Monday, February 28, 2011
Weekend reading: Guadalcanal and Australian foreign policy
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).
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