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?

Also in comments, Ros quotes this useful rebuttal to arguments like those of Barton, from then US Ambassador Thomas Schieffer addressing the Coral Sea celebrations in Perth in 2004

“We know today the consequences of victory. We can only imagine the consequences of defeat. Some argue that the Japanese had no immediate plans to invade Australia. That may be true in the short run but would it have remained so in the long run? At the very least, Japan was prepared to impose a naval blockade on Australia to knock it out of the war and force upon it a dubious peace. So what would have happened if we had lost the Battle of the Coral Sea? What would have happened if the fleet at Midway had been sunk? Can anyone seriously argue that an expansionist Japanese Empire was prepared to tolerate a functioning, free democracy on its doorstep?�

Schieffer is spot-on, but it’s a sad day when the US Ambassador has to defend our history from Australians closely connected with the current government.

38 thoughts on “The Brisbane Line in the 21st century

  1. Wilful – The M113 Upgrade will improve protection levels, but I fully support, as said before, the purchasing of a full armoured Brigade, and that includes vehicles in the Bradley/Warrior class of fighting vehicle. I am pretty sure that we are buying M1A1s with diesel power packs. Other Armies seem able to move heavy tanks around the world, and the ADF should be equally capable.

  2. Razor, the US army finds it extremely slow and expensive to move their tanks around the world. That’s why they periodically consider out-there (but rather cool, if you’re an engineering nut) ideas like 1000-tonne capacity blimps, super-fast transport ships, and ekranoplan-style sea-skimming aircraft for the job.

    As for your suggested acquisition spree (well, further acquisition spree, seeing the Australian military is about to go on a huge spending splurge over the next ten years to buy the AWD’s, the landing ships, the Abrams, the aerial tankers, the AEW aircraft, the new fighter planes, and so on…), as Prof. Q. was pointing out this very day in the Fin Review, cutting government spending seems like a great idea until you actually have to do it. The Republicans can’t seem to manage it, the Howard government doesn’t even try.

    Secondly, Australian defence acquisitions do not occur in a vacuum. The Indonesians look on us with suspicion now. How do you think they’re going to react if we suddenly double our military spending despite there being no obvious threat on the horizon?

  3. Robert Merkel – ohmy god!! It’s expensive to move capital equipment. Quick – stop the presses.. . . I am well aware of the costs involved. One of the reasons we are buying the C5 Galaxy transport aircraft. It is really an issue of how much you are prepared to pay for insurance.

    As for the spending spree – at last some catch up is finally occuring after the almost criminal degradation of capabiltiy in the eighties and nineties. I’d be happy to point out where to cut spending – starting with the ABC and the Arts in general. Just becasue somethiing is tough, does that mean it shouldn’t be done?

    Do you think that the Indons will think that we want to invade them – a country of 20 million versus a 245 million – now that would be a good idea -not!

  4. “Yep, that’s right, defence force recruiters are having to turn people away at the moment, they’ve got their hands full with loads of high potential soldiers. ”

    Was this supposed to be sarcasm?

    The ADF turns away thousands upon thousands of potential applicants away each year.

    I was rejected from the RAAF because I have eczema. The doctor said that a rash on my feet could become infected during basic training and I could die. I told him that was patently ridiculous, and he agreed, but the point is if I did die then the ADF could be sued for ridiculous amounts of money.

    By the way I was applying for a position as an air traffic controller.

    Additionally of course, a great percentage of applicants are rejected because they are too fat or too slow, regardless of whether they are applying for combat positions or not. A number fail the BMI tests even though they are in peak physical condition, and are sent away to diet and stop training for 6 months so they can reapply when they are lighter.

  5. 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,

    Reductio ad absurdum logical moves dont seem to have much legs when one is dealing with brazen lunatics.

  6. 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?

    Up until Iraq War I thought that the LN/P’s pro-US sabre rattling were just noises made to appease Washington. But the latest round of big ticket item defence procurements, made with very little critical public debate, have made me re-think this notion.

