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Australia too ready to forget costs of US wars

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 25 November 2014

In his latest novel Amnesia, the brilliant writer Peter Carey presents the argument that the US government was behind the 1975 dismissal of Gough Whitlam. Carey himself believes in this conspiracy theory, arguing that the Americans were hardly likely to make an exception for Australia, given their record in Iran, Cuba, Congo, Chile, and elsewhere.

Academic historians have dismissed the claims of a CIA-manufactured coup in Australia because the hard evidence to support it has never been presented. However, the notion that we are a nation of amnesiacs when it comes to the past is compelling. Robert Manne has written about Australia's "culture of forgetting". In the 21st century both Labor and Coalition governments have tended to forgive and forget the grave foreign policy errors made by the US during the war on terror.

When comparing responses to the Vietnam War to the decade-long war in Iraq it seems our ability to learn from past mistakes has been curtailed and even enfeebled. The war in Vietnam was in many regards an unmitigated disaster. It was a brutal war (with adeath toll of about 1.5 million people) that drained American prestige and global credibility. Eventually it led to considerable soul searching within the US government, even within the Rambo-quoting Reagan administration, which generally ruled out direct troop interventions overseas and came to take very seriously the benefits of a negotiated peace with the Soviet Union. Both sides in the Cold War acknowledged in the end that proxy wars had taken a huge toll (the Soviet war in Afghanistan had a similar death toll to the Vietnam War).


In Australia, atoning for aiding and encouraging the US to fight in Vietnam was central to Whitlam's appeal to many voters and to Whitlam's sense of why Australian foreign policy needed to change. A new more multilateral and imaginative foreign policy was crafted where Whitlam showed that Australia's options and role in the world were not as limited as many had previously claimed.

Similar lessons have not been learned from the war on terror in which the Iraq War was the cruellest mistake. It is worth remembering that at the beginning of the war in Iraq many experts on US foreign policy talked of American primacy in the world being unchallengeable and likely to continue for another century at least. A decade later relative decline and the sharing of global power is the dominant viewpoint. The Iraq War was profoundly damaging to American power. It also created much greater instability and an enormous death toll in the Middle East (with about 200,000 people being killed in Iraq and a not unrelated 180,000 or more people dying in Syria since 2011). These outcomes should have led to a profound re-evaluation of American foreign policy priorities and tactics. For a brief moment with the election of Barack Obama it seemed like a significant change in direction and emphasis was possible.

However, despite a number of thoughtful speeches and some encouraging actions, Obama has too often bought into the faulty logic of the war on terror mindset – where threats to the West are exaggerated. Furthermore, Obama has not significantly challenged and certainly not changed the pervasive militarism that the US has been wedded to since the beginnings of the Cold War. The notion that military interventions can solve complex problems in the Middle East, Afghanistan or Pakistan has been too often embraced by Obama.

Of course, the problems Obama has faced have often had no easy solution. Stopping the deaths of thousands of civilians in Syria and Iraq in the future is something the US can possibly achieve. However, the current interventions in northern Iraq seem in many ways like a continuation of the war on terror, rather than a humanitarian mission. This is concerning as too many Iraqis have already died in the name of supposedly being liberated, freed and protected.

Why haven't these experiences in Iraq sent shock waves throughout the Australian political system? The first answer is a lack of responsibility has been taken for the Howard government's role in encouraging America to pursue a misguided war on terror in the Middle East. This was a deadly and destructive decision. One of the reasons subsequent Australian governments have been happy to forget about this, is that they seem to agree that the Iraq War worked out pretty well for Australia. It has brought us closer to the US: Australia is receiving more US secret intelligence information and more attention than at any time since the ANZUS treaty came into force in 1952. However, this amnesia about the costs of the war on terror is too expedient.

As allies we needed to encourage Obama to rethink America's role in the world. Instead, in recent decades we have too often encouraged America's worst instincts. This has been done based on a calculation that training and fighting alongside our American allies will strengthen our national bonds long into the future. This not only risks entanglement in conflicts Australia might want nothing to do with. It also presumes that America will have a long and loyal memory, a dangerous presumption about a nation aptly referred to as the "United States of amnesia".

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This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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