Monday, February 28, 2011

Weekend reading: Guadalcanal and Australian foreign policy

Brad Delong wrote a short post recommending Neptune’s Inferno as the best book he has read all year.  I tend to read Brad’s recommendations - so - despite it being a long way from my usual reading material I got a (kindle) copy.

Neptune’s Inferno is an history of the Battle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands - the first major amphibious invasion carried out by the Allies in World War II.  It was also - along with Kokoda - a "Battle for Australia"*.  The battle was fought after spies in the jungle reported that the Japanese were building an airstrip that threatened Australian shipping.  (Keeping shipping open to Australia was a core priority of the US Navy - and rather important to Australia.)

Guadalcanal was amongst the Marine’s finest hour.  It was also the hour at which they depended - more than any other time - on support from Navy destroyers - and seamen died in large numbers to provide that support.  The campaign was fought originally without battleships and sometimes without aircraft carriers.  The battleships were in port in California - not because they were not needed but because there was no way to supply fuel for them.  The tankers were in the Atlantic convoys (or on the bottom of the ocean) and Hitler - by removing the tankers removed the battleships from the Solomon Islands.  The aircraft carriers were limited by fuel and by the navy's (understandable) desire to protect them.  In the end there were battleship-to-battleship battles - something that only happened a few times in WW2.

This is not a book review.  If you like military history you will love this.  If your love of military history does not go far from the various books about military incompetence then don’t bother.

I am writing to comment on American/Australian relations.  There were in the Second World War several "Battles for Australia".  One was Kokoda - a battle fought heroically by under-trained Australian ground troops.**  The other was the battle for Guadalcanal - a battle fought by the (well trained) US Navy and the US Marines.  Australians remember Kokoda but do not remember Guadalcanal.  (Most Australians could not identify where it was despite having recent military involvement there.)  However - to be blunt - we owe you.

And also to be blunt - we keep paying.  If the American President asks for Australian support we give it.  We were in Korea, Vietnam, the Iraq-Kuwait episode, Iraq and Australians are still dying in Afghanistan.

The critics on Australian-American relations state that the object of Australian foreign policy is to internationalize the corpses in American wars.  The strongest supporters of the status quo will argue the same thing.  After all - who else can we rely on to bring serious grunt to battles like Guadalcanal?

And thus it will be - Australia will wind up fighting US wars - just or unjust.  And we will send our boys to die with your boys.  And we will do that despite the fact that we do not vote for your Presidents and exercise very little say about what wars we fight.

So whilst I do not vote in the US elections - about half my readers do.  So dear readers - read the Guadalcanal book if you like that sort of thing.  (It is a darn good book in the genre.) But more important please ensure sensible political debates are had on matters of military adventures.  Please.


*The term "Battle for Australia" is misleading as there is little direct evidence that the Japanese ever planned a direct invasion of Australia.  The Japanese did however bomb Darwin (and in a minimal sense Sydney).  They also extensively targeted Australian shipping routes.  The Japanese campaigns were clearly targeted at control of Australian waters.  The Japanese invasion fleet repulsed at Coral Sea was probably headed to Port Moresby.

**It is not that the Australian military is poorly trained and hence deliberately sent poorly trained troops to Kokoda.  Its just that our best troops were in Africa at the time fighting the Nazis.  We were in a better position when the African troops came back.

PS.  The (appalling) politics of the Solomon Islands is a direct result of the power structures left behind by Americans at the end of the second world war.  If someone wants to examine the effects of nation building (or the lack-thereof) after military destruction then Guadalcanal (where there is an on-again-off-again civil war) would be a good place to start.  Australia dropped a peacekeeping force on Red Beach in Guadalcanal in 2003 - a reproduction of the original American landing.

PPS.  There was another "Battle for Australia" - also largely fought by the Americans - the Battle of the Coral Sea.  That was one of the major battles of the War - with both the Americans and Japanese losing an aircraft carrier.  The US carrier Yorktown was also damaged - and as a result was lost at Midway.  Coral Sea was the precursor to the Guadalcanal campaign - if the Japanese could not get carrier superiority in the area the idea was to build airstrips on unsinkable carriers (islands).


Anonymous said...

Actually, there were many air raids on Northern Australia by the Japanese.

This link provides some background to raids from Broome to Townsville by air from 1942+

John Hempton said...

I know there were many raids on Australia - but almost all of them had a military/shipping target.

The target of the midget sub raids were military ships.

Most the people who died in the Darwin bombings were American sailors. The next biggest category were Australian sailors.

That said Australians were the second allied force at several major US naval battles - notably Coral Sea and Leyte Gulf. The latter of these was probably the biggest naval battle in history - and the Allies were the US and Australia. (We were clearly the junior partner there!)


John said...

I agree entirely with your article. Americas Nation Building dogma is a seriously flawed policy. It hasn't worked since it started influencing international politics by force and it is not going to work in the future.

The real question is why do policy makers in America persist with this counter productive policy agenda.

I suspect that the agenda is coming from a higher power, higher than congress and even the President himself.

In my opinion the only truly incorruptible element in American politics is Senator Ron Paul.

But if ever he was to win the Presidency, I fear he would fast become another JFK.

Excellent article, loved every bit of it!

John Hempton said...


Not sure I said that at all. The US tried nation building IN PEACETIME after WW2. The rebuilding of Western Europe was an unmitigated success.

They left Guadalcanal alone. That was - as anyone who has followed Solomon Island politics knows - an unmitigated failure.