    It is hard to see how the ADF will need main battle tanks, JSF air strikers and air-warfare destroyers to defeat terrorists and militias, who are the main security threat in our region. The SMH reports the massive shopping spree. The numbers involved are astronomical. :

    AUSTRALIA’S Defence Force is about to embark on its biggest weapons buying spree since World War II, spending $52 billion on new planes, ships and tanks.

    The massive expenditure will make Australia’s navy, army and air force the most powerful and high-tech military in the region well into the 21st century.

    The spending splurge comes not to combat the war on terror, but because much of the Defence Force’s most costly equipment is 30 years old and has to be replaced.

    Pressure from international arms firms to sell Australia the big ticket items is intense.

    It looks like boys toys for the military, big bucks for the arms traders and strategic assets for the Pentagon. Is this why Curtin and the Chocko’s repuation is being trashed?

  7. jquiggin Says: April 27th, 2006 at 10:15 am

    the job of the ADF should be recognised as defending Australia (with a subsidiary role in providing aid to policing efforts in our immediate neighbourhood). For anything further afield, we should be confining ourselves to stuff we can do with the equipment and forces designed for the primary role (SAS for example).

    If the equipment they are asking for is designed to make them part of a US armoured division in the Middle East, or a global US navy, then the less of it they are given the better.

    The ADF should have some main force expeditionary assets up its sleeve, just in case a major power such as INDON, INDIA or PRC gets narky somewhere over the horizon.

    Australia’s supporting role ito the US in the Cold War was very worthy. We helped to contain global Soviet naval and aerial forces. Also, the forward presence of the Australian Army in SE Asia during the Vietnam War probably made PLA military adventurists think twice. But nowadays there is nothing to compare with the threat of the USSR in Europe or PRC in Asia.

    If we have to go for big ticket items I think we should be concentrating on building robot terminators. The Predator was pretty cool.

  8. Avaroo, “What I said was that the Falkland Islands are and were a British colony. It wasn?t an issue for the US” – well, actually, it was, precisely because of the 1960s trade-offs that were negotiated by which the British gave up their out of area capabilities in return for promises that the USA would take up that burden.

    But the main point I was trying to bring out was that US commitments get dropped at the drop of a hat. Whenever it suits the US to stop helping – as, say, in South Vietnam – anybody left behind gets left in the lurch. US commitments aren’t worth the paper they are written on. As for people looking after themselves instead, that tends to get treated in a very dog in the manger fashion if people even try (not to mention that the capacity for it is often crowded out by the USA in the first place). Self defence would be a good idea – pity that we are kept from it.

    Razor, the “cost” of moving equipment is not a financial cost as such, although it does work through and show up in money terms. It actually reflects physical practicalities. Simply throwing more money at those matters doesn’t help except to the extent that it flows through to engineering solutions. The lack of those in turn shows up in the elasticities, which make less bang for the buck the more bucks you apply. In the end money doesn’t get you enough bang (or, in this case, mileage) until the physical facts alter in response.

  9. I see I should clarify further. I wasn’t suggesting that the USA had an interst in the Falklands, but rather that if it had had a similar threatened outlier, it would have abandoned it since there was nothing in it for the USA. It has happened before. But no, the Falklands weren’t a US outlier; I was pointing out how a British outlier got better treatment. It doesn’t pay to be dependent on the USA, but it does (a bit) to be dependent on Britain. And on France, whatever people may think of France.

