Thursday, January 25, 2007

The good war?

As a debate on this blog a few weeks back showed, the Asia-Pacific theatre of World War Two remains a tricky subject to navigate, more than sixty years after the defeat of Japan. Even Kiwis who would never see anything progressive in the fiasco at Gallipoli or the drawn-out agonies of Vietnam and Iraq tend to regard the war against Japan as a just and necessary crusade against an expansionist fascist power that threatened the liberty of the peoples of Asia and the Pacific. It's possible to question this view of the war, without either demonising ordinary Anzac troops or prettifying the Japanese Empire.

I've written here and here about the dangers of simplifying the complex set of interlocking conflicts that comprised World War Two. Airy blog posts are no substitutes, though, for fair dinkum empirical research, which is why this new piece by Aussie scholar and activist Tom O'Lincoln is so important. O'Lincoln, who has already written some detailed and unforgiving studies of more recent Australasian military operations in the Asia-Pacific region, sets out to demolish a few myths about the Second World War:

After Pearl Harbor, Prime Minister John Curtin declared: “we are at war with Japan … because our vital interests are imperiled and because the rights of free people in the whole Pacific are assailed.” But how many Asians were free?

“We have ruled here for 300 years with the whip and the club”, remarked the Dutch Governor of Java, Bonifacius de Jonge, in 1935; and they did not intend to stop. In fact few Asian were free, and notwithstanding Curtin’s rhetoric the Australian military wasn’t fighting to liberate them.

O'Lincoln points out that Australia's army actually behaved rather like its Axis foes, when it invaded neutral East Timor:

since we hear so many rightly scathing references to the Axis powers invading neutral countries, consider the fact that Australian and Dutch troops entered – invaded – East Timor in violation of Portuguese neutrality. The Portuguese Governor sent a telegram of protest to the Australian Prime Minister calling it “aggression absolutely contrary to the principles of law”.

Not that I care about the diplomatic position of Portuguese colonialists. The point is that the Japanese, for reasons to do with Portugal’s role in Europe, were keen to keep East Timor out of the war as well. It was Australian and Dutch imperialists who brought the horrors of war to this colony.

In East Timor and in Indonesia, the Australians and British sided with Portugese, Dutch, and even Japanese imperialists, against native peoples who had suffered centuries of colonisation:

Australians asked Portuguese officials [in East Timor] to stay in their posts to “maintain order among the natives”. A diary kept by Australian troops recorded: “The private local war, Portuguese versus native, still goes on in its bloodthirsty way, and provides some humour for sub units. One of our patrols near Mape, out hunting the Jap, encountered a Portuguese patrol out hunting some natives. They exchanged compliments and went their various ways.”

...By 1944 the allies knew they would win the war. Their objective now, in Anthony Eden’s words, was to re-impose “white-man authority” in Asia...In 1945 the terms of the general armistice didn’t disarm Japanese troops; on the contrary, they instructed them to keep their arms and maintain law and order. In practice, European colonialists returned to power against the wishes of local people, with the help of Japanese bayonets.

In Indonesia, where the Dutch were initially unable to assert much of a presence, British and Japanese units fought together against Sukarno’s republican forces around Bandung.

I'd like to paste O'Lincoln's article up on the lamp posts of every main street in New Zealand this Anzac day. You can check out a collection of the man's writings here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


4:08 am  
Anonymous Jim Denham said...

Your article in the 'Weekly Worker' is quite right in many of its comments on Wintringham; but you ignore the pro-Nazi position of the CP between 1939-41. It was *not* "neutral": it was *pro-Nazi": something that could not be said of the Trotskyists - whatever the shortcomings and incoherance of the "Proletarian Military Policy".

1:29 pm  

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