I’ve been very slack about linking interesting posts lately, so here’s a quick roundup, mainly on military topics, reflecting the week’s news. Jeremy Bray at Catallaxy has a fairly pessimistic update on Iran’s nuclear program, while Andrew Norton discusses the death of Private Kovco. On the latter topic Democracy and Justice looks at the role of contracting out (a policy first implemented under Keating, as several commenters have observed) and Tim Dunlop dissects a typical Greg Sheridan rant.

Apart from the individual tragedy of Private Kovco, and continuing statistical disputes over how many tens of thousands have died, there’s nothing much on Iraq where we seem to have run out of things to say.

The Oz attack on John Curtin seems to have halted for the weekend, but you can read another response from Mark Bahnisch and more on Anzac Day from Gummo Trotsky, David Tiley and Ken Parish.

Finally, JF Beck complains that I don’t link to his posts and it’s true. Let me try to compensate by observing that his site slogan Nothing’s fact until it’s history, and then it’s debatable is the most perfect statement of the rightwing postmodernist outlook that I’ve ever read or am ever likely to. Also, and unequivocally positively, Beck’s participation in the DDT debate has led him to run an appeal for donations to Swim for Malaria, which has raised nearly $US 1000. If right and left could compete more on this basis, we might actually get somewhere.

Galbraith dies

John Kenneth Galbraith has just died. Here’s an NYT obit. Galbraith wasn’t exceptionally influential as an economic theorist, but he had a huge (and I think, generally positive) influence as a public intellectual. He’ll always be remembered as someone willing to challenge the “conventional wisdom”, one of many phrases he coined that have gone into general usage.


The body of Jake Kovco has finally returned to Australia. It’s hard to imagine what his family must be going through, starting with the news that they had lost a husband, a father and a son, and then compounded with the series of dreadful bungles (or worse) that we’ve seen.

It would be good to think that somewhere in the chain of command, someone will step forward to say “This happened on my watch, and whether or not I personally did anything wrong, I’m responsible. I offer my resignation”. So far, there hasn’t been any sign that anything like this will happen, but there’s still time.

Weekend reflections

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

The roots of revisionism

As Ros points out in a comments thread below, the starting point for Stephen Barton’s revival of the Brisbane Line appears to be the work of Dr Peter Stanley, Principal Historian, Australian War Memorial, who has denied the ‘myth’ of a Japanese invasion, and criticised Curtin’s rhetoric on the subject. He relies almost exclusively on evidence that “.. there was no invasion plan. The Japanese never planned to make Australia part of its Co-Prosperity Sphere.” His main focus is criticism of statements by the Curtin government suggesting the opposite.

There’s a crucial ambiguity here, both in Curtin’s rhetoric and in Stanley’s response. If Port Moresby had fallen, and the Australian forces in PNG been destroyed or captured (and if the Battle of the Coral Sea had gone the other way), the Japanese would surely have pushed on to occupy ports and airfields in Northern Australia to deny their use to the Allies, and, if possible, knock Australia out of the war altogether. Such a move would have strengthened their position in the Pacific, and freed forces to fight elsewhere. On the other hand, an attempt to conquer the entire country and incorporate it into the Co-Prosperity Sphere would indeed have overstretched the Japanese capacity beyond its limits.

When Curtin referred to Kokoda as saving Australia from invasion, he was certainly justified, but, in motivating the war effort, it didn’t hurt to blur the difference between a partial occupation and a total conquest. By contrast, it’s hard to see how Stanley is serving the cause of historical accuracy by failing to make this crucial distinction.

Stanley can’t be blamed for the use people like Barton are making of his work, but he can certainly be criticised for intellectual sloppiness in his analysis.

Wikipedia doubling time

The English language version of Wikipedia had its one-millionth article on 8 March, and has just passed 1.1 million, 50 days later. That gives an implied doubling time of about a year. The doubling time seems to be fairly stable, since the 500 000 mark was reached in March 2005, and 250 000 in April 2004.

A straightforward extrapolation gives a billion articles in 2016. I’ll open this up for comments now, then give my own thoughts (taking advantage of yours, naturally).

Update over the fold
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Yet more revisionism

The Oz runs yet another piece of anti-Curtin revisionism, though from the line has shifted 180 degrees. Whereas Stephen Barton argues that Curtin, as PM, should have allowed the Japanese to take Port Moresby and Northern Queensland, in order to fight in Europe, Bob Wurth counts Curtin as an appeaser of Japan. His story is incoherent to put it mildly, since he quotes generic statements of desire for peace in 1939 as appeasement, while noting that by 1941 Curtin was among the leaders in warning of war.