  10. 12 Curtin to Churchill
    Cablegram Johcu 38 CANBERRA, 30 July 1942
    With reference to Dominions Office cablegram No. 532, the
    Government is appreciative of your own personal acknowledgement in
    Part 2 of the difficulties which confront it in this matter.
    2. It is frankly disappointed that the review of the Chiefs of
    Staff dwells at some length on the strategical position in the
    Middle East but does not even mention the position in the Pacific.
    We know that we can count on an understanding by you of how
    vitally important the Pacific must loom before the Australian
    Government in reaching a decision on the disposition of its
    limited forces.
    3. It can be asserted that since the outbreak of war we have never
    received from the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff an appreciation
    that has indicated a full realisation of the possibilities of the
    situation in the Pacific, either in respect of offensive action by
    Japan or offensive action by the United Nations to defeat Japan.
    4. Australia has been critically threatened on two occasions –
    firstly following the fall of the Malay Barrier, and secondly
    following the threatened advance through the Coral Sea. Japan is
    now consolidating her position in New Guinea and the Solomon
    Islands and has made a landing in Papua which threatens our
    important advanced base at Port Moresby, which is vital to the
    defence of the north-eastern coast against enemy landings and the
    maintenance of the passage through Torres Strait for the supply of
    5. It is imperative to force the enemy back to his bases in the
    Mandated Islands in the north-east and to drive him out of Timor
    in the north-west. The Government desires that the Commander-in-
    Chief, South-West Pacific Area, shall have at his disposal for the
    defence of his base and for offensive operations in the Pacific
    all the Australian Forces it can place at his disposal. Furthermore, superior seapower and airpower are vital to wrest the initiative from Japan and are essential to assure the defensive position in the South-West Pacific Area.
    6. For the reasons stated, it is impossible for us to do more than
    agree to an extension of the period for the temporary retention of
    the 9th Division in the Middle East. As the Commander-in-Chief of
    the Australian Military Forces strongly advises against the
    breaking up of ancillary units for reinforcements because of the
    effect on morale, approval has been given for the despatch of two
    months’ reinforcements on the average scale of activity, the total
    number being 1,989. These, with the 3,203 reinforcements recently
    available in the Middle East, will provide a total of 5,192 for 2
    1/2 months’ reinforcements on the intense scale of activity. The
    Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East will therefore need to have
    these facts in mind in his use of the Division.
    7. The Commander-in-Chief, South-West Pacific Area, has had
    assigned to him all the combat naval, land and air forces of the
    Commonwealth, but we are gravely concerned about developing the
    air strength for which we are capable of providing the personnel
    and which our own advisers and the Commander-in-Chief, South-West
    Pacific Area, consider the minimum for the defence of Australia.
    This arises from the inability to obtain a definite assurance on
    the supply of equipment. The Government’s willing agreement to the
    temporary retention of the 9th Division in the Middle East is
    therefore conditional on an assurance being given by the United
    Kingdom Government that, in conformity with Ismay’s letter to
    Evatt, its representatives in Washington will be instructed to
    do their utmost to ensure the allotment of the aircraft required
    for the re-equipment of the R.A.A.F. and the provision, as
    personnel is trained and squadrons are organised, of the equipment
    required for the programme of a total of 73 squadrons by June,
    1943. The case for equipment is supported by the fact that 7,800
    trained personnel have been sent overseas under the Empire Air
    Training Scheme. It is also desired to raise the question of the
    regular allotment to the South-West Pacific Area of Australian
    squadrons with operational experience.


