Australia’s war against Japan: the myth of the ‘good war’

There is nothing progressive about Australian militarism, argues Adrian Skerritt, and the Pacific War was no exception

Every year the Australian government and the media frenetically promote the celebration of war on Anzac Day. This serves a dual ideological function—to create a sense of cross-class nationalism based on the macabre notion of blood sacrifice and to keep Australian militarism alive among each generation of young Australians.

However the task has never been straightforward. Australia’s WWI campaign involved the aborted Gallipoli invasion of sovereign Turkish land; the Korean War was remote and nightmarish; the war in Vietnam saw Australian troops join the merciless US assault on a poor South East Asian country in the face of mass opposition on the streets; not to mention the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan. After every war thousands of young men returned emotionally shattered and incapable of resuming their civilian lives.

In contrast, World War II in the Pacific against Japan is commonly thought of as the “good” war. On December 8, 1941, Australia’s Prime Minister John Curtin announced, “We are at war with Japan… because our vital interests are imperilled and the rights of free people in the whole Pacific are assailed”.

The apparent purity of these objectives allows the Pacific War to be invoked by governments to help sell other military interventions as a “good war”. Alexander Dower recently invoked the war against Japan to justify the invasion of Iraq.

A critical examination of some of the hidden aspects demonstrates that WWII in the Pacific was much the same as all of the other wars: fought to consolidate Australian commercial and strategic interests. Rather than promoting human rights, it featured Australian military authorities extending white supremacist policies across the region.

To counter the argument that Japanese military aggression alone caused the Pacific war, it is important to locate the origins of the conflict in inter-imperialist rivalry. Just like the “Scramble for Africa” by European powers in the late 1800s, both established and emerging nations jostled for ascendency in the Asia Pacific region.

European powers, the United States and Japan all competed to gain economic dominance of China. Japanese efforts to rapidly dominate parts of the Asia Pacific were part of the intense inter-state rivalry in the region as Japan sought to compete with the Western powers.

In the second half of the 19th century Japan had been unable to significantly advance its territorial ambitions. This all changed in 1904-05 when Japan defeated Russia in a war. Japan’s emergence as serious economic and military power shook the region.

Australia did not passively sit back and wait for a patron to give it colonial possessions. Europeans of the late 19th century assumed that racial superiority entitled them to occupy, rule or exploit large portions of the world. The ruling white settler elite in the Australian colonies shared this view.

Queensland’s failed aggressive attempt to plant the Union Jack near Port Moresby and claim New Guinea as a British colony neatly sums up the strategic approach of Australia’s rulers: wrap military expeditions in imperial colours in order to establish a distinctly Australian mini-empire in the Pacific.

In the Paris Peace talks at the end of WWI, Australia’s Prime Minister Billy Hughes emphasised the huge number of Australians who had lost their lives on the Western Front to push Australia’s demand to seize land in the Pacific. The new Australian territories would be subject to Australian laws including provisions to exclude non-white entry and settlement.

At the Versailles conference in 1919, Japan demanded that there be a racial equality clause in the League of Nations charter. But Hughes opposed this. Understandably, Japan railed against this kind of racism. In order to avoid a breakdown in talks US President Wilson offered Japan former German territorial concessions in China.

The territorial crumbs from the table at Versailles were hardly enough to satisfy an expansionist Japan. After the outbreak of WWII, in September 1940, Japan seized the French colony of Vietnam and looked to the massive oil reserves in Dutch controlled Indonesia that could fuel its own empire building.

The US responded by imposing an oil embargo upon Japan. This is essential background for understanding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and Japan’s rapid advance through South East Asia.

Understanding the Pacific War in the context of imperialist rivalry does not diminish the brutality of Japanese occupation. For instance, the Japanese occupation of the Netherlands East Indies resulted in three million deaths.

Australian abuses

However it is too simplistic to portray the war, as the official war history does, as one between the “tyrannical”, “imperialist”, and “barbaric”  Japanese and the “humanitarian”, “democratic” and “merciful” Allies. The experience during WWII of Australian Aborigines, the East Timorese, and Papuan and New Guinean villagers, reveals that Australian authorities, like the Japanese, also “assailed” people’s rights, to say nothing of the ultimate barbarity of the US bombing of Hiroshima.

