what expected result, a war is undertaken.

It has become common among Australians in what passes for debate about war, to omit any mention of international law. Surprisingly, for someone who has considered his subject carefully, Brown is one of them.

His ten points don’t include the basic question,

Is it legal?

For if we send troops into a country which has not invited them (as Iraq has not explicitly done and Syria has not done at all), without a resolution of the UN Security Council calling on member states to do so and into a country which has not attacked or threatened imminently to attack Australia, then Australia is in breach of international law. This is no abstract matter: in the near future, our political and military leaders could be accused of the crime of aggression in these circumstances.

Another surprise is Brown’s guarded consideration of why, among the many democracies which require parliamentary debate and a vote – sometimes of both houses – before going to war, this should be too difficult, expensive, or time-consuming for Australia’s parliament. He seeks more democratic accountability but his solution is to set up another level of bureaucracy for national security. This could easily become politicised, as could the ninety-day review he proposes. Why not use the parliament properly?

Politicians may still support their party line but making them individually answerable to their constituents for a war could foster intensified accountability. Many other countries have provisions for responding to emergencies and for protecting secret intelligence and some require progress reports on a war in progress. This should not be impossible for Australia. The convention in Britain for parliament to debate and vote upon dispatching troops, has been honoured in recent years and has even prevented deployment. But Australia doesn’t trust our parliament with a war. Instead, we allow our allies to choose our enemies and our wars for us and the result, as Brown says, is ‘dangerous naivety’ in our thinking about foreign policy and defence.

Brown’s essay has drawn public attention to an important matter: what are we willing to fight for? But he remains personally divided about the answer, perhaps reflecting national ambivalence. He admits that Australia might want to stand aside from a U.S.-led war against China, yet the underlying premise of successive Defence White Papers is that China is our presumed enemy.

He wants Australia to be prepared to fight wars close to home in our own interest, yet an attack on an Asian neighbour would breach international law and our regional treaty obligations, as would an attack by an East Asian country on Australia.

Instead of spending eye-watering amounts on an arms race with our biggest trading partner, would Australia not protect our interests better by investing in peaceful coexistence? It would cost much less to fund and implement the initiatives in the Asian Century White Paper, which, ironically, seeks better, deeper relations with the very countries Defence identifies as our potential enemies. Brown’s question is the wrong one.

The question should be:

How can we avoid fighting at all?

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