    The conditional agreement to have the 9th Division remain in the Middle East and to despatch 5,192 men as reinforcements for the Division, must be placed in the context of Australia’s critical situation in mid-1942. Curtin did not use phrases like “critically threatened”, “gravely concerned” or “it is imperative” without careful consideration and full justification. Australia faced almost imminent invasion and had pathetically small, inexperienced and ill-equipped forces to meet the threat.
    In those circumstances, the 9th Division or even the 5,192 reinforcements would have been of enormous value if they could have been deployed in New Guinea. If just some of those men had actually been deployed for the defence of Kokoda, the town and, most importantly, the airstrip might have been held, with the prospect that supplies and reinforcements could have been brought in and so the Japanese could have been held at bay and, in time, forced to retreat.
    At the same time, we must concede that, whatever forces were available, whether returned from the Middle East or available in Australia, the most acute problem was to get sufficient troops into the front line where they were most desperately needed. In the last ten days of July, that meant deploying them in the area of Kokoda and north of the town. That had proved to be impossible, even though greater numbers were available in the Moresby area.
    After Curtin’s cablegram of 30 July, the Japanese, having taken Kokoda, pushed steadily south along the Kokoda Track for almost two months. Although the Australians withdrew, their retreat was orderly. They kept their forces intact and substantial reinforcements were gradually added, especially experienced 7th Division units returned from the Middle East.
    In the event, the enemy did penetrate far into the mountains, despite courageous resistance by the Australians at Isurava and elsewhere. They reached as far as Iorabaiwa, only about thirty miles from Port Moresby. However, having got to that point, they were able to go no further. The terrain contributed to their defeat. So did disease; but they might still have reached their goal if it had not been for what I called in Haverleigh, “a handful of brave kids, hungry, buggered and poorly armed.” Those kids held up the Japanese at Oivi, Kokoda and especially at Isurava, long enough to allow reinforcements and supplies to arrive over the Kokoda Track. The Japanese units were then gradually reduced to a condition that made it impossible for them to go forward from Iorabaiwa.

  11. In my previous message, I sent you a cable from Curtin to Churchill just after the Japs landed at Buna and Gona in July 1942.
    I landed in Moresby, with a shipload of “reinforcements” for New Guinea Force, on 6 June 1942. On the face of it, we were a pretty poor lot. I was 19 years old, I had just started my final year of Arts at Q’land University. I knew nothing about soldiering. I had fired a .22 and weapons like that in the bush but I had never fired a .303 before I was “lent” one at Victoria Barracks in Brisbane and handed out, over a short period, 20 rounds to fire at a static target. A great old sergeant-major from the First World War showed us – in a short burst – how to stick a bloody bayonet into those bastards.
    Most of the “reinforcements” were my age or younger – some as young as 15. Only a very few had a clue what it was all about. Some older ones, like Colonel Owen (killed in Kokoda), might have had some recollection from the First World War what it was all about or might have had some training and been returned from the ME. But most of us had been taken from our jobs or studies, given a rifle and bayonet of our own only when we were about to board the troop train going north and that was that. “Good luck,” was about all they wished us. We didn’t have even warm, friendly words of advice on how to survive – except from our families who were terrified at what was happening but who knew that the youngsters had to do whatever fighting there was to do. That’s the way it always has been: the oldies make the mistakes; the youngsters fight to correct them.
    Were the Japanese going to invade Australia? Should we have defended only along the Brisbane Line?
    I’m sorry, mate, but so far as I know that never entered the heads of those who landed in New Guinea in those terrifying days of 1942.
    May I just say a word about the way the kids behaved? I’m not talking about myself; I’m describing what I observed.
    The Australian troops who faced the Japs at Oivi numbered only a couple of dozen. The Australians who faced the Japs in the main battle for Kokoda numbered something like 80. They were kids – except for Owen whose bravery and sacrifice of his life at Kokoda has, I think, received less reconition than it deserves. There was too an ancient MO from the First World War who behaved with incredible calm and courage.
    Who were they facing? Thousands of Japs were landed at Buna/Gona in the first few days. They didn’t all get to Kokoda right away but they greatly outnumbered the Australians. The same was true when the Australians – still mostly kids belonging to the 39th Battalion – withdrew to Isurava where they put up a great fight.
    Why did they do this? Why didn’t they just withdraw to the Brisbane Line? The real answer is that they hadn’t a clue about the Brisbane Line or any strategy – or tactics – whatsoever. All they knew was that they were supposed to hold the Japs back and beat the bloody hell out of them if they could.
    That’s what they did. They weren’t all heroes and most of them, as well as being as ordinary as you and me, were dead scared most of the time; but most of them put on an unbelievable performance doing what, so far as they could work out, they were supposed to do.
    Some time much later – I think it was after I was discharged in 1944 – I heard about the Brisbane Line. People argued about it then and dedicated historians will continue to argue about it ferociously way, way into the future. But, for those in New Guinea in 1942, it was simply not a factor.
    Might I just say that, in the light of what we learned in New Guinea in 1942 and later, the Japanese weren’t as “invincible” as we thought and they would have had a tough trot if they’d really tried to land in, say, northern Queensland.
    However, remember that in July 1942, no one had beaten them in the Pacific War. They’d cruised from victory to victory. If you were a betting man, they’d have been odds on to beat us in New Guinea – to do us like a dinner. And then, wonder of wonders, we beat them first at Milne Bay and later at Kokoda.
    Perhaps that was the great achievement of those two campaigns: we showed the Japs they could be beaten and, from there, it was a long trek but a pretty certain trek, all the way back to Tokyo.
    By the way, there was a bunch of kids at Milne Bay – the 61st – who did just about as good a job in facing the Japs as the gallant 39th did at Kokoda. Clowes, the commander at Milne Bay, had a rough trot from Macarthur and has never got the recognition he deserves. Perhaps the historians could work on that. I tried to do him some belated justice in “Haverleigh.”
    I’ve run on but there’s a lot to say on the history of those times. I had a message the other day from an American whose father was a New York Times correspondent killed on a small-boats operation when we were tying the Japs up at Buna/Gona/Sanananda. That was in October 1942. The story will now be told apparently – and will entail the discovery of much more interesting detail on both the Milne Bay and the Kokoda campaign to add to what we have now.

