Are we even remotely ready for a real crisis?
by ROSS FITZGERALD
Not long ago, federal Education Minister Alan Tudge wondered out loud whether today’s school kids would be willing to fight for a country they’d been taught not to believe in.
It’s a fair question: why would young people be willing to risk their lives for an Australia they’d been taught to believe was fundamentally illegitimate, had a sub-optimal culture and was helping to destroy the planet by exporting coal to the wider world?
Yet that’s the intellectual subtext for every course these days, given the national curriculum’s insistence that all subjects be taught from an Indigenous, sustainability and Asian perspective.
At the close of a year that again has been dominated by Covid-19, it’s not only the erosion of people’s pride in our country that calls into question our long-term ability to defend ourselves; it’s also the culture of safetyism that entirely has driven Australia’s response to the pandemic.
At one level, it’s laudable that everyone has endured so much disruption to their ordinary lives – with offices closed, travel banned, kids home-schooled, and governments spending hundreds of billions of dollars to sustain people to cower at home – to suppress a virus that largely has been a mild illness to all except the very old and the very sick.
But how would a country that shut itself down in fear of a virus to maximise the remaining years of the very vulnerable respond to a challenge requiring the possible sacrifice of thousands of young lives?
At the Battle of Fromelles in 1916, more than 1500 Australian soldiers were killed in a single night. The 1941 loss of HMAS Sydney resulted in nearly 650 dead. Back then, a strong and stoical nation was able to mourn these disasters without losing the will to fight.
More recently, the loss of only 41 soldiers in more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan generated much national angst, with the prime minister, opposition leader and all the armed forces chiefs attending each military funeral. At one level, that’s exactly the recognition owed to anyone who dies for our country. A country that puts its official life on hold for each combat fatality sure has a big heart; but does it have the mental toughness to fight a major war?
In World War I, roughly half of all Australian men aged 18 to 40 volunteered to fight. Of the 440,000 enlisted, 330,000 went overseas, 150,000 were wounded and 60,000 never came home.
In World War II, nearly a million Australians enlisted in the armed forces and about 40,000 were killed. By contrast, about 30,000 Australians served in Afghanistan with 41 killed in action.
For us, Afghanistan was a war of low consequence: it meant some military casualties but there was minimal impact on Australians’ way of life.
Any Australian military action against China, by contrast, could involve high numbers of combat deaths, enormous economic dislocation and potential strikes against targets here at home. It would be a war of the highest possible consequence and it’s a prospect that unfortunately is no longer remote.
As the Beijing government ramps up its threats to take Taiwan, it would be a big mistake to think Covid is the worst disaster this generation of Australians could possibly face.
The recently retired commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific, Philip Davidson, has warned that China could invade Taiwan within six years. While the US has no treaty obligation to defend Taiwan, the Taiwan Relations Act obliges the US to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan”.
When asked recently whether he would “vow to protect Taiwan” and would keep up with China’s military modernisation, US President Joe Biden’s instant response was “yes and yes”. Queried a second time about whether the US would respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, Biden said: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
While US State Department spokesmen subsequently said the longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” was unchanged, they also said the US commitment to Taiwan was “rock solid”.
And even if the US commitment to Taiwan remains uncertain, its commitment to Japan is not. Former Japanese deputy prime minister Taro Aso recently declared that an attack on Taiwan would threaten Japan’s survival and that “if that is the case, Japan and the US must defend Taiwan together”.
While Australia has no specific commitment to defend Taiwan – a government, after all, that we don’t officially recognise – the ANZUS treaty has always been regarded as the bedrock of our security. This provides that in the event of an attack on US forces Australia would “act to meet the common danger”.
The bottom line of existing American, Japanese and Australian security commitments is that any US failure to help defend Taiwan, in the event of an unprovoked attack, would see the end of the American alliance system in East Asia, as countries such as Japan and South Korea made the best accommodation they could with China or armed themselves to the teeth in a bid to be impregnable even to a superpower.
If the US did intervene against China, Australia would be expected to commit ships and aircraft that would be extremely vulnerable to Chinese missiles and torpedoes.
In any extended or escalating conflict, it’s likely that the Chinese would try to disable the US intelligence-gathering facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs, at first probably by cyber attack but eventually via missile strike.
