The Guardian 4 May, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Cannon fodder from down under

The most recent anniversary of Anzac Day was the occasion for another round of outpourings on the theme of Australia’s glorious military heritage and how we supposedly "became a nation" by sending our troops to be slaughtered at Gallipoli.

British imperialism had much to gain from their attempts to force or capture the Dardanelles. If successful the operation would have severed Turkey from Europe, leaving its Middle Eastern empire available to be "freed" — and brought under British domination.

If all had gone well and the British had succeeded in capturing Constantinople, the Black Sea would have lain open to them — and so would the oil of Baku and the iron and steel of the Donbas. Imperialists in London, like Sir Henry Deterding of Royal Dutch Shell, were not deterred from coveting Russia’s resources by the fact that the Russian Empire was their ally.

There was no place in business for sentiment! However, it does not make the squandering of young lives on Gallipoli any more noble or even palatable knowing that it was done for the boosting of business, the seizing of colonies and the domination of world trade.

It is a sad fact, and one which bourgeois commentators studiously ignore, that with one exception, all the wars and military adventures that Australian governments have involved this country in were predatory wars, fought in most cases for the purpose of maintaining, restoring or extending colonial rule.

The exception of course was WW2, which began as a predatory war of conquest and trade domination but became an anti-fascist war of liberation. The ideals espoused by the anti-fascist alliance of WW2 in turn inspired and invigorated the national liberation movements of the colonial countries.

In the Southern Tablelands of NSW, near Goulburn, there is a monument to a great-uncle of mine who went off in an Australian contingent to fight for the British Empire in the Boer War. Unfortunately, my great-uncle lost his life in the process.

Needless to say, the Dutch farmers of South Africa constituted no threat to Australia. They were simply fighting for their independence from a Britain determined to incorporate them forcibly into its colonial empire.

Lord knows what these Australian volunteers were told they were fighting for — no doubt, God, the King and the Empire all came into it. Along with more than a touch of xenophobia.

A decade later, the First World War was a great trade war in which Australian troops were largely cannon fodder for British imperialism’s efforts to cripple its imperial rival Germany and to take over German and Turkish colonial possessions. After first dutifully seizing the German colony in New Guinea Australian forces were dispatched to the Middle East.

After that they were sent over to France, to slug it out in the trenches on behalf of British and French capitalism against the young men consigned to the opposing trenches by German capitalism.

When the contagion of revolutionary and anti-war sentiments spread from Russia into Germany and Hungary and also caused mutinies among French and British troops, the warring imperialists took fright and called a halt, on November 11, 1918.

Even as they met to re-divide the world’s colonies and to restrict German capitalism’s ability to compete, they were sending troops to invade Revolutionary Russia. And Australians were among them.

In WW2, Australians were initially sent to the Middle East and North Africa before being brought back to defend British colonial possessions in Malaya from its would-be rival colonial power Japan.

After the defeat of Japan, Australians were sent back to Malaya to help Britain suppress the national liberation movement there. The troops were told they were fighting "Communist bandits".

Australian troops were also sent to fight similar "bandits" in Borneo. Then the Yanks tried to "roll back Communism" in Asia by fomenting wars on China’s eastern, southern and northern borders.

Only the one on the Korean peninsula developed into anything significant, and Australian young men were once again cannon fodder in a predatory war. The Yanks, and their allies like Australia, were fought to a standstill in Korea.

That it did not deter them, however, from taking over from the French in Vietnam and escalating another war to restore colonial possessions, acquire domination over an area believed rich in off-shore oil and other resources, and achieve strategic advantage for a full-scale war with China.

Even our much-vaunted intervention in East Timor had an underlying strategic aim that had nothing to do with saving the lives of Timorese peasants and workers. When did the Howard government ever care about ordinary people, either at home or abroad?

No, Howard’s concern was to use the intervention to gain kudos from the Australian people while actually establishing an imperialist base on the border of Indonesia. At the same time neatly and conveniently bracketing the gas fields of the Timor Gap with an Australian military presence.

And of course we have been active participants in both bouts of US and British aggression against Iraq, and still are. The predatory nature of the war against Iraq could not be plainer, and thanks to the Howard government we’re up to our necks in it.

For the last sixty or so years, Australian governments — with the notable exception of the Whitlam government — have had no hesitation in sending our young men (and now our young women) on request to take part in any of imperialism’s predatory wars.

Is this what defines us as a nation?

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