  12. “I see I should clarify further. I wasn’t suggesting that the USA had an interst in the Falklands, but rather that if it had had a similar threatened outlier, it would have abandoned it since there was nothing in it for the USA.”

    You mean like Grenada?

    “But the main point I was trying to bring out was that US commitments get dropped at the drop of a hat. Whenever it suits the US to stop helping – as, say, in South Vietnam”

    It would be difficult to make the case that South Vietnam was dropped at the drop of a hat. After how many years and more than 50,000 American dead.

    “US commitments aren’t worth the paper they are written on. ”

    Honestly, sometimes I wish that were true. I am not in favor of propping up the security of other nations. I think everyone should be responsible for themselves. I’d feel terribly insecure if the US government depended on any other government for our security. Because at the end of the day, no other government is going to be as interested in your security as you and your own government are.

  13. No, avaroo, not like Grenada. Grenada wasn’t a place to which the USA had an obligation it might have welched on, it was a place where the USA perceived an interest of its own and which it went into without regard for anybody else’s interests – either those of the locals or of the British. Here is a recent reference to how some Americans see it, despite general US opinion. A great deal of cultural change was imposed, e.g. the substitution of baseball for cricket.

    Of course South Vietnam was dropped at the drop of a hat. That hat was dropped at the fall of Saigon. The final evacuation of US personnel from the embassy was achieved by making false promises that further helicopters would come to evacuate those who had taken refuge there.

    And there were similar abandonments of ethnic groups that had assisted the US presence in Indochina, not helping them either there or in getting out and resettling (I’m not suggesting that the likes of Gough Whitlam behaved any differently).

    And the USA has a track record here, of being worse than other countries in not keeping faith. It goes all the way back to the expulsion and non-compensation of the Loyalists, despite treaty commitments (that came back to bite them though, by preventing the implementation of all British commitments which did not become binding). Every generation has seen something or other of this sort, including – if you pierce the veil – notorious repudiations of financial obligations and destruction of property rights of foreigners (see the back story of Billy the Kid and what happened to his former employer).

    The issue here is how democracy works in a short termist way; it’s what led to the French describing Britain as “perfidious Albion”, even though leaving the Dutch in the lurch in the early 18th century worked as much to French advantage as anything else. It’s just that it’s even worse and more flagrant – to those with eyes to see – in a people with more such institutions and such a high regard for what it has made them. If anything, Americans are the first victims of this sort of Americanism before they even became the inflicters of it on others. See my recent remarks on “rock against workchoices” to see how this attitude to obligations simply works out as casting off the cloak of righteousness and resorting to, shall we say, direct action whenever things don’t come right.

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