Us and the US
[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’. That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings. That format will be followed in the précis. The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword. Each chapter is about 1400 words.]
The American war of independence was a frightful guerrilla war with atrocities on either side. The Civil War was a war of attrition, with casualty rates piled up by a mode of warfare that would offer a ghastly premonition of the Great War. Once the colonies revolted, it was victory or death for their leaders. That threat was not so real for those states seceding from the Union, but in that war, both sides were equally charged morally. In the first war, the rebels never lost the moral high ground, and getting British soldiers to fight against Britons on foreign soil cannot have been simple.
The first war was a precondition of the birth of the Union; the second war was a precondition of the survival of the Union. This war of independence was mythologised in a way that looks completely American. There was no need to mythologise the Civil War. It had its own stark grandeur that would be given precise expression by the greatest American of them all. For some people outside America, this was the real birth of the nation that they so admire.
George Washington was pompous and patrician, a vain old Tory. But the new nation needed more than a hero; it needed something like a cult. The very shortness of American history led to almost indecent haste in making Washington a saint. Might perhaps the Americans have a propensity to talk themselves up?
The Civil War was so much more bloody and destructive than that fought in England two centuries earlier. It was fought over four years when southern states, with nearly half their population enslaved, wanted to secede from the union on the issue of the extension of slavery. There is no doubt that state loyalty is still much stronger in the US. It strikes Australians as odd that a man could be Virginian first, and American second. About 620,000 Americans died in the conflict. Names like Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Shiloh (‘Place of Peace’), Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Appomattox lie deep in the national consciousness. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg redefined the Union.
The Americans were latecomers to both world wars, but their intervention was decisive, especially in the Second World War, both in Europe and in the Pacific. In the Second War, America was directly attacked and its military and industrial mobilization left it the most powerful nation in the world. Wilson and America failed at Versailles, but so did other Allies. America produced more real military heroes in Bradley and Patton, and the future President Eisenhower. The Marshall Plan was statesmanlike and humane, and by crushing Germany and Japan militarily and then being generous in victory, the U S avoided the awful errors of Versailles. Korea was at best a draw; Vietnam was a moral and strategic black hole; and whatever else might be said about the perceived failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the memory of them is not inducing America to try that kind of thing again. America has retired hurt as the world police officer.
The Australian war experience got off to a bad start. The colonies jointly – the Boer War started just before federation – went off to the aid of the leading world power in a fight that had little or no intrinsic merit or interest to Australia. The Australian participation in the war was deeply divisive at home, with consequences that are at best disputed, and for no discernible benefit to Australia, apart from paying some kind of respect or dues to the world’s leading power. Very much the same damning assessment would later be made of Australia’s tagging along behind America in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. One difference is that in the case of both Vietnam and Iraq, the government of Australia told its people untruths, to put it softly, when that government determined to send off its young men to be killed in foreign conflict.
Australia would lose more than 60,000 killed in World War I, and about half that in World War II. It was only in the latter war that Australia was directly threatened, and it was Australian troops under their own commanders who halted the Japanese advance into New Guinea. The appalling war crimes committed by Japanese troops under Emperor Hirohito on Australian troops and prisoners of war etched very deep in the Australian consciousness. The frightful games that the Japanese play with their own brutal history have, to put it softly, not helped.
Yet, when Australians commemorate their war dead, they tend to focus on the charnel house of the Great War. This concentration on the First World War reflects the mystique, for the want of a better word, of Gallipoli. On two occasions, the infidel invaders were within touching distance of achieving their objective, but on each occasion they were caught in time. The whole expedition was botched from on high from the start. The invaders were facing Turks defending their own soil, and with Allah on their side, and they ran into a man of military and political genius called Mustafa Kemal, who was more the Father of Turkey than George Washington was the Father of the United States. There were months of stagnant fighting in trenches, the very type of war that the planners had sought to avoid. The casualties on both sides had been horrendous, and all for nothing – except for the creation of modern Turkey.
Gallipoli was memorable for the Australians and New Zealanders (Anzacs) because this was a form of debut, and their casualty lists loomed larger in their smaller country towns. Most country towns in Australia have a memorial to those lost in this war. But in fact the British suffered far more casualties than Australia; the French lost as many as Australia; and the Turks lost as many as Britain, France, and Australia combined.
The glow that Australians now see this disaster in comes from the need for a sustaining myth like that of the Americans. If you go to Gallipoli on a clear quiet day, you can feel a marvelous peace near the water where men had torn at each other hand to hand most barbarously for nothing. There is a monument on which Kemal assures the foreign mothers of the fallen that their sons are resting in peace. Those who survived became part of the sausage factory on the Western Front, the last gasp of ruling monarchies and a cruel and effete ruling class. They produced a general of the first order in Monash, but he too had to serve under a butcher.
In the Second War, the Japs got very close. Darwin was bombed. There was real tension with the mother country about Australian troops being kept to face Rommel in the desert rather than defending their own homes against the Japs. The fall of Singapore to the Japs – the guns pointed the wrong way – and the loss of English capital ships led Australians to turn their gaze to across the Pacific and look to Uncle Sam as their new protector. That still position holds. It was by and large American troops that pushed the Japs back on the islands at the most frightful cost. The American admirals were preeminent, and Australia has nothing like that monument to the US Marines at Iwo Jima.
Australia was well served by Prime Minister Curtin, but it produced no one of the standing of Roosevelt, or that paradigm of clean and simple leadership – yes, leadership – President Harry Truman, the great president who said that ‘The buck stops here’, the man who took two heavy decisions of equal import, to bomb the Japs and to fire Macarthur, for which both his troops and his nation should be forever grateful.
The most disgraceful phase of Australia’s military history came with the refusal of most Australians to acknowledge the return of soldiers from Vietnam. Then their government got lousy about compensating them, and looking after them. This national meanness put a big dint in the national myth of ‘mateship’ – Australians were kicking their own troops in the guts. Erich Maria Remarque had written books about the Great War that are a sustained and enduring paean to mateship. The notion that Australians might have some primacy in a basic part of humanity is at best rather sad. We are yet to found a myth.