In the north of Western Australia, the military decided to respond to fears that Aborigines could be disloyal by forcing those Aborigines employed on stations to live on them. In June 1942 a police unit was created for the specific task of interning unemployed Aborigines on the Moore River reserve.

There was discontent among Aboriginal people towards the authorities in northern Australia, created by discimination and the abuse of Aboriginal women. An army document reported, “They [Aborigines] further stated that the white men have not given them anything and on a number of occasions have molested them and their lubras”. We can discount the absurdity of the idea of Aboriginal people as a “fifth column” supporting the Japanese from within Australia, but the history of dispossession meant the racism of colonisation was perpetuated in the war effort.

In December 1940 Torres Strait islanders began to enlist and were soon to replace some of the 600 white soldiers in the island garrison. But Islanders were organised into segregated units and were paid on a reduced scale comparable with that of the Royal Papuan Constabulary. Advancement beyond the rank of corporal was not permitted. The wage injustice led to a soldiers’ strike on Murray Island that lasted four months.

The pattern of discrimination was inherent in Australian rule in New Guinea. Papuans and New Guineans were denied basic democratic rights. Workers on Rabaul lived under curfew conditions and received a pitiful wage. When workers on the island went on strike in 1929 for higher pay, they were arrested and detained on a Burns Philip coal carrier off the coast. The strikers endured appalling conditions and were beaten. They were eventually sentenced to three years imprisonment. Many died in custody.

Australia's war against Japan was a brutal imperialist venture

The second class status of Papuans and New Guineans was enshrined in colonial regulations. In fact the situation was so grim across the European colonies in South-East Asia that many local people, such as Aung San Suu Kyi’s father in Burma, welcomed the Japanese.

As the course of the war began to run against the Japanese, local people ended their support. The attitude is well expressed by this man from the PNG Highlands:

The kiawa [white men] treated us badly before the war and they deserted the people when the Japanese landed at Buna. We tried the Japanese but we did not like them. So all we could do is organise ourselves and settle our own differences before we can hope to fight the external enemies.

From the point of view of the colonised peoples, it was a case of a “plague on both your houses”, alongside shifting pragmatic alliances. Such pragmatism was dealt with brutally. Australian soldiers would routinely execute people they suspected of collaboration with the Japanese. In 1943, 28 Papua New Guineans were hanged at Higaturu near Popondetta.

Even in the treatment of Indigenous stretcher bearers, known as the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”, we find cruel indifference towards their health and the impact that their absence had upon their village.

According to Dr Geoffery Vernon, a medical officer on the Kokoda trail, diet was poor, often only consisting of rice, and carriers were forced to carry excessive weights. Former carriers told a researcher in the 1960s that they wanted to escape from the Australians because of the beatings, the hunger and the general horrors of the war. If a carrier absconded, Australians would conscript a son as a replacement.

Lieutenant Clarrie James who served with the Australian military authority, ANGAU, during the war questioned the role of Australia’s presence in PNG:

for whom were we opening up the country? If we looked at the coastal people and measured what sixty years or so of German and Australian rule had brought them, we would see loss of their lands, long hours of labour, taxes, separation from family and disruption of village life. On the other hand the Germans and Australians had use of land which they had alienated from the people to grow crops and to make money

Similarly, in East Timor, Australian troops exploited the local population and were in fact the first to invade the territory in WWII.

In December 1941 Australian officers told an angry Portuguese governor that the Japanese were planning an invasion. There was no evidence of this at the time. After all, Japan had occupied most of the Chinese coastline for the previous five years without ever threatening Macao’s neutrality, another Portuguese territory. It seems likely that Japan avoided taking military action against East Timor and Macao because Portuguese neutrality was being observed by Axis forces in Europe.

The Portuguese governor sent a telegram to John Curtin describing the landing as “aggressive and absolutely contrary to the principles of law”. Australia brought WWII to East Timor. The result was a corresponding incursion by Japanese forces, bringing a campaign costing between 40,000 and 70,000 lives. The fighting paralysed agricultural production which “resulted in famine”. James Dunn, Australia’s consul to Dili from 1962 to 1964, explains:

As a consequence of allied invasion in December 1941 and the subsequent military operations in the territory, East Timor was one of the great catastrophes of World War II in terms of relative loss of life. Yet in the war histories and other accounts of the Timor campaign, this aspect has never been properly acknowledged.

