June 2016

by Mark McKenna

‘Unnecessary Wars’ by Henry Reynolds
NewSouth Publishing; $29.99

Despite the flood of war commemoration in recent years, the Boer War (1899–1902) has barely registered in our nation’s consciousness. This invisibility is certainly not due to a lack of government effort. In 2006, the site for a Boer War Memorial was added to an already crowded zone of military monuments on Canberra’s Anzac Parade, while two years later Australia marked its first Boer War Day (31 May). In 2015, the Boer War Day theme, “Fathers of the Anzacs”, was anything but original.

Unnecessary Wars is the culmination of Henry Reynolds’ long engagement in public debate surrounding “the place of war in Australian society”. Compelling and persuasive, it’s best read together with Forgotten War (2013), in which Reynolds argues for a national acknowledgement of the conflicts between Aboriginal people and white colonists. As Reynolds shows, “war”, narrowly defined as military campaigns overseas, is currently projected by elements of the government as Australia’s “central and defining national experience”. The Boer War involved all Australian colonies and the new federation. When the soldiers returned from South Africa they were greeted as heroes. Despite the fact that more than 600 of their compatriots were lost in a conflict that had nothing to do with Australia, the public saw these soldiers as the embodiment of a new national spirit. From the moment of the nation’s birth in 1901, “war eclipsed constitution-making” and “imperial loyalty overwhelmed Australian nationalism”.

Few Australian historians have managed to make their scholarship as politically relevant as Reynolds has. His unerring clarity, relentless pursuit of argument, uncanny ability to both converse with and instruct the reader, and abiding preoccupation with morality and justice mean that the past is always present in Reynolds’ writing. It is also “spoken”. Many pages could easily be read as speech.

Less about the Boer War per se and more a sustained critique of Australian foreign policy from pre-Federation to the present, Unnecessary Wars argues convincingly for the revival of the “nationalist republican tradition” and a fully independent Australia. Probing Australia’s “selective memory” of war, Reynolds attempts to shake the country from its torpor, asking whether our longstanding “tradition of overseas military engagement, now intensely commemorated, [has] been a terrible, profound and continuing mistake”. At the time of the Boer War, Australian parliaments heard more debate about the politics and strategy of war than our Commonwealth hears today before we go to war “without the sanction of parliament”. Reynolds concludes that Australia’s outlook “verges on solipsism”. Rather than debate the rationale for the wars we fight, we obsess about our own performance, desperate to prove to our “great and powerful friends” that we “punch above our weight”.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. His books include An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.

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