Winning the peace requires nation building. But alas (and I speak out of turn) it might also require that you win the war first.

I fast get outside my field of expertise here - so I do not want to express strong opinions.


John Hempton said...

Besides - the isolationism of Ron Paul scares the willies out of me...

What the hell is the point of Australia internationalizing the corpses in all American wars if the Americans are going to decide that issues in our neighborhood are none of their business?

As an Australian I sincerely hope you do not elect Ron Paul. Isolationism is not good for us.


drpat said...

In the same theme, we really don't want the Americans to slash their health care costs either, as their high prices pay for so many technical developments that the rest of the world gets to free ride on.

(Restructuring who pays for their health care is a different matter that is too complicated for me to care about. Except in that it might result in incentives to reduce the costs.)

Anonymous said...


a Singapore-listed Chinese company China Hongxing Sports, which has RMB 3B in its bank account, has been suspended for faking its cash balance.

Ted K said...

Related to the John H and John commenter discussion above: The fact is when you are the number 1 power people will bitch and moan no matter what you do. Which is why we hear the British press currently attacking President Obama because he is supposedly not doing and saying enough. In other words he is doing what the world has been asking America to do the last 10+ years---namely----keeping America's big fat nose out of it. And yet all the bitchers and whiners (including Libyan citizens, imagine that just 1 year ago) asking the "international community" for help) come out of the woodworks in full force. Including Britain--Britain, who as far as I can tell, doesn't give a shit if America pisses down its own leg, but what really kills Britain is Britain has zilcho power now, is a joke on the international scene, and has been selling ammunitions and tear gas directly to Gaddafi until like, just yesterday--but BBC wants to know what America will do about the Libyan crisis. Hey Britannia, have some tea and cookies, go clean Queen Elizabeth's toilet seat, and STFU before you embarrass yourselves even worse.

Editor's note: "international community"= tens of thousands of US soldiers, and 10 British soldiers, 10 Canadian soldiers, 10 German soldiers, and 3 frenchman with funny hats and a scowl.

Anonymous said...

Re the term Battle for Australia being "misleading" - hindsight is a wonderful thing. From July - September 1942, the Diggers were given one order: "Hold the Japanese on the northern side of the Owen Stanleys". At the time, neither the soldiers nor the politicians had any idea that Japan's plans to invade the Aussie mainland were only conceptual. The soldiers fought tenaciously for as far as they knew, they were defending their homeland and their loved ones back home. Ask any veteran soldier form the 39th or the 21st Brigade and they'll tell you they were fighting a "battle for Australia". If Port Moresby had have fallen easily like much of Sth East Asia, the arrogance and confidence of the then undefeated JIA may have just attempted an Australian mainland invasion. I guess that's why Australia had also drawn up a contingency plan called "The Brisbane Line".
PS - in 1942, much of New Guinea was in fact "Australian Territory" - Cheers,

Anonymous said...

I always thought that Åustralia's foreign policy was ultimately predicated on the following:

1. Maintenance of trade

2. Defense of its sparsely populated continent from its far more populous and poorer northern neighbors

Yes the trade aspect has changed with the rise of China, but the fact that hordes from the north could simply move south one day and acquire large swathes of OZ sounds to me like a compelling reason to tend well to the relationship with the US, which has a far greater understanding of, and respect for, the Australians as a people than other nations in the region.

Anonymous said...

The post WW2 political issues in the Solomons are a result the impact of US troups - particularly the movement of Malaitans to Gaudalcanal for labor followed by the creation of Honiara, but more importantly of the British colonial activities, and the more current massive incompetence of AusAID. The actions of the US were unavoidable - necessary to win the war. The action of the following two actors, less unavoidable.

Anonymous said...

Imperialist Japan. Yea.

Could you imagine if they had won? Would have made living under the regime of Colonel Gadaffi look like a good time at the beach.

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.


HR Dobbs

rog said...

Back to WW2 the books by Antony Beevor also make for compelling reading.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hempton,

The quality of your blog indicates your book recommendation is serious, thoughtful and worth investigating.

I have always recommended two books in the Genre, (which you may have read but, if not, should consider) - both in the nature of personal histories.
Long: "Goodbye Darkness", William Manchester.
Shorter: "With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa", Eugene Sledge.

And thanks for maintaining an interesting and fun blog.


Brooks Tomlin said...

As an avid reader of first-person American accounts of WW2's Pacific theatre, thanks for mentioning this book. Politics aside, the debts we owe to our fighting fathers and grandfathers is great. Each time I read one of these books, I give thanks.

Try "You'll Die in Singapore" - my most recent completion.

Okay, back to the market, where I believe there are many, many value plays in US small caps. This from an American living in Western Oz....

Tim said...

One of the more interesting things I have found is the role Canada played in the Pacific or lack thereof after the entry of the US in WWII(Canada did play a signficant role before the US entered the war in the Battle of Hong Kong). Essentially ever since 1941 Canada focused almost all of its defense efforts on NORAD and protecting the Arctic and NATO leaving only a couple of coastal patrol vessels for its Pacific fleet.

I know there has always been a lot resentment in British Columbia that Canada's federal government directed all of its military/industrial complex spending in the east during the Cold War unlike the US which spent substantial amounts in California and Washington State.

Anonymous said...

When Australia led INTERFET, the invasion of East Timor to expel the Indonesian militia in 1999, the US kindly parked elements of its Pacific fleet along the horizon in a most impressive display of potential force. Our boys encountered no opposition as they went ashore. Thank you.

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