During the conflict, Japanese forces killed villagers suspected of collaboration with the enemy, as did the Australians. The attack on what were thought to be pro-Japanese locals in the Aituto Valley destroyed 150 huts and set ablaze a number of villages.

Everyday interactions were not always characterised by friendliness or respect. A soldier recollects:

Many times a native would pull into an Aussie camp, proudly produce a surat [note of trade] on which someone had written “Give the bastard a kick in the arse and send the useless bugger on his way.” It added to the dull work of the days patrolling

Australia’s conduct towards Papuans and East Timorese was a continuation of the white supremacist policies that accompanied imperialist domination in the Pacific region. The US occupation of the Philippines (1899 to 1902) cost more than 200,000 Filipino lives.

During WWII, in the Batangas province for example, neutrality simply wasn’t acceptable. If villagers were not supporting US forces they were considered against them. A war correspondent reported that US soldiers killed “men, women and children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino was little better than a dog.”

In India in 1942, a famine manufactured by Britain forcing food exports for the war effort cost the lives of 3.5 million Indians. War leader Winston Churchill told his fellow Conservative politician Leo Amery, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion”.

Colonial rule

Towards the end of the war some European powers contemplated formal independence for the colonies while maintaining economic control. In other parts of the Asia Pacific they wanted their colonies back. The Australian government was very clear about its allegiances. Foreign minister Evatt declared unequivocal support for a Dutch colonial return to Indonesia: “we visualise the restoration of the former sovereignty.”

The restoration of colonial rule often featured some startling alliances. The British government incorporated Japanese troops into the British military in the attempt to dominate Netherlands East Indies, where Britain had a 40 per cent share of Royal Dutch Shell, the predominant oil company. On October 15 1945, Japanese troops killed 2000 Indonesians during battles against nationalist forces. Some Japanese soldiers, however, sided and died with the nationalists.

Australia too sought to fulfil its colonial ambitions in the later stages of the war. In 1943 Australia sent a telegram to Britain indicating that Australia, “wanted to have full responsibility for policing Portuguese Timor, Australian New guinea and the Solomon Islands Protectorate and a share in the responsibility for policing the Netherlands Indies, particularly Java, Dutch New Guinea and also the New Hebrides”.

But Australia controlled very little territory and was rebuffed by the British. In the hope of strengthening its claim to Pacific territories, Australia became an enthusiastic and visible participant in the occupation of Japan. War Cabinet minutes towards the end of the war stated:

It is of vital importance to the future of Australia and her status at the Peace talks in regard to the settlement in the Pacific that her military effort should be concentrated as far as possible in the Pacific and that it should be on a scale to guarantee her an effective voice in the peace settlement.

We can see here an echo of Billy Hughes’s strategy of exchanging war casualties for territory at the end of WWI.

When the Pacific War is remembered today in schools and at Anzac memorials, Australia’s quest to become a regional power and its role in thwarting the aspirations of those such as the Indonesians, the East Timorese and the Papuans to independence is hidden from view. In the manufactured version it was an honourable war for national defence and freedom.

This version is used to try to justify Australian troops policing East Timor or invading Iraq and Afghanistan to supposedly liberate women, create a vibrant civil society and build democracy.

Challenging the myths of the Pacific War and dismantling these lies are essential to understanding Australia’s own imperialist role—as a junior, and aggressive partner of British and US imperialism in South East Asia, now increasingly pursuing its own imperialist interests.

Further reading

Keay, John (1997) Last Post: The End of Empire in the Far East, John Murray, London.

Lake, Marilyn and Reynolds, Henry et al (2010) What’s Wrong with Anzac: The Militarisation of Australian History, New South, Sydney.

McQueen, Humphrey (1991) Japan to the Rescue: Australian Security around the Indonesian Archipelago During the American Century, Heinemann, Melbourne.

O’Lincoln, Tom (2011) Australia’s Pacific War, Interventions, Melbourne.

Stanley, Peter (2008) Invading Australia: Japan and the Battle for Australia, 1942, Viking, Melbourne.

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