Even an America that decided not to go to war with China over Taiwan would almost certainly impose the toughest possible economic sanctions. The world then would be likely to divide into two economic blocs: one led by China; the other by the US. We would be expected to cease selling to China the $180bn a year of strategic materials, such as iron ore, coal and gas, that make up about 30 per cent of our total exports. For much of this, there eventually would be alternative markets.
Even so, the cost of sanctions on China would trickle down into every corner of the economy and the burden of much greater military self-reliance, in terms of more firepower, greater manpower and higher taxes to pay for it, ultimately would fall on almost every family.
Are we even remotely ready to face the strategic challenges ahead? When we’re still discombobulated by a virus, even an Omicron variant that’s only half as dangerous as earlier ones, “toughen up” is hardly the message we’re ready for; even though it’s the one we really need.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, December 28, 2021, p 9.
The bitter truth is that we are not even remotely ready
Ross Fitzgerald’s timely article (“Are we even remotely ready for a real crisis?”, 28/12) made for depressing, if thought-provoking, reading. The simple answer to the question posed – namely, whether today’s younger generation would step up to defend this nation in the face of an existential threat – is no.
We now have several generations instilled with little national pride and ignorant or disdainful of the sacrifices made by generations past to secure the freedoms we all enjoy. This is largely the result of our education system. I fear the post-war generation will be the first to bequeath to their heirs a nation in worse shape than that which we inherited.
John McLeod, Sunshine Coast, Qld
Ross Fitzgerald paints a sombre picture of our ailing Australian society and the crises it will likely face in the near future. He describes the “enemies within the gate” – politically correct educators, inner-city elites and fellow travellers in the business and political elites – who have weakened the bonds of nationhood and patriotism.
Let me be clear, if Australia does become a Chinese tributary state, all those self-declared victim groups and virtue signallers will rue the day.
Jim Wilson, Beaumont, SA
Commentators like Ross Fitzgerald who say young Australian people are being taught not to believe in their country are clearly out of touch. Just because our young people are being taught a broader and more questioning view of our history does not equate to a lack of belief in Australia. In my view, young people believe in a different Australia to the old world Fitzgerald believes in.
Wars we fought at the behest of our politicians saw them trying to curry favour with the US. Conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan became examples of failures we are still picking up the pieces from.
Fitzgerald would do better to take on those who are banging the drums of war – again.
Alan Muller, Heathridge, WA
Ross Fitzgerald ought not overexercise himself with concern that, if it came to war with China, our young people would have too negative a view of Australia to ever want to fight for our distinctive values. I can reassure him that once conscripted and bussed off to recruit training, given a crewcut, and issued with uniforms and boots, these babies will be constantly brainwashed right out of their minds.
I clearly recall it taking only a matter of a couple of weeks for many of my fellow conscripts to be spouting their impatience and eagerness to be sent to “kill the communists”. Our defence force possesses skills like no other large organisation to impart all the necessary brain washing. I salute them.
David Hall, Coombabah, Qld
Ross Fitzgerald questions our resolve to meet the challenge of defending Taiwan because we have cowered in fear of a virus. Let me flip his premise: if Australia can’t even make the sacrifice to protect our own very old and sick people from Covid, why would the Taiwanese people believe we would risk a war with China in defence of their way of life?
The faux machismo that permeates the opinion pages of The Australian on pandemic response makes me glad that these writers, mostly without epidemiology background, are not in charge of this country’s public health. Our cautious approach so far, coupled with the geographical luck of a faraway continent, has been a success among developed nations. Let’s keep it that way.
Han Yang, North Turramurra, NSW
Letters to the editor, The Australian, December 29, 2021, p 8.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald has opened Pandora’s box to ask the question is our nation ready for any conflict (“Are we even remotely ready for a real crisis?”, 28/12).
Sadly, no is the answer, when we have our young, unemployed cohort unwilling to get off their backsides to pick fruit and vegetables for our farmers, who are doing it tough.
Australian history tells us of the young, mostly men, who walked 100 miles or more, as it was then, to enlist. It was a different time, but they had more courage and a love of country and duty.
Of course, there would be some young people willing to do their duty today, but not in the numbers of the past 100 years. Why? Because they are being indoctrinated in schools not to revere their country, even to not respecting the nation’s flag. What next?
Lesley Beckhouse, Queanbeyan, NSW
Letter to the editor, The Australian, December 30, 2021, p 8.