The main focus of the story is on Curtin’s friendly relationship with the Japanese ambassador (who became a prominent pacifist after the war) and an alleged agreement over Western Australian iron ore, reported by ambassador Kawai. Wurth’s story suffers from the fact that Curtin took office a few months after Kawai reported the supposed agreement, and that no such agreement was implemented. All in all, this sounds more like Curtin manipulating Kawai in the hope of assisting the peace faction in Japan than the other way around.

One feature that seems to pop up regularly in all of this is the name of Alexander Downer, who’s cited in the Wurth piece. He’s led the attack on Curtin in the past and he seems to be linked fairly closely to Barton, who wrote a full-length piece in Online Opinion to defend him against claims of draft-dodging. Certainly, if Downer disagrees with the latest attacks, and the Barton line that an invasion of Australia is a reasonable price to pay for alliances with the great and powerful, he ought to say so now.

The Brisbane Line in the 21st century

When I suggested yesterday that Stephen Barton had reinvented the Brisbane Line with his claim that Kokoda didn’t matter I was making the standard argumentative move of drawing a logical inference from Barton’s position which, I assumed, he would indignantly reject. Far from it! As Mark Bahnisch observes in comments, Barton explicitly endorsed the Brisbane Line strategy when he was interviewed on Lateline, saying

What I was saying was that it was an important campaign, but it wasn’t the battle that saved Australia. Australia was engaged in a world war. What that means is that events far beyond our control and far beyond our borders are ultimately going to secure our future. Now let’s take the worst-case scenario, that say they did a diversionary raid or they occupied part of Queensland. Now ultimately did that mean that Australia would lose the war? Well, once the allies won in Europe and the full might of the allies came to bear on the Japanese, ultimately the Japanese would be defeated. So it would have been a terrible situation, it would have been grim and appalling, but it ultimately would have been a temporary situation. We have to remember that this was a world war and when we talk about the battle that saved Australia, we’re sort of putting these parochial blinkers on and seeing the centre of the war’s gravity in New Guinea. We’ve got to sort of step back from that and recognise that it was a world war. (emphasis added)

Given that Barton explicitly draws parallels with the present, it’s reasonable to ask whether he thinks the same reasoning is applicable today. If strategic decisions made in Washington or London require that Australia be left open to attack or invasion, should we be comforted by the thought that “Australia’s security has traditionally been won far beyond our borders, as a member of grand alliances. ”

Barton has previously been a Liberal party staffer, and the ideas he’s presenting are consistent with (an extreme interpretation of) the government’s defence strategy of reducing emphasis on the defence of Australia in favour of a capacity to send expeditionary forces to distant conflicts. So, is anyone from the Liberal side of politics going to step forward and speak in favour of defending Australia, either in 1942 or today?

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Who’s lying about Resolution 1441?

Among the articles of faith on the pro-war right, few have been had more megabytes of text spilled over them than the claim that the war on Iraq was authorised by UN resolution 1441. So, it’s surprising to see Mark Steyn denying this claim in the course of an attempt to score points off me, cheered on by Tim Blair and JF Beck. Steyn says

I don’t believe I was ever aware that Aussie prof John Quiggin had launched a competition to demonstrate I was a congenital liar, but apparently he did back in 2002, indignantly objecting to my “lie” that Australia, Spain, Italy and co were “on board” for an America-led Iraq invasion without UN authorisation. Yup, he certainly nailed me on that one.

I’ll note first that Steyn scores yet more points for my claim of congenital dishonesty with the “and co”, which, in the original, read “Qatar and Turkey”. Like most of the other countries on Steyn’s list, Turkey had made no public commitment to invade Iraq at the time Steyn was writing. Unlike most of the others, Turkey held a parliamentary vote, which led to a decision not to invade.

But the real issue is that of UN authorisation. As I noted at the time, Australia’s public position was exactly the same as that of Britain, the country where Steyn’s piece was published but one that curiously failed to make his list. That’s because, as Steyn concedes here (July 2003), Blair was publicly opposed to going to war without a UN resolution, and it wouldn’t have done for Steyn to say that it was all a sham. As he says

In the end, Britain officially went to war on a technicality, and … that technicality – Saddam’s technical non-compliance with Resolution 1441 – still holds.

Of course, as we now know, it was all a sham. Bush was going to war regardless, and Blair was privately committed to following him, despite his public pronouncements at the time which, I have to admit, I believed. But without the figleaf of the UN, and the bogus interpretation of Resolution 1441, it’s doubtful he could have conned enough Labour MPs into supporting him.

Howard similarly made a string of statements to the effect that there would be no invasion as long as Saddam complied with Resolution 1441. I don’t have any details on Berlusconi, Aznar and others, but I’d be surprised if the same wasn’t true of them too.